I was privileged enough to play collegiate baseball for four years and professionally for two years before riding into the sunset of retirement where the real challenge began- figuring out how to relate my athletic experience to everyday life. My whole athletic life was spent striving for goals that were physically attainable if I put in the proper effort- being a starter, hitting above .300, winning the conference championship, getting drafted, etc. I had such tunnel vision towards achieving these types of goals that I seldom had time to wonder how this experience of competition would play out in the long run.
As a society, I believe we put too much emphasis on sports and earthly goals. The most successful among us, according to our culture, are those who excel at sports, acting, singing, or wielding political power. Each of these groups of people have committed enormous amounts of time and sweat into becoming great at what they do through hard work and dedication, but the truth is that these qualities can be better served in the spiritual realm, instead of “where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19).
Being competitive, having the desire to excel, having the internal drive, and possessing a sense that one is playing for something bigger than themselves are a few basic prerequisites for excelling at sports, especially at the college and professional level.
But what I am just beginning to discover is that these are the exact same qualities that are required for a Christian to succeed in their spiritual and personal lives.
“Every Christian is called to become a strong athlete of Christ, that is, a faithful and courageous witness to the Gospel.” Saint Pope John Paul II
Running the Race of Life
The connotations between athletics and spirituality abound in the Bible and among various Catholic saints (especially John Paul II), which means that there is something there for us to discover. St Paul, in particular, seemed to have a knack for applying the competition required for sports to our spiritual lives:
“Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win” (1 Corinthians 9:24).
In drawing the parallel between athletics and life, St Paul taps into our desire to compete, excel, win, and push ourselves beyond what we think we are capable of. We are not called to simply go through the motions of life, but to WIN and to strive for first place! This might seem odd because no one is handing out trophies when we successfully implement a project at work or complete the Rosary or read to our kids or take our spouse on a date or mow the lawn, but, once again, Saint Pope John Paul II provides some insight as to how this applies to everyday life.
Christians are called “…to push themselves in the utmost in the ‘race of life’. In the stadium races, [St Paul] says, everyone runs, even if only one is the winner: you too run…. With this metaphor of healthy athletic competition, he highlights the value of life, comparing it to a race not only for an earthly, passing goal, but for an eternal one. A race in which not just one person, but everyone can be a winner.”
We race for eternal goals in a physical world and we are called to use our competitiveness to achieve victory in heaven. We compete to rise above our tendencies and weaknesses and strive for the ultimate victory- eternal communion with Jesus Christ. It is simple to get wrapped up in whatever activities draw our attention on earth, but the end goal is always holiness, it is not worldly achievements.
On the surface, this language is inspiring and hopeful, but digging deeper, we need to know- how do we transfer our athletic or professional competitiveness to the “race of life”? How do we turn our athletic energies upward and strive to walk the narrow path?
Everyone has a varied level of competitiveness within them- some are driven to be the absolute best at whatever they do no matter what and others are content with only striving for victory in certain endeavors. I personally find myself consciously dialing back my competitiveness so as not to scare people away or get too involved in games or activities that essentially do not matter in the race of life. But it is important to remember that God granted us each the gift of competitiveness and He asks us to use it for the good of the kingdom.
The biggest struggle for me after retiring from competitive athletics (and most athletes I would guess) is figuring out how to transfer the natural competitiveness I have into the spiritual battle. I had spent most of my life using my competitiveness to excel at sports but only recently discovered the usefulness of this quality in walking the Christian life.
Understanding our Opponent
We first must understand who our opponent is- the entity that is keeping us from full communion with God and from winning the race of life. In athletics, our opponent is easy to determine- it is the team or player trying to keep us from attaining victory. We may even be our own opponent if we succumb to despair, loss of confidence, or lack of mental discipline and toughness. Who is the main opponent in our spiritual lives? Here’s a clue:
“Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for [someone] to devour.” 1 Peter 5:8
The devil is our opponent! He is the one trying to keep us from holiness and eternal life with Jesus! Now we know who compete against. He is the one trying to pull us away from our goals. He is the one trying to keep us from using our competitive natures to seek true victories like attending church with fervor, spending quality time with our families, and serving others.
In this way, it makes sense to treat spirituality like a competition, as St Paul suggests. We need to get upset and become passionate in fighting back against the attacks by the devil. We need to get competitive in winning everyday battles against temptations like lust, greed, slothfulness, alcoholism, and avarice. Or like praying every morning or refusing to check out when we get home from work or using destructive language or watching inappropriate movies. He is constantly challenging us as we attempt to march towards eternal victory. In this sense, what athletic event could ever be more challenging, important, or relevant? The devil would love if we never used our competitiveness in the spiritual realm- he would be perfectly happy to relegate it strictly to the athletic arena, never to be used by passionate Christians devoted to living out the truth of the Gospel.
In addition to battling the devil, every Christian is faced with the internal struggle of becoming the best version of themselves. As Saint Pope John Paul II mentioned, everyone can be a winner in the race of life, which means that we are not so much racing against other Christians but ourselves. Inspiring Catholic writer and speaker Matthew Kelly embraces this concept as the key to excelling at life and reaching toward heaven in his book Resisting Happiness– “never stop striving to be all that God created you to be: the-very-best-version-of-yourself.” To me, this means being great at whatever we are doing- prayer, work, cleaning, taking care of kids, seeking God, cooking, playing sports, serving others, or any other activities that fill our day and shape the persons we are. In order to feel fulfilled and excel at running the race of life, we have to overcome the roadblocks within us and commit to living out all aspects of life with a mindset of greatness.
The Grind of Holiness
Former NBA player Allen Iverson made famous the phrase, “Practice? We’re talkin’ about practice! Not a game, not a game. Practice!” and, even though it was strewn out of context, the quote exemplifies the attitude that we all possess in one form or another- that practice is boring and games are where victories are won or lost. But ask any elite athlete and they will tell you the exact opposite- championships are won behind the scenes in practice when no one is watching. We can apply this principle to our spiritual lives as well.
If we take on the challenge of competing against the devil and striving upwards toward heaven then we need to practice and have a spiritual routine so we are prepared when we are faced with life’s temptations, demands, and struggles. During my collegiate baseball career, I never felt confident in myself unless I had put in an extra round of batting practice before the game. I made this my routine in order to prepare to face the opposing pitcher. In fact, when I reflect on my career, I enjoyed this extra practice perhaps more so than games because of the mental sharpness it helped create and the fulfillment it brought for me.
College basketball coach John Calipari believes that practice, or “the grind”, is what wins championships. He said, “You’ve gotta learn to love the grind.” In the same way, we have to enjoy the process of maintaining and feeding our spiritual hunger. It is the practice we put in behind the scenes that no one sees that will pay dividends when we are faced with opposition. It is the morning prayer and meditation on the daily readings, the exercise and healthy eating habits, the consumption of solid books and movies, mindset of putting others first in all things, and the practice of setting personal and professional goals that make up “the grind” of the dynamic spiritual life. We can’t live nominal, uninspired, unintentional Christian lives and expect to achieve spiritual greatness or feel fulfilled in life’s endeavors (check out Intentional Encounter for more ideas on how to prepare mind, body, and soul for spiritual battle).
We can guarantee that the devil has done his homework on how to defeat us, we must take the proper steps not only to fend off his attacks but to continually strive upwards toward heaven in the example of St Paul:
Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13-14
The Competitive Christian
The Christian walk is not an easy one. Our minds and bodies scream at us to give up when “the grind” gets tough. We are assailed on every side by the world’s expectations of how we should live and the activities that should consume our energies. Too often we become content with living out our days conforming to society instead of fighting to finish first place in the eternal race and overcoming the temptation to barely slip into heaven. Too often we allow ourselves to be drawn into the devil’s traps of chasing worldly victory while we relegate spirituality to Sunday mornings and show more passion about fantasy football than we do about our battle to achieve heaven.
God calls us to more than simply ‘getting by’ in our spiritual lives- He said, “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10) and ordains us to be the best versions of ourselves at all times. It is the time we put our passions to good use and answered the call to live life according to His version of success.
So we want to achieve holiness? Do we want heaven? Then let us use our competitiveness to take on the devil as we run the ‘race of life’.