Two-time Olympic silver-medallist Debbie Flood grew up in a highly sporty Yorkshire family. They could often be found outdoors—walking, running and cycling together. When it came to organised sport Debbie achieved good success in cross-country running, athletics, and particularly judo in which she was a Great Britain junior representative. But it was not in any of these sports that she became an Olympian.
My faith was such a massive anchor in a world … in which there was the constant danger of having my identity caught up in sport, and in which it was so easy to go from hero to zero overnight.
Spotted working out on a rowing machine in the gym, she was encouraged to take up actual rowing. This she did, and from there her rise was meteoric. Within a few years she was rowing for Great Britain in the women’s quadruple sculls. And it was in this event that she won her two silvers at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games.
Throughout this time Debbie was greatly assisted by her commitment to Christ, having become a believer in her teenage years. ‘My faith,’ she says, ‘was such a massive anchor in a world that could sometimes be so selfish, in which there was the constant danger of having my identity caught up in sport, and in which it was so easy to go from hero to zero overnight.’
Sport, at any level, has its joys and challenges, and the believer will need both wisdom and strength to effectively navigate its pathways. In our first article on Christianity and sport we considered how the Bible enables us to think wisely about this topic. We saw that sport is a good gift from God—it has intrinsic and instrumental value. But we also saw that, like all areas of life, it takes place in a fallen world and there are the associated dangers of idolatry and immorality. The trick is to recognise the opportunities and dangers—embracing the former while resisting the latter.
But that is easier said than done. Thankfully, the teaching of Scripture and the testimony of believing sportspeople is that the stronger our relationship with God, the better we will do as a Christian sportsperson. Jesus says: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5) Staying close in our relationship with God will not only help us to survive as a Christian, it will help us thrive as we live in a way that brings glory to God and furthers his purposes in this world.
As with any relationship, the key is good communication. As such, the key to our relationship with God is listening to God (i.e., Bible reading and reflection), speaking to God (i.e., prayer), interacting with God’s people (i.e., Christian fellowship), and engaging in Christian service (e.g., Christian witness, although there are many other forms of service). So let’s consider each of these areas in turn.
Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night. (Psalm 1:1–2)
It would have been easy to drift. But God was gracious and helped me to see the importance of spending time in his Word
The Bible teaches of the need to meditate on Scripture on a daily basis. This is not always easy and, for some, sport can throw up its particular challenges. The former Australian volleyball captain Priscilla Ruddle, now a missionary in West Africa, recalls the amount of time she spent travelling with her sport. ‘When I spent longer periods of time overseas without access to a local church, it would have been easy to drift. But God was gracious and helped me to see the importance of spending time in his Word, whether that be listening to sermons (in those days on tapes or MP3s), personal Bible study or reading helpful books. True to his Word and through the work of the Holy Spirit, God continued to guide and hold me.’
Being away from home … helped me to grow in my faith. Having no-one else, I fell back on the Lord as my best friend.
The Scriptures are also full of injunctions to pray: Paul urges the people of God to ‘devote yourselves to prayer’ and ‘pray continually (Col 4:2; 1 Thess 5:17). The Lord Jesus himself taught his disciples ‘that they should always pray and not give up’ (Luke 18:1).
Former Australian hockey international Susie Harris would testify to the importance of prayer. Something of a hockey prodigy, she made the national team at 17. This meant she was often away from home and mixing with women who were much older than she. But Susie was a Christian, and God, through Susie’s parents, had prepared her well for life in this sort of environment. “As I was growing up, my parents talked to me about the Christian faith. They explained to me the importance of walking daily with Jesus through Bible reading and prayer. Communicating with God in this way became a day-to-day habit for me. I’d do this when I was at home; I’d do it when I was away. In fact, being away from home—a Christian in a non-Christian context—helped me to grow in my faith. Having no-one else, I fell back on the Lord as my best friend. As I read the Bible and talked to the Lord each day, my faith and trust in him grew.”
Our third essential is Christian fellowship. The writer the to the Hebrews says:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Heb 10:24–25)
The wisdom of Ecclesiastes was true that two are better than one: ‘If either of them falls down, one can help the other up …’
Priscilla Ruddle once described to me how she sought to stand firm and grow as a Christian when she was playing competitive sport: ‘By having a good church base, including involvement in weekly Bible study, attending a prayer meeting at the Australian Institute of Sport, having close Christian friends who were willing to keep me accountable, and access to chaplains.’ One of the priorities for the Christian sportsperson should be commitment to a local church.
Another great form of assistance is the support of other Christian sportspeople. David Simmons played first grade rugby league with the Sharks and then the Panthers. He recalls as a young player being in the same team as Jason Stevens—another Christian player: ‘I am very thankful to God for Jason. He was a great example of holding firm faith in a hostile place. I was a young, impressionable person with a young faith when I came to the Sharks. Jason helped me to hold onto and grow my faith by being an encouraging friend and introducing me to other Christians around the club for support. The wisdom of Ecclesiastes was true that two are better than one: “If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.”’
Our final essential for thriving as a Christian sportsperson is to engage in some area(s) of Christian ministry. There are plenty of opportunities for this at a local church, but we should also be aware of the potential ministry we can have to fellow sportspeople.
I played cricket because I enjoyed it and was good at it. But I also saw cricket as providing an opportunity for outreach
David Binggeli is an Anglican minister in Sydney who played First Grade cricket as a younger man. ‘I played cricket because I enjoyed it and was good at it,’ he says. ‘But I also saw cricket as providing an opportunity for outreach. That said, particularly when I was one of the younger players in the team, I found the prevailing anti-Christian sentiment quite intimidating.’ One season David and another Christian from his club attended a Christians in Cricket meeting. Christians in Cricket was a small group that sought to help Christian cricketers and stand firm as believers and reach out with their faith. ‘This really spurred my friend and I on. Thereafter, on a number of occasions, we met on the field before play and prayed for opportunities to witness to Jesus during the day ahead of us.’
I also played Sydney First Grade cricket when younger, and often found myself in conversations of a spiritual nature with colleagues. On a couple of occasions I had the opportunity to organise organised Christianity Explained courses specifically for my teammates and invited them to come. Each time there was about four or five takers.
So sport is a good gift from God that we will want to make a plus not a minus for our spiritual lives and for the kingdom of God. We can best do this as we understand what God would have us think about sport (seek God’s wisdom on sport) and as we stay close to God and seek to live out our faith both on and off the field (appropriate God’s strength for sport). I would also assert that living this way helps us to enjoy sport more.