As the sports world turns, the stakes seem to soar higher and higher each year. Championships carry more weight. Contracts grow larger. More time is demanded of athletes. Records fall just as quick as they are made and the demand to be bigger, faster, and stronger becomes the focus.
I believe much of this is due to the heavy emphasis that media places on the sports world and the instant access to live games, highlights and commentary through the various outlets of social media. I don’t say this as a negative thing by any means. This sports and faith forum you are reading is all about utilizing the far-reaching scope of social media. With a greater audience, there is the chance for greater impact.
Needless to say, the world is watching and has access to nearly every moment of athletic competition that happens. Who are we kidding? People watch 18-year-olds sign pieces of paper declaring where they intend to play those games!
But with a greater audience comes greater exposure to both adoration and criticism. Barnabas Piper noted that losses sting and wins exhilarate but neither define. I wholeheartedly agree. Unfortunately, most of the sports world doesn’t.
Now, don’t hear me saying there is something wrong with fans cheering an athlete’s name or an athlete being motivated by a crowd excited about their ability. Shoot, if I knew there would be 50,000 people going crazy for me when I hit the submit button on this article, I’d probably do it more often!
I would propose the problem happens when one’s identity is found in the praise of men. As the audience of sport grows, so does the temptation to ride the roller coaster of how I feel about myself based on what someone else says. But an audience who bases its acceptance of human beings on whether they put a ball in a hole or cross a line first is a very unstable audience indeed.
We must take a deeper look at what’s happening beneath the surface of an athlete’s heart when the cheers or boos are loud and clear.
Who Am I?
Identity answers the question “Who am I?” My identity is based on how I view myself, the foundation I build my life upon, and where I find my sense of worth, acceptance, and well-being.
I’ve heard it said that character is what I do when no one else is watching. I’ve also heard it said that character is what I do when everyone else is watching. I think one’s identity is exposed in both scenarios and maybe more clearly when everyone is watching. If my identity is based on what others think or on the size of my audience, then what I do will change when people watching are more likely to give praise or criticism. If my identity is based on something else more intrinsic, then I will be stable. My effort and performance will remain level and more consistent.
Audience of One
Let’s consider an ancient Hebrew story that illustrates this. In the book of Daniel, the people of God were taken captive. They were living as exiles in a foreign nation under the rule of a king named Nebuchadnezzar. Let’s call him Neb for short. Neb’s a bit full of himself so he has a 90-foot statue built in his likeness. No big deal. He gathers people from all over his kingdom and orders them to bow down and worship or be thrown into a fiery furnace. (I don’t know about you, but to me the whole “do this or else” doesn’t really seem to result in love, respect and worship so much as it does simply escaping death.)
Well, as you might imagine, everyone decides to avoid a big barbecue and gets down on the ground. Everyone except for three young Hebrew men: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They have decided they will not worship any other god but their God, regardless of the consequence. They have chosen to worship a God who actually loves them rather than bow down to a tyrant who doesn’t love any of his “worshippers.”
This is astounding to me! With an audience numbering in the thousands, these three men had an identity that was so solid they were willing to face death. They were not swayed by the praise or threats of men.
Ultimately, they were not standing before an audience of thousands but an Audience of One.
They knew that the One in whom they found their identity actually cared for them and loved them, something the king in front of them clearly did not. (Remember the 90-foot statue? That’s a pretty clear sign he’s only concerned about himself.) They knew that their God could rescue them, but even if He did not, they trusted Him enough in death. They would not compromise their values and identity. They would not be swayed by the “do this or else” threats. (The rest of the story in Daniel chapter 3 is quite compelling and I’d invite you to find out for yourself what happens.)
What can we take away from the story of these three men? Here are three things.
One is to consider these questions:
Where do I find that I succumb to the “do this or else” way of living?
What am I so afraid of losing in my sport that I’d be willing to do something unethical, illegal, or destructive in order to get it?
The answers could be a signpost toward what you place your identity in. I would argue that in some way, we all find identity in the praise of men. Understanding how that’s true for each of us individually is the first step towards making a change.
Secondly, it’s helpful to consider what could be a more secure identity for you to build your life on.
Athletes who compete with an Audience of One in mind trust that God is good and is for them, even if that means the results aren’t what they want on the field of competition. They still give maximum effort to win, but they don’t put the goal of winning a competition on the same level as their purpose in life. How they view themselves doesn’t rise or fall based on how others view them. There is a freedom to stand for something greater even when everyone else is not.
Finally, the most helpful place to consider these types of big life questions is not in isolation but in community. Our three friends mentioned above had each other, and no doubt they found courage in their community. As a dear friend of mine once said, “Your greatest potential is trapped in your five closest friends.” Who is that for you? Where will you find those five people who really should be in your circle?
If you are a high school or college athlete, I would offer an option for such community. The Ultimate Training Camp is a week-long, high-intensity sports camp designed to help you discover how to live and compete from a biblical perspective alongside hundreds of other athletes from around the country. I still keep in touch with several friends I met at this camp the first time I went nearly 10 years ago. One in particular is one of my closest friends. He’s in my five. Perhaps God has the same for you there.
At the end of the day, as audiences become larger, the only audience that truly matters includes the One who created and loves you. That audience invites, rather than demands, true worship and trust, not “do this or else.” As a result, there is freedom to be unaffected by the lesser audiences of this world because our identity is secure.