How the Gospel Helps Parents Disciple the Athlete
When a child’s first word is “ball” it’s a good indicator of how parents will soon spend their days. At least for our family.
Neither my husband nor I participated in team sports as children. We often remark with surprise at our children’s interest in sports, wondering where they got their passion and talent. Spending nights and weekends on the football field, in the basketball stands, and on the woodland course is new for us. I’m now the mom with all the t-shirts: “Proud basketball mom,” “Football mom,” and “Cross country mom.”
It’s no secret that team sports are beneficial for our children in many ways. Among many things, they learn to work with others, grow in social skills, and practice conflict resolution. They learn the value of hard work and dedication. They also learn failure and disappointment.
For Christian parents, team sports also provide an opportunity for discipleship. Our teens will face circumstances in their athletic careers that require us to walk alongside them, pointing them to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We can give them a big picture of what God is doing in the midst of those challenges, equipping them to face challenges later in life.
Four Discipleship Conversations
One of the conversations I’ve had with my own children is how tempting it is to build an identity around athletics. It’s easy for teens to define themselves by their sport. “I am a baseball player.” “I am a swimmer.” “I am a basketball player.” What happens when a teen doesn’t make the team? What happens to his identity then? Or when she is injured and can’t play soccer anymore? Our teens need to know that what they do isn’t who they are.
Scripture teaches that we are image bearers, created to image and reflect the one who made us. We were made to bring God glory. And for those who are in Christ, our identity is found in who Christ is for us. All that Christ has done on our behalf in his perfect life, sacrificial death, and triumphant resurrection is ours; God looks at us and sees Christ. As Paul wrote, we are new creations. We are also adopted into God’s family and have all the rights and privileges of being his children. We are his heirs. All these gospel truths define who we are. We live our lives out of that reality.
Our teens need to know that playing a sport isn’t who they are; it’s just one of the many ways they glorify God with their lives. And for those teens who are united to Christ by faith, we can point them to who he is for them, how his work on their behalf gives their life identity, meaning, and purpose.
There are many disappointments found in team sports. Not making the team. Losing the championship. Getting injured. These challenges provide parents with the opportunity to speak the gospel into teens’ lives.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling disappointment when the team loses or when an injury prevents a teen from playing in the game. My son recently broke a bone during a game and has been on the bench since. We give voice to those feelings of disappointment. Even more, we pray about it, giving those emotions to the Lord.
But sometimes, those disappointments reveal an idol lurking in a teen’s heart. Whenever we look for meaning and purpose outside of our relationship with God, it becomes an idol that we worship. Therefore, strong emotions are often found when our idols are threatened, such as anger and fear. In those moments, it’s helpful to ask teens questions about what they are thinking and feeling. What does it mean to them that their team lost? What are they thinking and feeling about missing the season because of an injury? Pay attention to their responses and help them evaluate the ways they might place their hope in sports rather than in God.
The Apostle Paul often compared the Christian life to that of an athlete. That’s because there is so much training and labor involved in sports, paralleling our race of faith. As your teen works to improve his batting average or increase her time on the track, you can point to the spiritual parallels in their lives. As Paul wrote, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it” (1 Cor. 9:24) and “Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7b-8).
Encourage your teen to see the great value of their spiritual race. Talk about the steps he or she takes to prepare for a game and compare them to the spiritual disciplines of the faith. Explore some of the challenges players face in their sport, comparing them to the challenges we face in our faith. Talk about the barriers and obstacles to athletic training and compare them to the sins and temptations that cause us to stumble in our race of faith. As the writer to the Hebrews exhorted, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:1b-2).
Competition is inherent to athletics. There is always a winner and a loser. I’ve had discussions with my sons about God’s sovereignty over the results of a game. As it says in Proverbs, “We may throw the dice, but the LORD determines how they fall” (16:33 NLT). God determines the outcome of all things, including a game. He also rules over those challenges and hardships our teens face in their sport. “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things” (Is. 45:7). For the believer, we know there is a purpose to all these challenges. We know it brings God glory (Jn. 9:3) and he uses it for our sanctification (Rom. 5:3-5, Jam. 1:2-4).
A good question to ask our teens is to consider what God might want them to learn from the experiences of losing a game? How can your teen glorify God in this loss? In what ways might God be drawing our teens to trust in him more, to depend upon him? What idols may God be shining a light on in their heart, inviting them to repentance?
Team sports provides many opportunities for us as parents to disciple our children in the truth of God’s word. In the troubles and trials of the game, we can point them to who Christ is for them.