The Bible is full of mind-bending, seemingly nonsensical phrases that, on the surface, contradict themselves. For example, in Matthew 16:25 Jesus says, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” In 2 Corinthians 12:9 the Apostle Paul writes, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” And in Philippians 3:7, Paul also writes, “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.”
Anyone unfamiliar with the transforming power of Jesus looks upon these phrases as foolishness, impractical jargon, or just wildly contradictory statements. But for those who have encountered the living God through the person of Christ, these phrases are paradoxes at the heart of what it means fundamentally to live a good life. They are not merely inspirational quips to place on a bumper sticker or a cell phone lock screen. These paradoxes reflect truth about the One who saves our very souls and empowers our very lives.
The Paradox Principle and Education
The Paradox Principle is at play in all of reality, including education. The former president of the University of Dallas, Donald Cowan, in his important book on education, Unbinding Prometheus: Education for the Coming Age, writes: “Admittedly it seems somewhat paradoxical to expect a useless education (seeking knowledge for its own sake) to produce a wise person beneficial to society; but it is the sort of paradox that would lose a life to save it. Perhaps more fittingly it is the act of seeking earnestly after knowledge in confidence that all the needed practicalities will be added unto it.” Dr. Cowan rightly understands that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake in the context of education produces all the practicalities needed to excel in this world. Students gain wisdom alongside skills when knowledge is pursued over and above all other competing interests. High AP scores, acceptance into quality schools, jobs that earn a respectable wage will follow when the proper end is sought and achieved.
While the Paradox Principle in the kingdom of God and in education are commonly threatened, and we could address each threat with corresponding solutions, I want to focus on a component of our educational system that is often co-opted by the pursuit of victories at the cost of Christ and the holistic development of our students: athletics. At the heart of forming athletes in the image of God is this paradox: the more you genuinely lean into the call to form the hearts, souls, minds, and bodies of your athletes to love God and others, the more your athletes reach their full potential (individually and collectively), and subsequently, the more your team wins.
Cultivating Athletic Programs
As administrators and coaches, how can we cultivate the Paradox Principle in our athletic programs and in the culture of our schools? How can we prioritize the development of the entire person to love God and others instead of falling victim to the allure of the world?
Who you hire matters.
The power of the gospel is in its simplicity. Anyone—the poor and the rich, the educated and the uneducated, the powerful and the weak—can understand and be transformed by Christ. On the flip side, our quickness to distill the gospel into simple, axiomatic statements for others to assent to can leave lives unchanged. The mind can take in the doctrine, but it doesn’t seep into the hearts and hands and feet of those who hear it.
James K.A. Smith, in Desiring the Kingdom, says: “Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it’s a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly—who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love.”
When we interview coaches and athletic directors, we need to discern not only their orthodoxy but also their orthopraxy. They may say the right things in an interview because it is easy to repeat those simple gospel statements, and their resumes may be impressive, but what do their players say about them? How do his or her previous administrators characterize them? Do they love rightly?
I had the opportunity to observe a head wrestling coach for many years whose athletes and teams were highly successful. While district and state championships were a marker of his program, he embodied a paradoxical coach more than almost anyone I have ever seen. He built a culture where the unathletic and the marginalized students at the school were welcomed and encouraged to join his program. From seventh-grade through high school, he grew a community amongst the misfits, and he molded and shaped them to tap into their fullest potential with a love that emanated from the work of Christ in his life. His primary goal was never to win championships. His primary goal was to be used by God to form the lives of his athletes to love God and others. As Dr. Cowan would say, “The wins were added unto it.”
Spiritual formation is professional development.
Our coaches need to be constantly reminded of their true vocation. Yes, they need to grow in their pedagogical techniques to help their athletes excel on the field or court, but they also need their imaginations sparked over and over again with a vision for a faithful way of coaching—because the draw for victories at whatever cost will be sung by some of their parents and the culture at large.
Schools and athletic departments can support their coaches by investing in a culture of spiritual formation. When they attend to the souls of coaches first and foremost, they also, by extension, will be attending to the souls of their athletes. To this end, organizations like Incarnational Coaching and others can practically support institutions by providing professional development for coaches and curriculum for students to help them persist in pursuing the proper ends of athletics. Being rooted in their call with the help of spiritual formation is the Spirit’s antidote to the culture’s pressure.
Tell a better story.
From social media, to school-wide announcements, to interviews with prospective parents, we are telling a story about athletics at our school. What story are we telling? What do our stories say about what we love and prioritize? Oftentimes the stories we tell are the wrong ones. We tell only, or primarily, the ones related to our victories, our championships, and our accolades believing that this will prop up enrollment or bring in more money. These things are not wrong in and of themselves, and they may in fact be successful, but what if we believed that the right stories about athletics would do the same thing all the while having a lasting impact on our students and community?
We have better stories to tell as a people and for our people—stories of perseverance, stories of love, stories of Christlike community. People long to be a part of stories that are transcendent. We need to re-form the imagination of our communities by embodying the paradoxical storytelling ways found in the scriptures. When the stories we tell get ahold of a people, an entire community is changed.
Everything Else Will Follow
Making room for the Paradox Principle in athletics is difficult and counterintuitive. It can’t be accomplished in isolation, and most importantly, it can’t be accomplished without the Holy Spirit guiding our steps. May we all have the confidence to live within the tension of paradox and to seek first and foremost the holistic development of our athletes because when we do so, everything else follows.
Cowan, Donald. 2011. Unbinding Prometheus: Education for the Coming Age. Dallas, TX: Dallas Institute Publications.
Smith, James K.A. 2009. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group.
About the Author
Justin McGee is the founder and executive director of Incarnational Coaching. After teaching or coaching in the private, Christian school setting for over 13 years, Justin started Incarnational Coaching, whose goal is to help schools, coaches, and teachers make evident the way of Jesus through professional development seminars, character development curriculum, one-on-one consulting, and more. Justin also serves as a teacher’s consultant for the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture’s Cowan Center for Education, director of Discipleship at Restoration Anglican Church, and an occasional trip leader for Wonder Voyage. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @mcgeejm and @IncarnationalC.