By Jill Ewert
“I am nothing but a sports slave.”
– Dennis Rodman
“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should
be called children of God! And that is what we are!”
– 1 John 3:1 (NIV)
Identity. We all search for it. We all find it—whether we know it or not. And how we choose to define ourselves can and will determine the quality of our lives. If the foundation of our identity is unstable, we will live unstable lives. If, however, our identity is rooted in something constant and unshakable, we will find ourselves the same.
Coach Sue Ramsey endured her own spiritual identity crisis in 1994.
The Bible tells us that the only truly unshakable foundation is Jesus Christ. Only by fully identifying ourselves with Him will we be able to handle all of life’s challenges. In Matthew 7:24-27, Christ Himself gives a parable in which He likens our lives to houses. The houses built on movable surfaces like sand will fall when storms pound against them. The houses built on rock, however, will withstand winds and rising tides because of their solid foundations.
The trouble for many athletes and coaches, even believers, is that their sport often takes the place of Christ when it comes to identity. They may be fully convinced that Christ is the Son of God, who conquered death to pay the price for their sins. They may even be seeking Him off the court, but it is their sport that truly defines who they are. They are an athlete or coach first, and a Christ-follower second. Their lives are consumed by stats and scoreboards. It may not be intentional, and their motives may be pure in seeking Christ, but they are incapable of giving Him first place in their lives.
Why? Why are athletes and coaches so susceptible to this way of living?
“Athletics is like living life with the volume turned up,” says Sue Ramsey, head women’s basketball coach at Ashland University (Ohio), who, only after enduring her own spiritual identity crisis in 1994 was able to truly understand what it meant to use her coaching ability for God’s glory. “You pick up a newspaper in any town, and you see that sports has its own section, which makes it separate from everything else. And if one of our athletes makes a mistake or gets in trouble the headline doesn’t read, ‘Science Major Gets in Trouble.’ No, it says, ‘Basketball Player Gets in Trouble.’ That’s how the world defines them. That’s how they’re told to define themselves.”
Another factor is self-worth. Tony Graffanino, who was recently traded from the Kansas City Royals to the Milwaukee Brewers, became a believer when he was already a major league ballplayer with the Atlanta Braves. Until that point, baseball had been the core of his life. Stable or unstable, it had been the factor by which he measured his significance.
“My life and who I was, was all about baseball,” says Graffanino. “I played to impress people. I played because I thought people would like me more. My personal life was dependant upon how well baseball was going. If baseball was going well, then I was happy. If baseball wasn’t going well, then I was miserable. It was a day-to-day experience, and it was a tough way to live.”
Wade Salem, former FCA area director in Pennsylvania, had a similar experience as a high school athlete before giving his life fully to Christ. “To me, sports was a platform from which to stand up and say, ‘Hey, look at me. Notice me. Pay attention to me.’ But when I got injured and that was taken away, I was forced to ask some pretty deep questions like, ‘Well, who am I then?’”
|“Part of who I am is part of who I will become as a Christian. I don’t need to become somebody else.”|
|– Tony Graffanino,|
Former KC Royal
Both Graffanino and Salem admit to the personal struggle that comes when identity is based in athletics, citing instability as the source. “If my whole life is based on my performance, my outcome, what happens when my outcome is bad?” asks Salem. “I have yet to meet an athlete who has won every game they’ve ever played, so if their self-image is performance-based, they’re going to constantly be up and down.”
While the average coach or athlete will spend his or her entire career riding that rollercoaster of emotions, the athlete or coach who has an identity and self-worth in Jesus Christ, according to Scripture, has the power to remain stable during the endless highs and lows of sports.
“If my worth as a person is based on my identity as a child of God, I can go out and enjoy the gifts and talents He’s given me to the best of my abilities,” says Salem. “My worth is not based on a scoreboard; it’s based on my heart.”
As for Graffanino, this revelation changed his life as a ballplayer. “I’m now secure in the fact that my focus is Christ and not people. Regardless of what happens on a baseball field, the other stuff isn’t going to change. I know that God will always love me and that I’m always secure in my salvation and in His grace. Even through the tough times on the ball field I can still be pleasing to God in my effort and in how I play the game.”
To be more specific, the subject must be broken down. What exactly does it mean to “find identity” in Christ?
Many verses in the New Testament answer this question, including 2 Corinthians 5:17, Ephesians 2:10 and Colossians 2:6-7. One that is particularly recognized as summative is Galatians 2:20, which states, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (NIV).
Verses like these also can be broken down into human paraphrase. “Identity in Christ means that I’m first and foremost a child of God,” says Ramsey. “I am His because I’ve been purchased by His blood.”
“Finding your identity in Christ means being connected to the almighty God though His Son, Jesus, and being connected to something bigger than yourself,” adds Salem. “In order to do that you have to know what He says about you in His Word. Once you know and accept who He says you are as your true identity, then you find your identity in Christ.”
Finding identity in a sinless and perfect Savior can be intimidating. It certainly was for Graffanino. As a new believer early in his career, he had the idea that in becoming a Christian he would have to change and conform to a pre-molded, standard Christian character. He was relieved, however, when the Lord revealed a different truth.
Wade Salem has a tip for anyone wanting to begin helping others find their identity in Christ and not in sports.
“What we have to do is help athletes and coaches put on a new pair of glasses and see things differently,” he says. “Behind every outcome in a sport is the character of the person who made the play; he or she had to do something in order to catch that ball or make that shot. And what we have to do is to really build up a person’s identity and worth.
“When an athlete catches a ball, yes, he just made a great catch. Most coaches and teammates will say, ‘Great catch.’ They just praised the outcome. But if you change one or two words next time he makes a great catch and say, ‘Great effort to make that catch,’ then you just praised his character trait—who he is in what he does. And now I’m coaching his heart and his character.
“I would encourage anyone to look beyond the outcomes for the traits that were behind them. What was it? Was it concentration? Was it control? Was it perseverance? We rarely look at the inside stuff, and it’s the inside stuff that really makes up your identity.”
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“I started to realize that God created me to be who I was,” says Graffanino. “He made me exactly the way He wanted me to be from the inside out. And part of who I am is part of who I will become as a Christian. I don’t need to become somebody else. I can be my own individual person and a believer at the same time.”
A believer’s identity includes who he or she is as a total package— flaws and all. Scripture says that God knows we are sinful and loves us the same (Psalm 103:13-14). Says Ramsey, “Yes, I will sin and fall short of the glory of God. I know that. But I also know that He’s there. He’s got me in His grip, and He loves me no matter what. He demonstrated it on the cross, and He says so in His Word” (Romans 3:22-26; 8:38-39).
Once an athlete or coach does choose to begin identifying themselves with Christ and casting aside the authority of the stat sheet, what should he or she expect? According to Salem, emotional and personal peace. “My identity in the Lord makes me secure and confident,” he says. “When you’re really growing in Christ and you know He loves you unconditionally, you can play the worst game of your life and walk off the floor still being loved.
“It’s like having a dad who, after you’ve just played the worst game of your life, just says, ‘Man, I love you, and I love watching you play.’ He doesn’t bring up the fact that you just missed 20 shots or that you went 0-5 and struck out five times, which we’re all reminded of by media, parents, coaches and teammates. You can continue to move on and your heart is protected. The sports culture doesn’t wound you because you’re living on another set of values. Your worth as a person is based on who you are in Christ, not your performance on a playing field.”
Does that mean that a believer is off the hook from putting forth his or her best effort on the field simply because God will still offer His unconditional love?
“No,” says Salem. “Your performance should reflect that identity of who you are. You should strive to be the best player, have the best attitude and be the best worker because that’s what Jesus—whom you are representing—would do.”
Is there any way a believer can know for sure whether or not he or she is basing his or her identity on Christ or on the sport? According to Salem there is.
“Part of having an identity in Christ means the availability of joy, which itself means to have contentment regardless of circumstances,” he says. “I asked a team recently, whose record was 0-7, ‘Is there still a bounce in your step when you go to practice, or does the record dictate how you practice and play now? Because that would mean that your identity is found in your record, not in who you are.’ If you have joy in your life, you’re going to finish every game and every practice, and you’re going to work hard and bust your tail. Why? Because that’s who you are in what you do. And that is a child of God in an athletic environment.”
Believers who choose to identify themselves with Christ will, according to Scripture, be overcome with blessings—physical, emotional and spiritual (1 Corinthians 9:23, Ephesians 1:3). This is something that Graffanino held to during the Royals’ difficult start in 2006. “Going through the most difficult times, the more grounded and secure we are in who we are in Christ makes all the difference in the world. It’s comforting to know that I can open the Bible and relate to men of God who have been through worse times than this and have remained faithful to God, just as He is faithful to us. Even if a situation doesn’t change, I know that eternally there’s a great thing waiting. There’s definitely joy and there’s definitely peace.”
This same joy and peace is available to all believers who base their identity in Jesus Christ. Though shots will be blocked and games will be lost, Scripture states that His love and faithfulness will never change. When believers are grounded firmly in that promise and not in a scoreboard, nothing will shake them.
“So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” – Colossians 2:6-7 (NIV) photos:Graffanino, courtesy of the KC Royals; Ramsey, courtesy of Ashland University; Wade Salem