Today was the start of baseball season in Southwest Florida. After opening ceremonies, my two boys played a double header as part of the festivities. It was the first time for my 5-year-old son to go head-to-head with the pitching machine. At his first at-bat, he surprised himself with a line drive past the third baseman, and I was super excited and proud of him. The following three at-bats did not fare too well, as he struck out all three times.
As someone who has always been highly competitive, I always want my boys to do excel in whatever they do, including playing baseball. The downside to that, and the temptation I have struggled to avoid, is responding to them based on their performance. If they perform well, they see the pleasure of their dad. If they make mistakes and struggle, they hear the disappointment of their dad (“C’mon son!”).
As a Christian who believes the gospel should permeate every area of my life, there are more and more blind spots that I’m learning to see more clearly. When it comes to baseball, I realized that my sincere attempts to make them better players was not honoring the gospel. My response to them was based on their performance (good works), and their identity as a baseball player was more dominant in their thinking than being my sons.
Today, I started to make a change and repent of this legalistic approach to coaching my boys. I want my boys to know, more than anything else, that they are my sons, and I love them. And that love is not based on what they do or do not do, but because of who they are. They are mine. So every time they get ready to play the game, I pull them aside and have a talk with them. Before when I stressed a litany of techniques, I am learning to look them eye-to-eye and tell them, “Son, I am so proud of you. No matter what happens, how well you play today does not change how much I love you and delight in being your dad. I just want you to have fun and enjoy the game.” After a kiss on the forehead, I sent them off to do their best, and the smile that began on my face transferred to a shy grin on theirs.
I reflected more this evening on how this relates to the Christian life in general. Paul is not afraid to tell Christians to fight the good fight, to run the race so as to win, and use other similar illustrations of going hard and excelling to your very best. But the performance of the Christian was not the source of Paul’s understanding of the Christian life. Rather, it was the fruit of an identify firmly rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Salvation is not won by your good performance or lost by your bad performance; therefore, God’s approval and acceptance is not determined by what you do or do not do. Rather, salvation is based on Jesus’ righteousness and His good works that speaks on your behalf. Because of Jesus you are unconditionally accepted and loved with an everlasting love. God has given you His Spirit to remind you with every breath that you are a son (or daughter) of God, and He delights in you because of Jesus. And this is precisely what I want my kids to have mirrored before them in how I coach them in playing baseball.
Imagine how difficult growth in the Christian life would be if the foundation of our spirituality was based on our performance? When we think we do well, we feel loved; when we fail, we feel shamed. This kind of spiritual instability is not only debilitating; it is deadly.
But imagine if your Christian growth is grounded in your identity as a son of God, unconditionally loved and accepted because of Jesus? The pressures off to hit the home run everyday. Jesus did that for you. It’s okay to strike out, because God is not basing your relationship with Him on your batting average. You can grow as a Christian and excel in spiritual maturity, not out of fear that God may look down on you in shame and embarrassment, but because God looks on you with sheer delight and unconditional love. What I need every morning I wake is to know that I am a son of God, and my identity is forever secured because of who Jesus is and what Jesus did for me.
I believe my boys will enjoy the game more and play better, not because of increased pressure, fear of failure, or letting their dad down. No. They will play better because they know they are not merely baseball players; they are my sons, and I love them. They can run, play, strike out, and win the game, but the good performances and bad performances are not going to dictate how I treat them. How much differently would they treat the game of baseball if that was drilled into their thoughts and consciences?
The free grace and unconditional love of God is not a license to sin so that they may increase. Rather, they are the fuel and motivation to strive for holiness and godliness with all that is within me. True sanctification springs from the depths of gospel realities. And it is those gospel realities that should give form and function to every aspect of the Christian life, including when we say, “Play ball.”