The late Vince Lombardi, famous NFL coach of the Green Bay Packers, once said, “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a LOSER!” He also popularized another quote originally from UCLA football coach Red Sanders: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the ONLY thing!” This was probably a response to sports journalist Grantland Rice’s quote, “It’s not that you won or lost but how you played the game.”

The world has one viewpoint about winning and the Kingdom of God has another. It should not surprise us if these views are in conflict. What is the proper motivation for Christian athletes? Is winning the goal? Is the “Big W” the focus? Should the Christian athlete pray to win? Does winning have to be the goal to instill enough motivation to do their best? Perhaps a good approach to take with these issues is to describe what “playing for Jesus” looks like:

  1. Self-control and inner peace will be evident to others
  2. Happy for opponents when they do well
  3. Sincere handshakes before and after the competition
  4. No excuses
  5. No blaming teammates
  6. Looking at self rather than others to improve results
  7. Different perspective regarding being a “success” (for example, we could lose the game as long as we conformed to all of the above, and, as long as we tried our best, that is success)
  8. Do our best not to gain respect or glory, but to honor Christ for giving us the talent to do what we do (we know He’s watching our every thought and move).
  9. Displaying a consistent respectful demeanor win or lose
  10. Encouraging others and being a loyal teammate.

Notice that “winning the event” is not on the list. Since we still exist in flesh and blood, the above “fruit of the Spirit” is difficult to achieve and it is easy to be defiled by worldly value systems. But we must realize that those are the issues that will be on our “Final Exam” on Judgment Day, not the number of wins we had. I don’t believe that statistics will ever enter The Judgment. The world reveres athletes who compile impressive numbers, but God is impressed with people demonstrating the above listed standards. We as Christian athletes (or coaches) must be ever mindful of 1 John 2:16, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life are not from the Father, but from this world.” The verse before reveals WHY these things are wrong – because “the love of the Father is not in them.” Therefore, the love of the Father must be in those 10 descriptions listed above. It will be our love for Jesus that gives us the power to conform and reflect those positive traits, not our striving with our own strength to obey rules or expectations. This sounds like true freedom to me. We are no longer controlled by worldly philosophy, desires, or the pressure to conform to it. I do not sense the love of the Father in the human desire to beat someone else at something. This drive seems to stem from this world, not His Kingdom. The human desire to “compete to beat” just doesn’t seem to have God’s fingerprint upon it.

The people that are “of this world” may quickly accuse the Christian athlete of not trying as hard as he/she can to win because of these radically different values. On the contrary, if you meditate on item #10, hustling and doing your best is included. That is part of being a loyal teammate.

The desire to be “the best we can be” is not necessarily being prideful, however. It all depends on the reasons we want to be good at something. God judges the motives of our hearts. The above sited verse specifically says “the boastful pride of life.” Many talented people fall into the trap of self-recognition as a motivator to excel. Wanting to do well at sports or a job is not necessarily motivated by this wrong spirit, but it often is.

I appreciate ex-NFL football coach Tony Dungy. He seems to have the balance between Christian life and the world of sports. When his Indianapolis Colts won the Super Bowl, the reporters wanted to emphasize that he was the first African-American coach to win it. The only thing Mr. Dungy emphasized for all to hear was that they did it “Christ’s way.” To Tony, winning was not the most important thing. His satisfaction came from living for Jesus and giving Him the glory thereby revealing Ultimate Truth to his players and staff, and beyond. Did he want to win? Certainly. But I perceive that his motive was so he could tell the world that “he did it Christ’s way!“

I also appreciate Tim Tebow, whose desire to win seems not to be geared toward besting someone else at their expense, but rather to use the athletic gift from God to make Jesus known to others as well as being a supportive teammate to his players and being respectful to all his coaches. God sometimes raises up athletes to achieve great heights so that more people will listen to them when they talk about Jesus. Pro golfer Bubba Watson won the 2012 Master’s Tournament and the world heard that Jesus had changed his life. Ex-NHL great Paul Henderson scored the series winning goal when Canada first played Russia in 1972. Since then, Paul has shared the Gospel to millions. San Francisco pitcher Madison Bumgarner was the 2014 World Series hero and testified that Jesus Christ changed his life and is the most important thing to him. There are many more examples. So God uses sports to promote his Kingdom on earth, but I believe that sports will play no part in His Eternal Kingdom because Scripture states: “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

We also must not form our identity by what sport or job we succeed in. We are disciples of Christ first and anything after that is a mere cloak over the real person we are. If a Christian athlete gets depressed just because he/she lost a game, then they are playing for the wrong reasons. Coach Dungy’s self-esteem did not hinge upon winning because he knows he is valuable as a person because of Christ living inside him, and has been called upon by God to achieve more important things than winning a pigskin game made up by men. If we equate our self-worth with athletic success, we miss the purpose of the life God has given us. Knowing we will not be judged on whether or not we win a game should free us from a worldly bondage. What people will tend to remember is our demeanor on the field, not how many wins we earned. More importantly, God will give us eternal rewards for representing His Son throughout our athletic endeavors. If we pass those tests, we have TOTALLY SUCCEEDED (even if we lost every game or never scored a goal). We can accomplish this if we “keep our eyes on the real Prize.”

Back in 1958, as a nine-year-old, I watched my first major league baseball game on our small black & white TV. It was the World Series, and the Milwaukee Braves (who beat the NY Yankees in the Series the previous year) were battling the Yankees again. (For the purposes of this essay, it is not necessary to report who won this time). Hank Aaron stepped up to the plate. I had never heard of him before, but I loved the way his last name was spelled! A name starting with a double “A” looked so cool that I loved that player right away and followed his entire career from that day on. Little did I know that he would eventually clout 755 home runs. I recall discussing with a high school friend in 1967 how I did not think Hank could ever break Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs. Toward the end of the 1973 season and the beginning of the 1974 season, Hank was approaching the unthinkable. The baseball world was goingcrazy. Hank was hounded by reporters and had his life threatened several times by racists. Hank said those days should have been the best days of his life, but they were the worst. He just wanted to get it over with. When he hit that dramatic home run (off of ex-Yankee Al Downing) in April of 1974, fans celebrated wildly! But with all due respect to Hammerin’ Hank, when he stands before Jesus Christ on Judgment Day, the number 755 will not be mentioned….a sobering thought to all athletes. Our trophies are as impressive as Adam and Eve’s fig leaves. That early human effort was so worthless to cover sin that God did not even mention it while He was slaying an innocent animal and covered the humans with the skin. That innocent shed blood was the most important Truth that God was telling fallen mankind – it won’t be your effort that saves you, but Mine.” And what an effort that was when Jesus, the Lamb of God, shed His innocent Blood on that cross for us. C.S. Lewis had it right when he portrayed bratty Eustace, who turned into an ugly dragon in his book entitled, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” as one who couldn’t get the ugly scales off his body himself. Aslan, the Lion who represents Jesus, finally said, “You’ll have to let Me do it.” Eustace was no longer a brat after that encounter. He was a new person.

In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul compares the lifestyle of an athlete to a Christian. Both must control fleshly desires in order to win the prize. Not only self-control is essential, but playing by the rules is a must in order to win. The difference is that one does all these things for something that will perish while the other gains something that will never perish. The desire to win must also be held in check because it can easily lure us into wrong attitudes and behavior. If athletes who want to win so badly would channel that desire to live godly in Christ as did Paul, our nation would be turned right side-up.

So, should the Christian athlete pray to God to win? Remember, when we pray to win, we are also asking God to cause the other side to lose. There may be believers on those teams also praying to win. Now what does God do? Maybe He flips a coin since the outcome is not that important to Him. 🙂 If we are self-centered, we tend to blind ourselves to insights such as this. I think the best prayer approach is to ask God to give us the ability to fulfill the above 10-item agenda, and leave winning or losing up to that “coin flip.”

There are lots of examples of competition in this world beyond sports, but will there be any trace of competition in God’s Eternal Kingdom? In other words, will we be forever competing in Heaven? I don’t think so. Why, then, should we get caught up in it now?


GR – This is wonderful work and I appreciate the immense amount of time and thought that MUST go into this essay. It’s SPOT ON. We as Americans (trained to ALWAYS WIN) whether its a game or a war. WE are 13-0 in wars, arguably. But then, when you consider God’s position, I do not think Jesus Christ really cares who wins or does not win the Masters. I recall when Tiger Woods made a run in the masters last year. I was so wound up I could not sit down. I STOOD in front of my TV, my stomach was tied in knots. I was a wreck. He Lost. The next morning I got up and my world had not changed because Tiger lost. My family, problems, dreams and daily struggles remained the same. BUT, the mighty unchangeable God was still in charge of my life. Sports should be taken for what is really is, entertainment, and probably not real important in the ultimate scheme of things.

Dave to GR – Your mentioning winning at war makes me think a bit deeper. Obviously competing in war is about life and death whereas a sporting event is not. I think it is good to ask God to make us win a war, thus asking Him to make the other side lose, if we are on HIS side in this life. If our side is evil and rebellious against God’s Holy Word, then I think to beseech his help is more of an offensive, superstitious gesture. God is not to be treated like a genie in the sky. In most cases, David had the right perspective when it came to war. He almost always sought and trusted God before battles and would succeed because of that. It finally came to him one day that God caused victories so that God’s people would have security (2 Samuel 5:12). It wasn’t because he thought higher of himself than he should have. We can search history books and discover how miraculous events took place that turned the tide of a war. I recall that dense fog that saved General George Washington and his army as they crossed the Delaware River right under the noses of the British. Had they defeated his army that day, our country may have never been birthed. So in a real sense, war is competing, but we are dealing with something different than athletic competition (entertainment).

For example, I believe that God caused our country to be birthed and to win wars in order to provide a buffer against evil totalitarianism taking over the world and to provide the Gospel to many people of other nations. This is not to say or even imply that all our soldiers were better people than all of our enemies. We simply have to look at the bigger picture that God was producing through those years. When I was in Israel in 1977, I talked with a taxi cab driver as he drove my friend and I to some place. He had fought in three recent wars for Israel. They, of course, won all three. Trying to find some lead-in to the Gospel, I asked him to tell me why he thought they had won them all. His first reason was that the Israelis are smart people. Second, they had good equipment and weapons. Third, God was on their side. Sadly, he did not put God first. The spirit in King David had not been passed down to this man. The side with the most self- reliance does not decide war outcomes, God does. Self-reliance always opposes God. The spirit of this world claims it is good, but John 15 says otherwise.