Reading Time: 5 minutes

Elite athletes and spiritual poverty

Michael Phelps in the men's 400m individual medley final in 2008 Beijing Olympics (Credit: Reuters / David Gray)

Right now, NBA free-agency is looming large on the American sports scene. Teams are wheeling and dealing trying to improve their teams’ chances of success, and the words “sources are reporting…” are being thrown around in an ever-swirling vortex of information. I’m going to write about free-agency more next week, but for now I wanted to bring up something that is often lost in the discussion: athletes’ health.

It is becoming increasingly prevalent for elite athletes to incur career threatening injuries. On all levels of sport, speed and skill are improving. Watch any NBA game and compare it to a game a decade or two ago and you’ll understand what I mean. But it’s not limited to basketball. Speed is a hot commodity in every sport. Just look at the average young golfer nowadays. Many of them look no different than any other chiseled athlete. All aspects of sport are being influenced by speed.

But training and skill are also improving as well. Kids from a young age are being drilled in the nuances of their sport, choosing to specialize in a particular sport at an earlier age than ever before. With all this added emphasis on speed and skill, it’s no wonder that in an effort to get an edge on their opponents elite athletes of all sports are turning their attention to their diets.

Remember Michael Phelps’ incredible run during the Beijing Olympics 4 years ago? I vividly remember being absolutely floored one night when NBC did a special vignette on Phelps’ daily diet. They showed a graphic detailing his stunning 12,000 calorie daily intake, including multiple fried egg sandwiches and pancakes for breakfast alone.

Phelps is not alone, though, in his pursuit for an edge through his diet. Walk into any grocery store across the country and you’ll find the latest offerings from Gatorade and Powerade all aimed at giving athletes a special boost during all facets of their training. The sports culture has become obsessed with performance. Seven year old kids who normally would be attracted to the latest sugar-fortified cereal are gearing up in Under Armour fitted t-shirts and eating energy bars and beverages. They’re also signing up to be a part of competitive club teams that in many cases include regional and national tournaments.

All of this training and emphasis on diets is because the pace of the games has increased to where athletes’ bodies are breaking down in more ways. From ACL tears to rotator cuff injuries to spinal damage, athletes have grown accustomed to dealing with major injuries. In an effort to prevent these injuries, they turn to their diets to see if they can find an edge.

It is fascinating to me that in a country so obsessed with sports and with performance, we largely pay little attention to the condition of our souls. We go on diets and start new exercise regiments all the time, but when was the last time you honestly sat down and evaluated your spiritual health?

The problem is that we bring the performance model that we’ve learned from sports culture and apply it to our spiritual lives and short-circuit the entire operation before we’ve even begun. Grace does not know what performance is. Love does not seek results. Faith cannot be measured by any quantifiable means. Instead, grace is a free gift from God that has nothing to do with our ability to perform a task. God’s love is eternal, secure, and doesn’t change based on our ups and downs. And the only way to measure faith is by obedience, not by how you look or perform on a certain day.

We spend an enormous amount of time worrying about our appearance. The preoccupation our society has for a performance edge in sports is symptomatic of our larger disease of self-centeredness. Jesus dealt with this issue head-on in the Sermon on the Mount, calling on us to leave worry and self-centeredness behind and instead seek first the Kingdom of God. But how can we seek first the Kingdom of God when we are surrounded by a culture that exalts performance?

Take a pointer from elite athletes’ diets. Notice that they are careful to limit that bad things they let in their bodies and choose to fill themselves with good, healthy things. You and I have to pay attention to what we are putting into our hearts and minds. Things like Facebook and Twitter usage, the books we read, the conversations we partake in, are not neutral things in our lives. They either carry us closer to Christ or drive us further away from him.

If you want to grow in your relationship with God, you absolutely must start where Jesus started, by every day submitting your day and your decisions to him. Athletes don’t haphazardly get into good shape. Neither should we expect to grow spiritually without spending time every day with God.