June 25, 2014

How to watch the world cup: soccer and sanctification

by Jesse Johnson

If you are new to watching televised soccer, you might not know what exactly it is you are supposed to be looking for. You understand that the goal is goals… but certainly there is more nuance than that, right? If the average game is 2-1, then you are spending a lot of time watching something other than scoring. What exactly is it, and how do you enjoy it?

Here is the simplest explanation I can come up with, and if you understand this, then not only will you enjoy soccer, but you will be a better Christian as well—and yes, I meant to type that.  

At the World Cup level, soccer is essentially a balance between patient defense and strategic offense.

Patient Defense

When a team wins possession of the ball, they want to keep it, and be patient. They want to slowly build up their numbers, and make sure they don’t provide the other team with the ball. In other words, they defend by keeping the ball. When they lose the ball, the get their numbers back, and want everyone behind the ball, so that the other team doesn’t have an opportunity to penetrate and score. Its ok if the other team has the ball, so long as they can’t get through you to your goal. That approach is patient defense.

Strategic Offense

On the other hand, when they are possessing the ball they are looking for the right opportunity to penetrate the opposing defense. They don’t just blast the ball forward and see what happens. Instead they look around, try different sides, cautiously send a few players forward, maybe knock the ball back and reset. All the while they are looking for the right opportunity to forcefully and cleverly attack. Maybe the other team was too hasty in their own attack, and is now out numbered—in that case, you might quickly counter. Maybe it is a long build up followed by a cross when they find a guy unmarked. The point is that they want to be strategic about when and how they attack. They need to be precise and aggressive, taking appropriate risks. If the opening is there, they take it aggressively. If it is not, they don’t force it, but instead look for another way. In short, the offense has a bit more subtlety than a typical NFL play.

Why this matters

This balance between patient defense and strategic offense is not true at the youth or college level. Don’t apply this understanding of soccer to your nephew’s game next time you watch him play, because this degree of tactical awareness requires consummate skill that only the best players posses.

But while you won’t see this combination of patient defense and strategic offense in youth soccer, you should see it in the Christian life. Paul alludes to this balance in 2 Corinthians 6—although (admittedly) he does not use soccer as an example. Instead he uses the images of warfare, and as he describes the battle of the Christian life it is obvious that he has structured his war around these concepts of patient defense and strategic offense.

Defense: Holiness

Paul makes it clear that he is in a war. He is taking on principalities, lofty thoughts, speculations, and the whole world view of non-believers (2 Cor 10:6). He is armed with weapons (6:7), and he is not afraid to use them. But first, before he goes on the offense, he needs to make sure that his life is in order. Above all, he fears allowing disqualifying sin into his life, because then God’s enemies would stumble over the gospel (1 Cor 9:27; 2 Cor 6:3).

The Christian has enemies. We are God’s ambassadors, and those who reject him do so by rejecting us, lying about us, persecuting us, and spreading false reports (2 Cor 5:20, 6:4, 5, 8). How does Paul respond when he is under attack? He weathers it. He sits back, and allows his integrity to be his defense (1 Cor 4:12, 2 Cor 6:4). He defends himself by commending himself (vs. 4), and he does that by being “holy, pure, patient, kind” and loving. He endures all with patience, looking for the right time to go on the offensive.

Offense: evangelism

But when the opening arises, Paul is not afraid to return fire. His “weapons” are his “knowledge of the Word of truth” and “the power of God” seen in the gospel (2 Cor 6:8). He will endure many afflictions, all the while ready to strike back with the gospel, eager to beg others to be reconciled to God (5:20), and urging them to receive God’s grace (6:1-2). He does this “at the acceptable time” (v. 2). He doesn’t blast everything forward, so to speak. But instead he guards his life, protects his reputation, and cultivates his integrity, all with the goal toward pouncing on the right opportunities for evangelism.

When Paul does go on the offense, he goes strong. He begs, appeals, urges and commands (5:20, 6:1, 2, 13). He reasons, exhorts, and convicts. He uses his weapons with the goal of tearing down strongholds and winning people for Jesus Christ.

The sad case of the 0-0 draw

While there are certainly some examples of soccer games that were terribly exciting that still end 0-0, the sad truth is that most of those games are scoreless draws because both teams decided to sit back and defend, and neither took appropriate risk in the attack. Everyone was happy not to score, as long as they didn’t get scored upon.

I know too many Christians who live like they are playing for a 0-0 tie. They don’t want to risk rejection, so they never go on the attack. They mind their net, worrying about their own holiness, forgetting that the point of guarding their life is so that they can—at strategic times—go on the attack. In soccer, 90% of attacks fail, and the odds are similar in evangelism. Discouraged, some Christians settle in for the tie. Nobody will reject them, because they won’t evangelize. They don’t score, but they also don’t miss any shots.

Tomorrow when the US plays Germany, I hope you watch and notice the patient defense matched with strategic offense. Some commentators are already predicting the teams will settle in and play for the draw which would mutually benefit both sides. I doubt it. They have too much class for that. Then ask yourself: are you playing for a tie?

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.