blog | 08.01.18
The Ashes is one of sport’s oldest rivalries. From Victorian beginnings, it has developed into a highlight of the global sporting calendar and has come to epitomise Anglo-Australian national antagonism.
In fact, the BBC’s strapline for the series was ‘The Greatest Rivalry in Sport’. Quite simply, it doesn’t get much bigger than England versus Australia at cricket.
Part and parcel of any sporting rivalry is the tension and, at times, bad blood between opponents. The Ashes is synonymous with this. Harold Larwood, the legendary England fast bowler, endured a barrage of hostility from opposition players, fans and media during the infamous Bodyline series in 1932-3. At the end of it he famously quipped that, “a cricket tour in Australia would be the most delightful period in your life…if you were deaf”.
It's been the same story in multiple Ashes series since. Often an even helping of barbs and jibes from both sides. Incidents and comments, both on and off the field, adding to the intense rivalry between these old enemies.
Whilst most of us will never have the privilege of playing in an Ashes series, we can all face provocative opponents who use foul tactics in a conscious attempt to get under our skin. Whether it is deliberately cheating, making a series of late tackles, or insulting you from behind the stumps, such activity is common place in sport.
However, as a Christian, how should one respond when healthy sporting rivalry shifts to being characterised by conflict and bad blood?
Well, in his letter to the Romans, Paul says the following:
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12 v 17-18, NIV).
These are challenging words. It is often so tempting to give that provocative opponent a taste of their own medicine. But Paul is clear: “do not repay anyone evil for evil”. In other words, don’t retaliate, even when they have wronged us greatly. Paul urges us to live at peace with even the most hostile of opponents. This means not putting in that late hit in rugby or leaving an elbow in on the man you’re marking in football, even if they have been doing the same to you all game.
It goes without saying that this is easier said than done. It is our natural inclination to respond in kind to a cheap shot or a vindictive comment.
Yet, at the start of the chapter, Paul points to what should motivate us to treat opponents in a forgiving and loving way. He says “in view of God’s mercy…” (Romans 12 v 1). Throughout much of the earlier chapters of Romans, Paul has been reminding his readers of how God has shown incredible mercy to us. Though we deserve to face His wrath and judgement for our sin and rejection of Him, Jesus has instead taken on the punishment we deserve. As a result, we have been forgiven.
Paul’s point is a powerful one. If that is how Jesus has responded to our rejection and mistreatment of Him, then surely we must show a glimpse of that love and forgiveness by not repaying evil for evil on the sports field. It would be inconsistent to retaliate against an aggravating opponent, whilst also celebrating how we have been pardoned by Christ.
Yet, even with this incredible truth in mind, in the heat of the moment it can be so difficult to live this out. Giving a particular player a send-off or biting back with a malicious comment of our own is often so appealing, especially when that opponent has been asking for it! Ultimately, we need God’s help if we are to consistently put Paul’s teaching into practice when in the midst of competitive sporting action.
Brilliantly, in His mercy God does provide us help. In verse 2 of chapter 12, Paul talks about being “transformed by the renewing of your mind”. He is speaking of how the Holy Spirit can and will transform our thinking and our hearts to be more like Christ’s. As a result, we will increasingly look to live at peace with challenging opponents and will want to play our sport in a way that honours Him.Not only does God show mercy in sending Jesus when we deserve wrath, He is even so merciful as to help us then live in response to His mercy.
Whether it be in the heat of an Ashes series or in a local league match, the prospect of bitter conflict between opponents is there. Of course, as a Christian we must be competitive and front up to the challenge, but we must not become hostile and confrontational. For all of us, it is a tough balance to strike and one we need God’s help with.
Rob Stileman, Maori Oxshott Cricket Club, Surrey
Rob is a player at Maori Oxshott Cricket Club and a former Intern with Christians in Sport. He is a member of The Vineyard Life Church in Richmond-upon-Thames
Christians in Sport is a UK based charity that aims to reach the world of sport for Christ. We mainly work with sportspeople in competitive and elite sport.
Registered Charity England and Wales 1086570.
Registered Charity Scotland SCO45299.
Company number: 4146081
Photos (c) Shutterstock unless specified