I think I know why you play your sport.
My confidence is based on the belief that beneath our lesser motivations, every athlete plays their particular sport for the same underlying reason. And if you are like thousands of other Christian athletes, at one point you have probably claimed Philippians 4:13 as a way to gain what you desire most. But Philippians 4:13 actually promises to deliver far more than we realize.
We often claim it with the hope that God will enable us to experience some form of victory through maximum performance. God, however, offers us something much deeper and more satisfying than a short-lived success.
Before we look at the verse used by Christian athletes everywhere, ask yourself this question: What do you really want from your sports experience? When you perform well, what about that experience makes you want to come back for more? When you struggle or fail, what motivates you to either push forward or sink back?
Why do you actually play your sport?
Maybe some of the following sentences resonate with your motivations:
I play because I like winning.
I play to feel the joy of playing.
I play to gain my parent’s approval.
I play to experience a coach’s approval.
I play to garner fan’s admiration.
I play to impress the opposite sex.
I play to make it to the next level.
I play to impress my friends.
Did any of those strike a chord with you? Have you ever given serious thought to what drives you to do play?
Why I played sports
Growing up, I played sports to impress others. I loved it when I did well and other people told me how great I was. As a runner, I literally chased after the admiration I sought from my parents, friends, and coaches. At the time, I would have identified impressing others as my primary motivation. I was wrong—there is a deeper motivation that drives us all. Only when we identify what that deep-seated motivation is can we truly experience joy through our sport and give God the glory he is due.
Where does Philippians 4:13 fit into all of this?
You may have this verse tattooed somewhere on your body. If you don’t, you probably know someone who does.
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
What a great verse! I cannot even count how many times I prayed this verse as I toed the line for a track race. I have claimed this verse as if to say, “God, I know I can win this race because you will give me strength! It says so right in the Bible!”
Let me introduce you to another passage of Scripture.
“I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Philippians 4:10-12).
If I were to ask you to sum these three verses up in a single word, what would that word be? How would you describe what the apostle Paul is trying to say to his readers?
Hopefully, the word you would use would be contentment.
Paul is saying that he has learned to be content in every situation. Whether he has a lot of success or a little, whether he is full or hungry, whether he is on top of the world or in the lowest of valleys, he has learned the secret of being content.
How is he able to do this? He provides the answer in the next verse: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
What is Paul talking about?
Is Paul talking about making the winning shot, or winning a championship, or setting a new personal best? No. What he is saying, athlete, is that regardless of whether you succeed or fail in your sport—or at anything in life—you can find contentment in Christ. We wrongly claim Philippians 4:13 to help us succeed in sports, but what God is saying in this verse is that we already have everything we could ever need in Christ. More satisfying than gaining people’s approval is getting to a place where you no longer need it. That’s the real promise of this verse.
Our Ultimate Motivation
Are you ready to learn why you really play your sport? I would suggest it is because you are seeking the elusive experience of contentment. That’s at the bottom of all your hard work and striving for success. That’s the dangling carrot in front of the lesser motivations you may have been able to identify.
The lie we believe is that Philippians 4:13 means that I can achieve any outcome in my sport because of Christ. We need to combat that lie with the truth that Philippians 4:13 means that I can have contentment regardless of the outcome because of Christ. There’s a huge difference between the two.
The desire for contentment isn’t a bad thing. It’s a natural human desire. Who doesn’t want to be content? The problem comes when we attempt to find contentment through sports achievements. That’s a dead end pursuit that will always leave us wanting more. If we are going to experience any lasting satisfaction through sports, the goal needs to be God himself, not particular outcomes. A game will never deliver true contentment. This doesn’t mean sports are bad or waste of time. It only means that they were never intended to satisfy our hearts at the deepest level.
We will always end up disappointed when we try to use created things to find ultimate satisfaction. C.S. Lewis summarized this misdirected pursuit when he said,
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Lewis suggests that instead of giving up on the idea of finding contentment, we should understand that too often we’re simply expecting to get it from the wrong things. The beauty of Philippians 4:13 is that it offers us the proper route to reach the destination of contentment. Should athletes claim this verse before a competition? Absolutely. Just do so knowing it promises more than we often give it credit for. Philippians 4:13 is about pursuing a deeper joy that transcends our immediate circumstances. It’s about pursuing and treasuring Christ above everything—including sports.
*This post has been adapted from chapter four of The Assist: A Gospel-Centered Guide To Glorifying God Through Sports