• Devin O'Donnell

The Game We're Really Trying to Win

We go to a school where we study the classical world. And if there is one faint vestige left over from the classical world that we still see education today (even in public schools), it is the realm of sports and games.

In the world of antiquity, games were a means to achieve glory (kleos) without actually going to war and losing fathers and sons. The Olympic games, for instance, were ways to not have those small, restless Greek city-states kill each other in battles. It also kept the men physically fit. We see this in Homer and Virgil as well (and in other cultures); the arena of competition in games was the place where the victor could achieve glory. Cue now the “We Are the Champions” anthem.

It’s true that just as the hero could achieve glory on the field of battle, so too the athlete could win the great glory. How is this possible? Because there is some standard of what we used to call “excellence.” The Greeks understood this. Anthony Esolen writes,

How can you celebrate a lad’s victory at the games, if you do not contemplate the beauty and vigor of the immortal gods, from whom such blessings flow? So Pindar, praising the strength of a boy named Aristomenes, who defeated his fellows at wrestling in the Pythian games—games in honor of the god of music and medicine, of poetry and archery, Apollo—rises to praise the gods: Man’s life is a day. What is he? What is he not? A shadow in a dream Is man: but when God sheds a brightness, Shining life is on earth And life is sweet as honey.

Pindar wrote his Pythian Odes, not because he was celebrating the corporate sponsorship, athletic scholarship, or the prize money that the victor might receive. He wrote them in praise of how man was made.

Thus, the athlete and the warrior both achieve glory through their excellence (areté, aristeia) in competition. This is what it means to be human. It’s also why Paul readily employs both metaphors, the soldier and the athlete, to explain what life in Christ looks like. Unlike the ancient Greeks, however, a Christian is not simply out for his own glory. This would be vain and prideful. Rather, the Christian is not to do things “through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself” (Phil. 2: 2-3). The Christian is to “look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (v. 4).

So how does this work?

On the one hand, we’re supposed to compete in games and be excellent. We want to win glory for ourselves and for those we represent. We want to be fierce and play hard. But on the other hand, we’re supposed to be humble and not ambitious. We’re supposed to think of others. This seems like a contradiction. Does this mean Christians should be okay with losing? How is this supposed to make sense?

Let’s answer this in terms of story.

The one ingredient that makes every story great is conflict. If you ask how my picnic went, and I reply, “It was perfect. The sun was shining with a refreshing breeze. After a salty charcuterie, we picked and ate wild strawberries, sipping a rosé that was refreshing with a light acidic tang to balance out the watermelon notes and the jammy sweet of a hibiscus reduction. Then simply talked, lounged on a bed of fresh spring grass. It was just…perfect.” This may be a great experience, but it is a good story.

If, however, I reply, “We forgot the drinks, and while we were eating, it started to rain. After taking cover, came back to our food to find the ants had made a meal of it. Then I got a tick on my neck. And while we tried to pull that out the wolves came, chased us into the river where we washed up in the part of the forest they say is haunted by an ancient norse demon…”, then I probably have your attention.

So conflict is interesting. Conflict can sometimes make us better, because it can afford us the opportunity for greatness and excellence. That we’re all here tonight means that we actually like obstacles and difficulties, for it is the struggle that can make athletics great and “glorious.”

But we can learn something from looking at how we read stories. In great stories and imaginative literature, there four basic types of conflict:

  • Man vs. Nature

  • Man vs. Beast

  • Man vs. Man

  • Man vs. Self

There are many reality TV shows based on the conflict between man and nature. Moby Dick is a cosmic version of that same conflict. Beowulf’s battle with Grendel is an example of man’s contest against a monster-beast. Hector’s battle against Achilles is an example of man’s struggle against another man. I could go on, but one type of conflict is present in all the others and always exists in any form of struggle. That is the conflict of man versus his own self. Survivor shows are interesting to us because the struggle is happening on two levels: the external struggle against nature’s unsympathetic force and the internal struggle with a man’s own frailty in body and soul.

Of these types of conflict, two seem to be most represented in our experience of athletics here at The Oaks: man vs. man and man vs. self. Being in the northwest, I am learning how in some cases we must also add “nature” to the list of things with which we must contend. The bumpy field at CCS in Hayden was challenge enough, but when it started to rain pins of ice with gusts of wind that blew the canopy away, I began to wonder if the weather were not a more formidable opponent than the team with whom we were competing.

Generally, however, the contest is man against man, team against team. To win means we must be faster, stronger, and more hardworking. We need to be more fit. We need to play smarter. This is where conditioning matters. Suicides matter. Paul himself tells us,

But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:27)

Paul is talking about his desire for holiness here, but notice that he uses the analogy of a competitor. This brings us to another virtue of athletics: self-mastery. In addition, to being an effective competitor “self-mastery” (enkrateia, Greek ἐγκράτεια), was one way to show that someone was free. “He is not free,” wrote Epictetus, “who is not master of himself.” The Greeks believed that for a great warrior or athlete to achieve excellence and gain glory, he must be completely “in power” and in control of his limbs and movements, graceful under pressure. Any MMA fighter knows that if he loses control, he loses the fight. So self-control matters. We see this word “enkrateia” in the New Testament as well:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

And again:

But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, 6 to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, 7 to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. (1 Peter 1:6)

From a classical perspective, one might say that this is the point of sports competitions at all, to produce and perfect the athlete unto “self-mastery.” So to answer our original question, we compete not simply to win the game or win the fame. We compete to gain mastery over ourselves.

Does this mean we need to run more lines? Does this mean we need to start lifting and get "shredded"?

For starters, it means that we must remember that self-mastery includes the whole person, body and soul. We are not materialists at The Oaks. The body matters, and sometimes even when the spirit is willing, the body is still weak. But we don’t believe that winning is everything. Winning the game is not merely defined by the score at the end of it. One gain the whole world yet lose one’s soul. To be in God’s image means that we are body and soul, and we must remember that the soul needs as much conditioning as the soul.

So what does this look like at The Oaks?

This is where Colin has been a great blessing this year in bringing an emphasis on hospitality, loving, and serving others—the other team, the other coaches, the other refs. Is this a weakness? Not at all. Again, the internal conflict is always present. The struggle may come most when you score and you have the opportunity to gloat. The challenge may come when the ref makes a bad call. The struggle may come when you have a chance to retaliate against your opponent. The struggle may come when you have opportunity to win by playing dirty. It is here that “self-mastery” can be really measured.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ gives us the Beatitudes, which do not lower the expectation of virtuous living but raise it. If we are to be a blessing to others, we must first live in a “blessed” way. This means the conflict on the field or on the court is one of not simply between you and your opponent but also you and yourself, subduing and ruling your flesh. This is hopefully building toward a clearer picture of what Christ means when he says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.”

The word meek does translate well into English but actually means “temperate, displaying the right blend of force and reserve (gentleness).” It is the mark of a civilized and virtuous man to be able to bring two extremes of our nature, gentleness and ferocity, into harmony of “meekness.” Such self-mastery is promised an inheritance more concrete and lasting than fame.

To illustrate this, consider one last example: a film called Ip Man. The film tells the story of Bruce Lee's martial arts teacher. Early on in the movie, a bully with a school of kung-fu students comes to town. Hearing of Ip Man's reputation for skill in kung-fu, this bully comes to fight him. They fight, and Ip Man handily beats the bully, who in his humiliation only admits to defeat half-way. The bully says, "My Northern style has lost to your southern style." Ip Man simply (and magnanimously) replies, "It's not about style. It's about you."

With this one line, the real contest is revealed, the struggle that runs deeper than the more superficial attempt to win the game by the most points or the fastest time. Again, winning is not bad. Ip Man knew that well. But one can win (as the bully had done all throughout town, until he met Ip Man) and be a fool and a punk. One can also lose and be the same fool and the same punk. Thus, the goal is twofold: the physical excellence (areté) and glory (kleos) in the body, as well as the moral excellence and glory in the soul. Both matter.

The seeming contradiction between competing for glory and humbly regarding the benefit of others is resolved in the virtue of self-mastery of body and soul. To be glorious to have the fruit of the spirit: gentleness, self-control, self-mastery. That is our excellence in competition, that is our glory, and that is the game we are really trying to win.


The first football international, Scotland versus England.

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