My son loves playing basketball. Brendan plays on his 8th grade team, and they are in the championship game tonight. During the season, his playing time varied between a little and none, but his passion to play never varied. He is the first person standing to high five the players coming off the court. He cheers great plays by his teammates and encourages them through their mistakes. Being on the team is a big deal to him.
When he does get in the game, he is pumped up. Always running, always moving. I see the pressure on his face as he strives to do the right thing and make the right play. His jaw set, eyes focused on the player he’s defending. Arm up in the air, calling for the ball when he is open (and when he is covered). When he makes a mistake, his head drops, he slaps his hands together, and his shoulders droop as he jogs off the court.
I want him to stay positive and keep his head up as he sits on the bench. When he gets in the game, I love to see him play, passing to the open man, shutting down his opponent, sinking the open shot. Too often, the pressure to perform overwhelms him and he tries too hard. He forces his shots. The harder he tries to play better, the worse his performance actually is.
As his father, I care about his heart more than the results.
I am well aware of the suffocating pressure Brendan experiences on the basketball court. I had a family night planned for us to have a nice dinner and attend a performance of the Messiah. I wanted to create warm family memories. I created memories, all right, just not sure of how many good ones.
On the way home, I took a road I never take, and we started out 15 minutes behind. The restaurant I chose was packed and service was slow. I looked at the clock, realizing we were supposed to leave in just a few minutes and our food hadn’t even arrived. My cheeks and ears were on fire as the pressure mounted. I was blowing it! I clenched my hands in fists as I asked for the check when they brought our food. We finished eating and I charged outside. We couldn’t be late! I ground my teeth together as everyone seemed to be moving in slow motion getting in the car. After driving through traffic, we arrived at the theater and found parking. Taking our seats only produced more frustration as I saw everything wrong with them—limited view, in someone’s way, who will sit next to whom.
The harder I tried to make it right, the worse everything seemed to be.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Brendan and I struggle with many of the same things. As I thought about his last game of the season, the last game in middle school, I prayed something frivolous. I poured out my heart to my Father, asking Him to allow Brendan to play in the game tonight, and to have a key role in the game. With all that’s going on in the world, I ask God for more playing time for my son? Yes I did, and I believe God wants the same thing for all of His children.
I did not ask this prayer because I wanted to glory in my son’s performance, or hear from other parents about what a play he made. I want him to experience the joy of playing, and having an impact on the game. His face will light up when the coach points him to the scorer’s table, his heart pounding with nervousness and excitement. I will stand and cheer every steal, shot or pass made, encouraging him and lifting him up with any mistake he makes. I don’t care about the score. My heart will fill with joy watching him play the game he loves for the team he loves. Why wouldn’t God want the same thing for us?
The Bible is filled with sports analogies. Wrestling, boxing, running, physical training. Hebrews 12 says we have a cloud of witnesses watching us run the race put before us. We have fans in the stands, cheering for us, wanting us to engage and get in the game. Play a key role in someone’s life. Reach out to a friend in need. Have an impact we might not even know about.
How do we do this?
We have to set aside the weight.
The weight of unrealistic expectations. The weight of performance and outcomes. The weight of perfection and standards. Those things choke us and slow us down. We become overwhelmed and unable to move, like Mr. Incredible.
Mr. Incredible was a superhero with amazing strength. He infiltrated the villain’s lair, but set off some defense mechanisms. The security system did not shoot him with bullets, but something much more effective. He was hit with a black ball that stuck to him, and expanded. One was no problem—he was Mr. Incredible. But he got hit with hundreds, and soon was unable to move. He couldn’t shed the weight and failed in his mission.
How do we get rid of this weight? Again in Hebrews, we look to Jesus, the finisher. The closer. How did He do it? He did it for the joy and we have to find it.
But pressure suffocates joy.
The harder we try, the more we fail. Like those sticky balls, the weights try to add up, pull us down, and keep us from moving. We’ve got to lay down the weight to find our joy. Brendan plays better when he’s playing basketball with joy, not overthinking every step, shot or pass. I am more pleasant to be around when I am not focused on getting everything just perfect, but when I am responding to those around me with joy.
One last story. I told a friend of mine about playing golf. I struggled in the early going, and prayed for peace and joy as I played. The weight of expectation lifted, and I found I played better on the closing holes. My buddy, with eyebrows raised in doubt, asked, “Do you think God really cares about your golf game?” The light of understanding filled his eyes when I responded, “Do you care about watching your sons play football?”
Our Father watches us perform. Golf, basketball, as a husband and father. He doesn’t really care about the score of the game. He cares about the joy in our hearts. I pray that, during this holiday season of joy and peace, you are able to put down the weights of expectation and performance, and find the joy God has set before us.