‘Sports Psychology in all but Name’
This is how world-famous triple jumper and high profile ‘Christian’ Jonathan Edwards has described his (now abandoned) belief in God. In a tragic interview in the The Times on 27th June 2007, Edwards speaks openly and candidly of his renunciation of the Christian faith, and of his apparent naivety in following Christ for 37 years of his life. This tragic, and very public, recantation carries with it a certain element of banality as Edwards attributes his ‘loss of faith’ to his retirement from professional athletics, an in-depth analysis of his own sense of identity, and the opening up of new intellectual and personal horizons as he forges a career as a BBC sports presenter. One of the pieces of ‘evidence’ which seems to have provoked Edwards’ thinking is the suggestion made by some scholars during his making of a documentary about St. Paul that the apostle’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus may have been an epileptic fit. Of this startling revelation Edwards states, ‘it made me realise that I had taken things for granted that were taught to me as a child without subjecting them to any kind of analysis. When you think about it rationally, it does seem incredibly improbable that there is a God.’
One would have hoped that a man who had graduated in Physics from Durham University, and whom the Daily Mail describes as possessing a ‘deep, theological comprehension of the Bible’ might have found stronger, more consistent grounds for rejecting the entirety of his belief in God. One suspects that his other reason of having found a bright new world in BBC presenting is much nearer the truth. This appears to be no moral or intellectual rejection of God, but rather the somewhat adolescent turning away of an individual from God once freedom has been discovered in other areas of life – much like a first year student in University leaving behind all that they have been taught and have held dear in favour of a new lifestyle away from the constraints of home.
What lessons can be drawn from this tragic episode? Surely the first is that we ought to pray for Jonathan Edwards. He has borne consistent testimony to Christ (in spite of a vacillating perspective on the concept of the Sabbath) in the public eye for many years. Undoubtedly the barely suppressed glee of David Powell in The Times (who goes so far as describing Edwards as an intellectual martyr) is suggestive of the sense of victory which our enemy must feel in the light of such a public climb down. We should pray that Edwards’ very public recantation might be followed by an even more public act of repentance and restoration which would speak loudly of the reality of God’s truth and grace. We ought, also, to pray for his wife who retains her Christian integrity, and for his children also.
Another lesson, however, lies at the heart of this story – that of how we pick our Christian heroes. Somehow when a sportsman/woman/celebrity professes Christianity, we tend to hold them up as a role model, champion and spokesperson for all things faith-related. Edwards’ story shows us the folly and harm of investing such people with too much theological or spiritual significance. They are at best normal, weak Christians who are as apt to fail as we are, and should not be portrayed as super-saints or prematurely heralded as heroes of the faith. At worst such individuals may simply be false professors, part of ‘the many’ described in Matthew 7 as professing faith, but not possessing it. Our prayer ought to be that Edwards will ultimately be shown to belong to the first camp.
Finally, it demonstrates the fickleness and waywardness of human nature. Edwards himself confesses that without God he could not have succeeded in his athletics career. Now that he has set records, earned money, and gained an international reputation he seems to no longer need God. His Creator has served simply as ‘sports psychology in all but name’. Does this not smack of biting the hand which has fed him? And yet many of us as believers are the same in principle. We hold tight to God at times of need, of difficulty, or transition in our lives; we ask big things and see God graciously provide – only to forget Him when things go well. This is a problem which is as old as mankind – one need only look at the repeated injunctions in Deuteronomy that the people not forget their God when they are settled in the land – and one which afflicts us all at some level. Edwards has reaped rich reward from his faith, and now feels at liberty to put God out of mind when his goals have been achieved. His experience is indeed salutatory for all who follow Christ. We ought to love the Giver rather than the gift, to live for the blessing of His presence rather than the presence of His blessings, and to continually search our own hearts and motives regarding our relationship with Him.
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