Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
In 2021, Baltimore Ravens (the NFL team I root for) kicker Justin Tucker lined up to kick a game-winning, record-setting 66-yard field goal against the Detroit Lions. Tucker is considered statistically the most accurate field goal kicker in history and has now made more field goals than any other kicker in NFL history. So the decision to send Tucker on the field at Detroit’s indoor Ford Field Stadium for such a long field goal didn’t seem that outlandish. Many Ravens fans assessed the situation and were hopeful about the team’s chances to win. Many were also optimistic.
Hope and optimism. These two phrases are very similar but have different meanings. It can seem like parsing words, but as part of my devotional this morning on the Bible App, the Bible Project made a critical differentiation between hope and optimism. Using Psalm 39:7 as a guide—”But now, Lord what do I look for? My hope is in you”—the writers of the Bible Project reveal that hope is rooted in a person, whereas optimism is rooted in a circumstance. “Optimism is often impersonal and a stranger to our emotions, so it relies on circumstances as a compass,” the creators of the Bible Project write. They also add, “Biblical hope is different because it is a choice to rely on a person (Jesus), not our circumstances.”
So what sports gets right at times about hope is that we, as fans, teammates, and coaches, can cast our concern for winning or making a big play on a highly talented athlete—a person. But we don’t just place our hope on any athlete. We look back on the athlete’s previous body of work and assess if they are someone worthy of waiting on to deliver us from a loss. Several years before his 66-yard field goal attempt, Justin Tucker made a 61-yard game-winning field goal on that same field on Monday Night Football. Fans didn’t simply look at the circumstance—the 66-yarder—and have optimism that Tucker could make that kick. They looked backward and saw Tucker’s clutch capabilities and were hopeful in his abilities.
In this way, sports teach or help us practice where we can place our ultimate hope in Jesus. Christians reflect on “God’s past faithfulness [to motivate] hope for the future,” as the Bible Project reminds us. Time after time, God delivered the children of Israel from their sins and outside threats (Deuteronomy 26:8; Psalm 130:8). So now, we place our hope in the person and work of Jesus, especially in times like these. Trying to remain optimistic about current worldwide events including war, famine, AI uncertainties, work, and political disarray—let alone our own personal circumstances—is emotionally draining because we expend so much energy trying to see the potential for goodness in each situation. But in Jesus, we can find rest because he offers to be our hope (Matthew 11:28).
When Justin Tucker kicked the 66-yard game-winning field goal against the Detroit Lions, it bounced off the bottom crossbar, through the uprights, and into the net behind. It was a dreadful moment for Lions fans but a joyous one for the Ravens. Nevertheless, Lions fans have not lost hope. As of this writing, the Lions are currently one of the hottest—if not the hottest—teams in the NFL. The Lions harnessed all of their losses and misfortunes and are using them to create a culture of determination, grit, and hope. They’re battle-tested and hope to use their decades-long experience of pain as the catalyst for their hope.
So, while some may deem sports trivial and unimportant, there are plenty of opportunities for us to practice hope in more significant or critical life circumstances by practicing hope in sports. As of this writing, the World Series is right around the corner, football is in the middle of its season(s), and hockey and basketball are just starting. Don’t just remain optimistic about your team’s chances to win or for a player to step up and make a big play. Practice hope. It will help if you have hope now, more than ever, during these tumultuous and uncertain times.