David Brooks has chimed in on the phenomenon of Linsanity. According to Brooks Jeremy Lin and other “faith-driven athletes” will never be able to reconcile their faith with their drive to compete because sports and faith belong to two irreconcilable universes.
Brooks suggests that the impulse to build and compete stands at odds with the impulse to worship. Quoting Jewish theologian, Joseph Soloveitchik, Brooks exegetes Genesis 2 from the Bible, where God creates Adam from the dust then breathes into him to give him life. Soloveitchik interprets this narrative as the story of two Adams. “Adam the First” is made of dust and is driven to build and compete. “Adam the Second” is made of spirit and he is driven to admire and worship God in humility. Brooks calls this a “creative contradiction.”
If worship and success truly stand in “creative contradiction” there are significant implications for those of us who do not play professional basketball. This means that we cannot attempt success in any vocation without compromising our ability to worship God. According to his logic, believers in business cannot compete for profit, believers in education cannot compete for grants, and believers in journalism cannot compete for better assignments. That is, they cannot do these things without compromising their worship of God.
Now I love David Brooks, but I have to disagree with him here.
Dust and Spirit
Brooks and Soloveitchik are wrong in their interpretation of Genesis 2. When God created Adam’s body (dust) and soul (breath) He said that it was all very good (Genesis 1:31). God immediately gave Adam work to do,
“The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15)
God gave Adam the grand project of improving paradise. This was not some humble meaningless goal, but one that carried ultimate significance. Still, this job did not take anything away from Adam’s ability to gaze upon the glory of his Creator and worship God. Adam worshiped God in his work. Adam’s drive to succeed was part of the fabric of paradise. His work did much more than just enhance his ability to worship God. Adam’s work was worship.
This is was the kind of worship Jeremy Lin was trying to articulate when he said,
I’m not working hard and practicing day in and day out so that I can please other people. My audience is God. … The right way to play is not for others and not for myself, but for God. I still don’t fully understand what that means; I struggle with these things every game, every day. I’m still learning to be selfless and submit myself to God and give up my game to Him. (quoted by Brooks from Patheos)
The Struggle of Faith
Adam’s faith was derailed by his heart not his job. Once he listened to the serpent and ate the forbidden fruit he stopped worshiping his Creator and began worshiping creation. When Adam stopped worshiping God in his heart he also stopped worshiping God in his work. From that moment on Adam and all his children would struggle with finding their significance in their work and accomplishments instead of finding their significance in God.
Brooks is right when he says that the drive to win in athletics is at odds with the religious drive to selflessly worship God. But this is not because there is something wrong with sports (or any other vocation, with the exception of inherently immoral vocations like burglary). It is because there is something wrong with our hearts.
The Freedom of Faith
My good friend, Jeff Suhr, recently posted some profound thoughts about how the Gospel penetrates Jeremy Lin’s story. You can read it in entirety here.
Jeff writes that Jeremy’s struggle was not with basketball but “basketball righteousness.”
He wanted to create his own righteousness through his performance on the court. He wanted to prove to himself and to the world that he belonged as a professional player. Basketball became the prism through which he evaluated, identified, and esteemed himself. As a result if he failed on the court, then he saw himself a failure. If he disappointed on the court, then he saw himself a disappointment. No wonder he was on “pins and needles” whenever he played. The pressure of basketball righteousness suffocated him.
Whether our vocation is business, teaching, medicine, street sweeping, raising kids, or pastoring, we have all experienced Jeremy’s struggle. The answer to struggling with “basketball righteousness” is not to give up basketball anymore than it is to quit business, or teaching, or raising our kids. The answer is to live for a righteousness that sets us free instead of enslaving us – the righteousness of Christ. Jeff puts it beautifully,
One of the great blessings of the Gospel is that we no longer have to work towards our own righteousness because Christ’s perfect and complete righteousness becomes ours by faith. His righteousness now speaks for us. His righteousness becomes our résumé. When God looks at us, He sees us in Christ. That is certainly good news!
The most inspiring part the unfolding story of Jeremy Lin is not about basketball at all; it is the story of the Gospel. Jesus gives us the drive to succeed without worshiping our success. The Gospel frees us to believe that winning really isn’t everything; which puts us in the best possible position to be selfless in our drive to succeed.