Sports Mirror the Battles of Life

on April 19, 2014

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on It is cross-posted with permission.

by Jim Tonkowich

Somehow I expect college and university presidents to write scholarly books exclusively (that is, assuming that between administrating their schools and raising money they get the chance to write at all). I also expect book ads in the journal First Things to be for scholarly books.

So when I saw an ad in First Things for Less Than a Minute to Go: The Secret to World-Class Performance in Sport, Business, and Everyday Lifewritten by Dr. Bill Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey College, it caught my attention and I ordered a copy.

I’m glad I did.

Thierfelder was a college high jump star who went on to get a Ph.D. in sports psychology. The book is a popular unfolding of what he learned as an athlete and in years of counseling amateur, college, and professional athletes. He begins talking about play.

We say we “play” golf, tennis, soccer, football, and other games. Even professionals “play” their sport. The problem is that we’ve figured out a way to “play” these sports without actually playing. Rather than playing—the sort of attitude that comes naturally to most children—we toil.

Mea culpa. I’m a “high handicap” (i.e. bad) golfer who should have relatively low expectations. But rather than hit a bad shot, learn something, and press on with a smile and a good attitude, I’ll get so tensed up you’d think a $100,000 rested on the next putt.

And, of course, it’s worse for tour professionals for whom $100,000 may in fact rest on the next putt. The same is true in our vocations where success or failure can impacts our bottom lines and our futures. Rather than being motivated by joy and love of the game—whether the game is golf or software sales or Christian ministry—we slip into grim, teeth-gritting toil. Yes, toil is part of the curse (Genesis 3:17-19), but joy and peace are central to the Gospel (Philippians 4:4-9).

I thought about Thierfelder’s book earlier this week at a dinner honoring two dear friends who for the past twenty years have worked at the Institute on Religion & Democracy (IRD). Mark Tooley, president of the IRD, has spent twenty years fighting the good fight for transparency, accountability, and renewal in the United Methodist Church. Faith McDonnell has spent the same time on international religious liberty with a particular emphasis on Sudan and nearby disaster areas such as Darfur.

Several of the speakers commented on how Mark and Faith are so cheerful and good-natured. Mark has been in his fair share of battles defending orthodoxy in Methodism, but eschews acrimony, resorting to ad hominem attacks, or the perpetual state of angry outrage that characterizes so many in the heat of battle.

While Sudan has dropped out of the news cycle, the situation is still dire especially for Christians. Faith follows every bombing raid, militia attack, murder, and church burning. Some of her Sudanese friends have been injured or killed providing more than enough reasons to be pessimistic, unhappy, and even bitter at the suffering. Yet Faith approaches the challenges with determination, urgency, and, incongruous as it seems on the surface, joy.

Mark and Faith are not just warriors. Along with others I admire such as Chuck Colson, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, and William F. Buckley to name only three, they’re happy warriors, the only sort of warrior worthy of the name Christian.

Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, we rounded the corner into Holy Week, walking with Jesus in his Passion and death on the cross and then waiting expectantly for Easter morning. “If God is for us,” wrote St. Paul to the Romans (8:31), “who can be against us.” Passiontide (as it used to be called) is proof positive that God is for us. His victory over sin, error, violence, and all other evil was won decisively at Calvary and undeniably announced in the resurrection of Christ from the dead. “We are more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37).

As Bill Theirfelder writes, regardless of the challenge, “The good news is that we don’t have to do it all on our own. God provides the grace and all we are asked to do is cooperate with it. The bad news is that sometimes we forget that and try to muscle our way through the situation or task.”

Many spiritual writers through the centuries have called this life a battle and so it is. But even in distress, Christian warriors are happy warriors. We know that the final victory was won nearly 2,000 years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem. And since that victory brings us into God’s family, even in the struggles the rest is child’s play.

No comments yet

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.