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"It's Time to Play the Game!"


Jesus is determined to save us from anything that can hurt or destroy us: physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. He is a game-changing healer in the field of mental and spiritual health, and we should call on him for help.

            The French Open is now underway, one of the most important tennis tournaments in the world. Three years ago, Japanese superstar Naomi Osaka surprised many people by withdrawing from the tournament. Her decision came after she was fined $15,000 for refusing to participate in an initial press conference. She said, “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression [and] I have had a really hard time coping with that.”

            Osaka’s decision led to a barrage of criticism. British broadcaster Piers Morgan called her a “petulant little madam.” Australian journalist Will Swanton wrote, “The immaturity [of] Naomi Osaka leaves me speechless.” Others were sympathetic to her struggles, including tennis superstar Serena Williams, who said, “I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it’s like.”1

            The Bible doesn’t say much about being depressed, but it does speak of people suffering from a variety of afflictions. From the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus encounters people in need, and he responds with compassionate action: Curing those who are sick, casting out demons, cleansing a leper, and healing a paralytic. Jesus launches his ministry in the first chapter by saying that “the kingdom of God has come near.”2 Then, he shows that deliverance from affliction is a sign of the kingdom.

 

Helping and healing trumps Sabbath-keeping

            In the second chapter of Mark, Jesus and his disciples are walking through the grain fields on the Sabbath, and the hungry disciples begin to pluck heads of grain. A group of Jewish leaders called Pharisees criticize them by saying, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” Jesus tells them the story of David and his companions breaking the laws of the temple to eat bread when they were hungry, and then Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath.” He wants them to know that the laws of the Sabbath are created to benefit humans. When they are not beneficial, these laws can be broken. Helping trumps Sabbath-keeping.

            In the third chapter, Jesus enters the synagogue, sees a man with a withered hand and asks the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” They do not answer him. Jesus looks at them with anger, feeling grieved by their hardness of heart. Then he says to the crippled man, “Stretch out your hand.” The man does this, and his hand is restored. The coming of the kingdom of God is seen in doing good, saving lives and healing people — even on the Sabbath.

            Jesus goes on to heal people in the crowds who follow him, and to confront “unclean spirits.”3 He appoints 12 disciples and gives them authority to “cast out demons.”4 A group of Jewish scribes accuses Jesus of working for Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, but Jesus asks them, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.”5 Since divided kingdoms cannot stand, it makes no sense to say that evil would cast out evil.

            Jesus makes clear that his mission is to heal the sick and cast out demons by the power of God, helping people to be restored to physical, mental and spiritual health. Concerns about details such as healing on the Sabbath are insignificant, says Jesus, since he — the Son of Man — “is lord even of the Sabbath.” Jesus is committed to human restoration, in every time and place, and he sees healing as a sign that the kingdom of God has entered human life.

            Of course, not everyone agrees. After Jesus heals the man with the withered hand, the Pharisees go out and conspire “with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

 

Moving beyond our comfort zones

            Keeping the Sabbath was a comfortable part of religious life in the time of Jesus. And why not? A day of rest is clearly beneficial to human beings, in ancient times and today. But Jesus warns us not to use Sabbath-keeping as an excuse for failing to feed hungry people or help those who are physically or mentally ill. In fact, he becomes angry with us when we do not help people in need, when we show “hardness of heart.” He wants us to follow him and move beyond our comfort zones.

            Mental health is an uncomfortable area for many of us. We expect ourselves and others to be able to steer clear of problems with depression, anxiety and other crippling mental difficulties. We hear messages such as No pain, no gain. Push through it. Just do it! And, if we have these expectations of ourselves, we have even higher expectations of superstar athletes. A psychologist named Daria Abramowicz says that there is “this stereotype that an athlete is a kind of gladiator, a kind of hero. That they are comfortable being out of their comfort zones.”6

            Well, guess what? Professional athletes are not comfortable with mental difficulties. Neither are we. None of us wants to be too far outside our comfort zone. Abramowicz hopes that Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open will be a “game changer” for discussions about mental health in sports.

            Rachael Denhollander, a lawyer and former gymnast, says that we “have raised generations that define their identity by what they accomplish on the field.” Athletes are valued for what they do, rather than who they are — children of God. “That’s created a culture that prioritizes winning above everything else .... It sets the stage for massive mental health issues.”7 Fortunately, athletes are beginning to talk about this. Tennis superstar Andy Murray has joined Naomi Osaka in talking openly about the mental toll of playing an elite sport. None of them has the ability to handle all of the pressures of their sport entirely on their own. They need help. They need support. They need healing. 

 

The game-changing healer

            Fortunately, Jesus is a game-changing healer in the field of mental and spiritual health, and we should call on him for help. The Gospel of Mark makes clear that Jesus is determined to save us from anything that can hurt or destroy us: physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually. Jesus appears in Mark as a man of action, determined to rescue people from whatever is afflicting them, from hunger to demonic possession. In the third chapter, the work of Jesus is framed as a conflict between two kingdoms: The kingdom of Satan and the kingdom of God.

            When we make the decision to follow Jesus, we choose between these kingdoms, knowing that if “a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.”8 When we choose the kingdom of God, we choose the feeding of hungry people, even on the Sabbath. We choose the healing of physical or mental illness, even on a day of rest. We choose to do good and save lives, using all the resources available to us. We choose love and compassion over hardness of heart.

            Within the kingdom of God, professional athletes are not heroes or gladiators who are defined by what they accomplish on the field. Instead, they are children of God, with their value  based on who they are instead of what they do. They are people who — like all of us — need to be saved from massive mental and spiritual health issues. Jesus was a game changer because he desired healing and wholeness for everyone he met, and we should follow his example.

 

Entering the kingdom

            The hungry disciples, the man with a withered hand, a crowd full of sick people — all found their helper and healer in Jesus. They were saved by the one who carries the power of God into the middle of human life, and who wants to rescue young and old, men and women, superstars and amateur athletes. Clearly, Jesus has been put on earth to save us from illness, sin and death. When he does this, “the kingdom of God has come near.”9 The kingdom of God is not so much a place as it is a spiritual reality in which God rules over human life with saving power.

            We enter this kingdom when we trust Jesus to be our healer. This means that we call on him in times of affliction, and we rely on him to guide us and help us. We make an effort to be loving and forgiving because Jesus has always been loving and forgiving toward us. And we choose the kingdom of God over the kingdom of Satan, putting time and energy into doing the work of healing and helping in our divided, sick and broken world.

            When we have faith in Jesus, we follow his example of stepping away from certain activities as a form of self-care. In Mark, Jesus says to his disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”10 Each of us will feel, from time to time, a need to withdraw from activities to maintain our mental, emotional and spiritual health. We all need to do this, whether we are pastors or engineers, teachers or attorneys, students or tennis superstars. “Osaka did the right thing walking away,” said psychologist John Duffy. Her “self-care outweighs the potential benefits of staying in the game.”11

            At the same time, we can follow Jesus by seeking professional medical help, because he desires that we be saved from anything that can hurt or destroy us. One person who is trying to be a game changer in this area is Edward Jones II, an assistant athletic director for Baylor Football. “As a black man, I understand the taboo that mental health is and has been in our community,” Jones said. “I try to be an example of handling your mental health so all of our student-athletes can see its benefit.”12

            Each of us can do a better job of discussing issues of mental health with others, as we choose the kingdom of God and its focus on health and wholeness. And, as a community, we can work together to overcome the taboo of mental illness. All of this is part of calling on Jesus, the one who is our game-changing healer.

 

 

1 Sheena McKenzie, “The Naomi Osaka fiasco is a sign that we’re nowhere near finished with work on mental health,” CNN, June 2, 2021, www.cnn.com/2021/06/01/tennis/naomi-osaka-sport-mental-health-cmd-spt-intl/index.html.

2 Mark 1:15.

3 Mark 3:11.

4 Mark 3:15.

5 Mark 3:23-24.

6 Sheena McKenzie, “The Naomi Osaka fiasco is a sign that we’re nowhere near finished with work on mental health,” CNN, June 2, 2021, www.cnn.com/2021/06/01/tennis/naomi-osaka-sport-mental-health-cmd-spt-intl/index.html.

7 Abby Perry, “Can the Love of the Game Include the Health of the Mind?” Christianity Today, May 17, 2021, www.christianitytoday.com/partners/faith-sports-institute/can-love-of-game-include-health-of-mind.html.

8 Mark 3:24.

9 Mark 1:15.

10 Mark 6:31.

11 John Duffy, “Why Osaka’s decision to walk away was the right one,” CNN, June 3, 2021, www.cnn.com/2021/06/02/health/tennis-naomi-osaka-self-care-wellness/index.html.

12 Abby Perry, “Can the Love of the Game Include the Health of the Mind?” Christianity Today, May 17, 2021, www.christianitytoday.com/partners/faith-sports-institute/can-love-of-game-include-health-of-mind.html.


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