What Constitutes True Greatness?

Sports involve competition and winning. This is the focus of the conversation of sports talk shows, around sports bars, etc. Greatness is determined by winning games and champion-ships. In every field of sports special awards are given to those athletes who excel in their field of endeavor. “Hall of Fames” have been established for those few who have been set apart for special recognition for lifetime achievements – the very highest honor that can be bestowed on any person in baseball, football, basketball, track, etc. Only a very few people attain to such heights.

I do not mean to downgrade or make light of such honors, but we need to recognize the limitation of such things. These men are not “gods” nor should they to become objects of worship. These honors are based upon athletic skills. Just because a man is superior in hitting or throwing a baseball does not mean that person is great in every measure of true greatness. Having spent a lifetime in the study of the Bible and having spent many years of my life in the field of sports, my definition of greatness has been mostly influence by “the Book.” I realize that sports have some usefulness in the development of character. I emphasize such things in talking to young people of all ages in various social settings – private and public schools, athletic groups, colleges, etc. But when sports become over emphasized or idolized, it works against the building of character. We have seen the sordid affects of this in our own society. It is good for athletes to strive to be the very best they can be, but when this worthwhile drive turns into arrogance, it becomes counter productive to the building of character. I am personally aware of so many examples of this that it has become a truism.

We do not need to deceive ourselves as to what recognition in sports really means.  It means only that a person is very good at doing something that is highly esteemed in our society, but it does not mean that the person is either moral or spiritual. As to this latter description, which in my mind involves true greatness, a great athlete may or may not exhibit the qualities of true greatness.

Due to my background in sports, I do enjoy a well played game and even feel emotional attachment in winning or losing when it involves my favorite teams, but I do not make this a measure of true sorrow or joy. At most, it is a hobby or has some recreational value, but never will it become an obsession. One reason is because of my personal knowledge of what goes on “inside the game” and the human flaws of those who play the game. I am speaking especially in reference to baseball. I can enjoy the game even more today since I am far removed from the actual competition as a player, etc. I can just be a normal fan if that is possible.

My definition of greatness has little to do with sports. Jesus Christ, my example and true hero, defined true greatness in various ways, but never in terms of worldly standards. He taught that humility is a quality of greatness. Here are two examples of His teaching on this point. At one point, Jesus and his disciples were having a discussion on the subject of greatness in the kingdom of God. “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, ‘Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ 2 And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, 3 and said, ‘Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’.” (Matt. 18:1-4). On another occasion, the question of greatness arose among the disciples, and some foolishly defined greatness in terms of rank and power over others. “and there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. 25 And He said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called 'Benefactors.' 26 "But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. 27 "For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:24-27).

Arrogance does not become fallible man. Arrogance is the principle reason for the downfall of both men and nations. Any athlete who believes or announces that “he is the greatest” does himself no favors and only proves his blindness to reality. Arrogance leads to a lot of ugly traits such as rudeness, ingratitude, bitterness, etc. Great athletes may bask in the praise of men, but if they fall prey to believing all of the accolades, they are not wise. If they lose the common touch, or feel that the world owes them respect, even though they have not earned this respect, they have become inebriated by their own self-deception. They need to learn to what it means “lose their life so that they can gain it.” Some believe that success in sports is not compatible with humility, but I agree with the writer of Proverbs: “18 Pride goes before destruction, And a haughty spirit before stumbling. 19 It is better to be humble in spirit with the lowly than to divide the spoil with the proud.” (Pro. 16:18-19). Or “Before destruction the heart of man is haughty, but humility goes before honor.” (Pro. 18:12).

Today, money has become a source of pride. A long time ago, Jesus Christ warned people about greed: “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions" (Luke 12:15). It is not wrong to have riches when they have been honestly or legitimately earned, but the apostle Paul, who himself had few material goods, wrote this to the rich: “But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. . . . . Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.” (I Tim. 6:9-10, 17-19). By any standard, the modern successful athlete is rich and this can become a source of ungodly pride.

Some athletes I have known were only interested in “having fun” which they foolishly believed consisted in “partying, getting drunk, womanizing and engaging in all sorts of lusts of the flesh.” And they considered it strange that I did not participate in their lascivious ways or manner of life (see 1 Peter 4:4). They see athletics has a means of grabbing hold of the real life (“wine, women and song”) as the beer commercials clearly show. But little did they know that they were “dead while they were living” (see 1 Tim. 5:6) and such conduct has nothing to do with real life which brings true happiness. My concern is also the effect or influence professional athletes have upon the youth of our nation. It is important & natural for young people to look up to others as examples and role models. Often times only the bad examples catch the eye of the national press and the real stories of true greatness are overlooked or ignored.

Some are surprised today the learn about some of the excesses in sports and the embarrassing revelations of some of our “celebrities”. I am not at all surprised about any of this. Is it not because so many have a wrong sense of what comprises true greatness? The sooner we can get over our obsession with sports and sports celebrities and start to emphasize those qualities of true greatness, the world will be better off. But, of course, I have always been a little odd or extreme about this.

One final thought. Any person can be truly great in the sight of God and this does not depend upon special skills or abilities. This is a comforting thought indeed for most of us who mere mortals and will never fit into those special categories. The Bible teaches us about true greatness. It is found in seeking the praise of God and not the praise and honor that comes from men.
---Lindy McDaniel

Photo at beginning of article is a distant view of Mount Baker in Washington State taken on our trip in October, 2010.

If you would like to have monthly articles of Pitching For The Master E-mailed to you in advance, let me know by contacting me at: lindymcdaniel77@reagan.com. Your comments are always welcome.

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