Despite my tall and lanky frame, I’m not a basketball star. In fact, I never liked sports much at all. It might have something to do with poor coordination as a kid, being more artistically inclined, or perhaps I just missed the sports gene.
In any case, it’s difficult being an American male who doesn’t know one team from the next.
I used to fake it—you know, pretend I really knew the sport when I didn’t. Sometimes that worked out and I could get by until the subject changed. But other times, it led to some awkward moments when my ignorance became apparent.
But there was never any doubt about my ignorance when I attempted to play.
For me, the only thing worse than talking about sports was actually playing them. Why in the world would anyone choose to do something extremely poorly in public? It’s like a soloist singing off-key – painful for everyone. Besides, I hate feeling incompetent.
Why do you suppose I faked it?
What does believing the gospel look like in the midst of something you’re not good at?
Furthermore, can God use my inability for His glory?
I used to think that God would only work through an area of my strength. However, the older I get the more I realize that usually, this is not the case.
Here’s one example:
My neighbor Winston (not his real name) is quite a character. He’s the most idealistically kindhearted person I know. Politically, he’s an extremely left-wing liberal.
He’s tolerant, fun-loving, and not a little proud of how irreligious and irreverent he is. He loves to party and have a good time. He works hard as a psychiatric social worker, sticking up for the rights of those who need an advocate in the system.
Since we’re both fixing up our old cars, we became friends by comparing ideas and helping each other out.
But one of the things that drew me the most to Winston was his idealism and his love of people. One of the things that drew him to me was my honesty about some of my struggles.
In one of our first conversations, I told him how impatient I had been with my kids that day, seemingly out of nowhere. He easily identified with me and admitted his own weakness in that area.
Another time, I told Winston that I had just had a fight with my wife and that I was struggling with resentment toward her. He was surprised, saying he always figured we were a couple who just didn’t fight. He went on to tell me about a fight he had had with his own wife that very day.
I had told him about how conflict with my wife brings out my deep desire to be right. And when we both want to be right, we can never resolve anything because we only care about our own reputations — we’re getting our sense of rightness at the expense of our spouse. Winston was curious, so I told him a little more about how knowing that I’m right with God allows me the freedom to admit when I’m wrong and hurtful toward my wife.
Then one day, Winston called me to go and play basketball with him and some of the other guys from the neighborhood.
I knew this was a great opportunity to hang out with him as a friend. But internally I groaned — basketball, of all things!
I said I would go, but I was honest and told Winston that I was a lousy player. He assured me that he was lousy, too, and that none of the guys took it seriously.
I also knew that playing basketball was an opportunity to put into practice all the theology that I so dearly held to intellectually.
One of the main things I’ve been learning in my spiritual journey is recognizing where my worth and value ultimately come from. I tend to derive my sense of value from the esteem of other people – which can create a lot of anxiety because gaining the esteem of others is hard work.
But the gospel has been teaching me that worth, acceptance, and righteousness come from the Lord alone.
And being able to let my weaknesses show has allowed me to be honest with people about who I am and given me more freedom to admit how deeply I need the Lord.
If Jesus has justified me and declared me fully acceptable to Himself, then can I worry about looking like a fool on the basketball court?
Before I heard the beep of Winston’s horn, I asked my nine-year-old son to remind me which direction to run when I had the ball. That proved to be very helpful information! Turns out, I was actually excited about playing. I ran up and down the court with almost as much enthusiasm as my uninhibited son. I had a lot of fun and even held my own in defense.
I missed every shot I took, dribbled when I should have held the ball, and shot when I should have dribbled. But the guys were patient with me.
I was having fun living by faith!
But then, the time came to choose sides for the next game and my heart sank. The team captains picked players, and it felt just like junior high: would I be the last one picked? When my name was called last I had a “shame attack.”
But even that was an opportunity to remind myself that the Lord loved me and was pleased with me. It didn’t immobilize me as it might have done in the past.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d still like to be a great player and be picked first. However, I wasn’t taking myself too seriously, which showed that the Lord was at work. I didn’t experience total freedom, but I did have a greater sense that, even in my awkwardness, Jesus was my friend and he was proud of me.
Afterward, Winston and I ended up talking at his house.
The first thing he said to me was, “You really do suck at basketball, don’t you?”
“You said you sucked too,” I protested, “but you can actually play.”
“No, I can’t,” he replied, “It’s just that you’re so bad that—next to you—I look like Magic Johnson!”
As a child of God, the most important thing about repenting and living by faith is that dependence on God gives Him glory and provides us an opportunity to experience closeness with Him.
But also admitting our weakness before God and being willing to fail in front of other people is an invitation to experience closeness with them.
As Winston and I sat on his porch bantering back and forth I asked him, “Winston, what has motivated your social conscience?” That question led him to open up about his childhood. He told me his story and trusted me with a lot of risky information about himself. After about an hour he asked me a similar question, knowing that I too am concerned about improving people’s lives.
What resulted was an opportunity to share my story and the quest for righteousness that Jesus has fulfilled. I told him of my search for meaning and of my need for forgiveness. I told him about some of my “junk” as well.
He was frank about not desiring God or thinking that God is necessary to live a good life. So I asked him if he ever felt the need to be forgiven. He thought about that for a long time and finally answered, “Yes.” He admitted to struggling with guilt.
A year later, Winston is still not a believer, to my knowledge. But we continue to have a good friendship. In fact, our friendship has grown and we respect each other a lot. I don’t feel any pressure to convert him. But I do love him and pray earnestly for his salvation.
Usually, when we talk about the Lord it’s when I have been honest about a struggle I’m having, or an area where I am weak in some way. My reputation doesn’t matter as much to me as it used to.
At one time, I would strive to give an answer to people like Winston, so that I would be “right.” But now, I’m more inclined to ask the Holy Spirit to give me a question, so that I can know people better and meet them where they are, instead of where I would like them to be.
This post is adapted from Sonship, a personal renewal course that helps men and women apply the gospel to the nitty-gritty reality of daily life.