I Learned Everything I Know about Spiritual Growth from Baseball

In 2008, my hometown Philadelphia Phillies did the unthinkable and won the World Series. And the way they did it involved having a manager at the helm who literally exasperated fans every time he made a double switch on the field. The problem was that manager Charlie Manuel was known as a hitting guru. But when it came to the X’s and O’s of the game (like making double switches) he often had a look on his face of tentative confusion, as if he wasn’t quite sure of what he was doing. At least that’s what we all thought in Philadelphia. And it took the magical 2008 season to show us we all had misinterpreted those looks. Manuel wasn’t confused. He was just learning how to reconcile analytics and what I’m going to call his “gut-instincts”. 

In baseball there are 2 kinds of managers: one is by-the-book and the other manages by his gut. The by-the-book guy is easy to describe. He’s an analytics guy who uses percentages, statistics and baseball tradition to make his decisions. The by-his-gut guy however, is a little more difficult to pin down. 

He is not “impulsive” like an immature child. Such a manager would find himself out of a job pretty soon. Instead, the “gut” guy (like Charlie Manuel), has lived a little. He has lived first hand through so many baseball scenarios that they have all become internalized. He doesn’t need a book or a stat sheet to tell him what to do or to dictate his actions. His “gut” has already seen this scenario, perhaps hundreds of times and has now developed an unconscious, internalized memory that manifests as a “feeling” in his bowels. 

This is why Manuel made those faces. 

It wasn’t because he lacked Baseball wisdom. It was because his gut feelings, feelings honed by years of careful (disciplined) involvement with the game of baseball, were telling him something that conventional wisdom said was wrong. In 2008, it was Manual’s gut and not convention that turned out to be right. And that gut did not “just happen” in 5 minutes. It took a lifetime to acquire. 

So it is with Christianity and Spiritual growth.

My experience with Christian growth has been tortuously long and winding. I grew up in a tumultuous family environment, during a period that one Catholic scholar labeled “beige Catholicism”, where Catholicism was rather inert in terms of developing Spiritual thought and growth. When I converted to the Evangelical Faith in 1995, I was already in my junior year in college. Through no fault of my home (Presbyterian) church, I felt I was behind everyone else’s ‘level’, and largely had to learn how to catch up on my own. So I turned to theology. 

The Pros and Cons of Using Theology to Grow Spiritually

I’m Reformed. That basically means that I ascribe to a tradition that insists on the primacy of the intellect, where everything (eg: Scripture, life, faith, church, relationships etc) is seen through the lens of our particular Calvinistic theological framework. 

There is value in this.

What the best of our theologians have done is condensed centuries of Biblical insights into books that you can read in just a few days (or as with Herman Bavinck, months). Trying to gain those insights by yourself would likely take decades, or more. 

The danger, however, is book knowledge is not the same as internalized “gut” knowledge. 

The current (but recently-fired) Phillies manager is Gabe Kapler. Unlike Manuel, Kapler is an analytics guy. Think of him as the anti-Charlie Manuel; a guy who used math more than feel to manage the game. Kapler was unpopular with the Philadelphia fan base. Whether this ire is fair or not is beside the point I’d like to make. In sports, analytics are helpful and offers its users a competitive edge. But when it comes to Christian growth, they are of limited help. This is because Christianity is not and cannot be reduced to math. 

In Christianity, you are a tree that needs to grow, not a formula that needs to be solved.  And that growth happens in the course of living, not just thinking. You need both, not just one or the other. 

I don’t know whether or not Gabe Kapler was the right guy for the Phillies. And Moneyball aside, I also don’t know if gut-managers are qualitatively better than book-managers in baseball. But I do know that when it comes to Christian growth, there is nothing wrong with using analytics (or theology) to get you started, so long as you end up internalizing what you’ve gleaned. 

Four Baseball Maxims

Any manager, but maybe especially gut-managers, will teach their players four maxims that, I believe, help us greatly in our own Spiritual Formation. 

1.     Have patience, it’s a long season. 

Most people think this phrase means one should not get too upset by one or two losses in the spring. But for me, that phrase has more significance. The Phillies have more losses over their existence than any other Baseball team in the history of Baseball, by a pretty wide margin. And from 1984 to 2003, I was unfortunate enough to witness much of that losing. It took decades to rebuild the franchise, along with multiple GM’s and managers. Still, in 2008, they won.  So it is with your Christian life. Be patient. Trees take time to get tall. 

2.     Don’t get upset if you feel as if you are stuck in the minor leagues of your growth. 

There are no leagues when it comes to Christianity. The most “holy” pastor is in the same league as a newly converted Christian. Both are sinners, saved by Grace. Both have equal standing before God. One has simply been doing it much longer. But in the end, both are “paid” by God the same, the number of crowns received not withstanding (Matt 20:1-16). 

3.     Don’t compare yourself to people with more or better gifts than you have. 

In baseball, there is this well known saying, adjusted so as to make it less sexist: The long ball may have sex appeal, but championships are won with glue guys. In both Baseball and Christianity, the best players (or members of a church) are not the ones with “5 tools”. Instead, it is what one sports journalist calls “captain class” players. These are players who forgo personal glory for the benefit of the team. They are the ones who do the little things that there are no “written rules” for. And when things get tough, it is these people that managers (or pastors) lean on to get their team through. 

4.     Talent gets you to the field, but it’s grit (faithfulness) that will keep you on it. 

In reality, I have no clue if baseball people say this. I first heard something like this from the children’s pastor at my home church where I started out as a Sunday school teacher. She remarked to me that I had a lot of passion, but struggled with faithfulness. 

She would say to me: ‘Passion will get you to the mission field…but it’s faithfulness that will keep you there’. 

Later on in my Christian life, I realized what this meant. 

It didn’t mean that I had to get better at consistently following the moral rules, or exercising the Spiritual disciplines (read your Bible, pray for an hour, ect.). 

It meant that I needed to consistently place my faith in Christ and His Gospel in a way that begat faithfulness and greater fealty to Him in my day to day life. 

One Last Illustration

A while back, a young junior high kid at a Parachurch group I was serving walked up to me with tears in his eyes and told me that he couldn’t be a Christian anymore. When I asked him why, it turned out that he just couldn’t stop himself from watching online pornography. He really believed that this was an obstacle that would prevent him from being God’s child and growing in the faith. 

He’s right about it being an obstacle. But he’s wrong about his approach to overcoming it. 

I told him that what God required of him was faith in His Son. Namely, faith that Jesus had lived the life that we should’ve lived and died the death that we should’ve died. In this case, he needed to have faith that Jesus (and His finished work) was enough to help him “grow”. 

I told this boy that God knows we are sinners and He chose to save us anyway. And so, when it comes to sins like pornography, he’s going to fail a lot. But every time he does, he should get back up and resist again, knowing that the promise in the gospel is that one day WE WILL look like Christ and the power of sin will no longer have a hold on us. A thousand times we are faced with sin, and a thousand times we fail. But we get back up that thousand and first time anyway, believing, just like we did all those times before, that the power we need will be there. And one day, we will resist and we will succeed. One day, perhaps at a later time, we will succeed not just that one time, but for good. That is the promise. We put our faith in that day…a day that Jesus won for us on the cross. 

Another male teacher who was with us saw the look in this kid’s eyes. And he said to him, ‘You weren’t expecting that answer, were you?’.

The kid shook his head in relief and said ‘no’, but with new tears that were categorically different than the tears he had before. 

This kid, out of respect for Christ, was trying to show integrity. I totally respect him for that. But there was relief on his face when he realized that this did not disqualify him from becoming (and remaining) a Christian. 

Now, did this work? Was the kid able to kick his pornography habit by doing what I said? I don’t know. 

I don’t even know if this is the fail-safe method for how to overcome pornography addiction. (Of course it isn’t). In fact, I offer this warning: do not make the mistake of thinking that there is a formula. Spiritual growth is not math as much as it is gut. 

In this case, all I was trying to do was to help this kid understand the way the gospel works and how beautiful that gospel is. His tears told me that he understood. 

This wasn’t a homer but a base hit. It’s the bottom of the 8th and we’re down a few runs. But we now have a runner in scoring position. 

What would a gut manager say in this situation? 

He would say: ‘Don’t worry about the score. Don’t worry about the crowds. Don’t worry about anything else, except making good contact with the next pitch. We’re not going to attempt a steal so that you have a clean theater to hit against. So you just focus on hitting. Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be. Just make contact and good things will happen.’ 

So it is with the Christian life.  

Joe Kim

Joe Kim is the English Ministry pastor at Emmaus Ministries in Bayside, NY. He was born and raised in Levittown, Pa. He has a BA in Music from Toccoa Falls College in Toccoa, Georgia and an MDiv from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He is married to Emii and has a daughter Norah. Joe has been in ministry to various age groups since 2001. He enjoys reading, playing the guitar, eating, sleeping and breathing…in that order.

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