Treasure in the Field
Enjoying God Through the Game of Baseball
Article by Joe Rigney, Professor, Bethlehem College and Seminary
I’m not necessarily aiming to win you to my joy in baseball. What I do hope to do in focusing on my particular joy in baseball isillustrate how to enjoy God himself through his created world.
I’ve selected baseball as the case study because it’s a thick joy, a complex joy, with many layers. Some joys are simple and direct. You eat honey and then you go straight to God. Honey is good. God is good. But other joys are complex and interwoven and take us deeper into the world first, before they take us Godward.
Psalm 19 shows us that the heavens declare the glory of God in a thick and indirect way. The sun moving across the sky is like a bridegroom on his wedding night, and like a mighty warrior running into battle (Psalm 19:4–5). So, if you want to hear the glory of God in the heavens, you have to first dive deeply into weddings and marriage and battles and manhood and the sun. You have to explore the thickness of creation in order to know and enjoy God clearly in it.
Enjoying the Perfect Game
That’s the kind of thick joy that baseball is for me. First, there is the physical aspect. Running, throwing, hitting, catching, coaching — all of these require physical effort and skill, which engage us as embodied beings.
Second, there’s the recreational aspect. Baseball, like many forms of recreation, provides a respite from the cares and burdens of life.
Third, there’s a philosophical aspect. Baseball is “a perfect game” — so claims David Bentley Hart in his essay by that title. Hart says that baseball may be America’s greatest contribution to the history of civilization.
He rightly notes that baseball is distinct from most other sports, which are basically about moving a ball from one end of the court or field or pitch to the other in order to score more goals or points than the other team before time runs out. Baseball is different. There’s no clock, only 27 outs, which means, as Yogi Berra famously said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” As long as there is one out, one strike left, anything can happen.
There’s the exact fittingness of the dimensions — ninety feet between the bases, and sixty feet and six inches from the rubber to the plate. Everything so exquisitely timed that a ball fielded cleanly in the infield is almost always an out, but a slight bobble is almost always a hit.
It’s a team sport with a decidedly individualistic bent, as pitcher and hitter stare each other down with little to no help from anyone else. There are the tactics and strategies that change from inning to inning and pitch to pitch. There’s the seasonal movement from the promising brightness of spring training to the dog days of summer to the intensity of autumn (and the knowledge that all good things come to an end).
As Hart also notes, baseball recalls the innocence of Eden, as well as the intrusion of evil into paradise, whenever the Yankees come to town. These be deep matters, and the philosophically inclined among us have much to ponder in America’s pastime.
Fourth, there’s a social dimension to the enjoyment — the teamwork, the shared training that builds brotherhood and camaraderie.
Fifth, for me, there’s a multifaceted familial dimension. My grandfather played and managed in the majors. My dad worked in the front office for minor league teams. My father-in-law has been an Astros fan since the sixties and got to experience, in person, the greatest game in Astros history (Game 5 of the 2017 World Series) with his wife and two children.
There’s the bonding with my boys as I practice and play with them. And there’s a nostalgic dimension for me now, as I coach my boys, and remember my childhood when my dad taught me to throw and hit, and I played in the front yard with my brothers.
Finally, there’s a bittersweet dimension, because five years ago, we buried my dad after a seven-year battle with dementia, and I miss him most on the baseball diamond. I wish he could see my boys play. In short, for me, baseball is a thickly woven thing of earth.
How Natural Joys Become Joys in God
But joy in baseball is a natural joy. There is nothing spiritual about it. So how does my joy in baseball become a joy in God? That’s the question Christian Hedonists ask. There are hundreds of answers to this question. I’ll give four.
1. Baseball trains future men.
Joy in playing and coaching baseball becomes joy in God when I recognize that physical training has some value, including value as a picture of training in godliness (1 Timothy 4:8). A significant part of that value is in raising boys to become men.
Baseball, like many sports, creates the opportunity for channeling masculinity in fruitful directions. Baseball awakens ambition, competition, the drive for excellence, intense emotions in victory and defeat. These are all good, but dangerous. Coaching my sons in baseball is an opportunity to train them to master these emotions and to cultivate humility, patience, diligence, perseverance, and joy in all circumstances. Such habits of natural virtue and self-mastery are a crucial part of growth in maturity and are of great use in cultivating spiritual virtue and godliness.
2. Baseball allows me to express God’s heart to my sons.
Joy in baseball becomes joy in God when I share joy with my sons and therefore love them by showing them what God is like. We know the distinct delight of introducing another person to one of our favorite pleasures. The pleasure of sharing is distinct in kind from the pleasure of the object or activity. It’s one thing to enjoy reading a book that I love; it’s another flavor of joy to give that book to my son whom I expect will also love it and find that he does. The anticipation of sharing that story with him, of seeing him light up at the same parts, of entering into the joy for the first time, is its own reward. This is what parents are: the bringers and introducers of joys.
God is like that. He is a hedonist at heart, as C.S. Lewis wrote. He loves to be the bringer of joys. One reason he made the universe is so that there could be some third thing which he could bring to us, eyes aflame with knowing expectation, and say, “Here you go. Try it.”
We catch a glimpse in the creation of Eve — Adam’s solitude, God’s recognition that it’s not good, the failed attempt at finding a helper among the beasts, and then the deep sleep, the awakening, the triumphant “At last!” I can’t help picture God with a sly grin as he builds the woman from Adam’s rib. He pictures the scene when Adam awakes; he anticipates the euphoria, the way that parents anticipate their children’s joy on Christmas Eve as they place the presents around the tree.
I know it’s an analogy; God is, after all, simple and timeless, without shadow of turning (or anticipation). Whatever likeness there is between my experience as the bringer of joy to my sons and God’s experience of bringing joy to us, there is also a great unlikeness, because God is not in time, God is not complex, God does not anticipate, God does not change. But despite that unlikeness, I believe that the likeness is real. My joy in sharing baseball with my boys is something like God’s joy in sharing everything with me, including baseball.
3. Baseball helps me toward holiness.
Joy in baseball becomes joy in God when it helps me to kill sin and pursue holiness. When I’m on the field, burdens lift. There’s a much-needed respite from the pressures of life and ministry, an echo of Eden, which I deliberately wield in the fight of faith. When I’m shaping my boys into men and sharing joy with them and showing them what God is like, I’m doing what I was made for.
And so, in coaching, I feel God’s pleasure. And in feeling God’s pleasure, I put my sin to death. I’m a better husband, a better father, a better pastor. When I wield baseball in the fight for holiness, joy in baseball becomes joy in God.
4. Baseball points me to the world to come.
The bittersweetness of my dad’s absence brings a note of earthly sorrow and heavenly hope into the present joy. In other words, my sorrow on the field points me forward to the day when sorrows and sighings flee away. My sadness because of my dad’s absence on that baseball field is a reminder of the coming day when, as Tolkien said, everything sad comes untrue.
I sometimes imagine heaven as a little-league baseball game, with my boys playing, me coaching, and my dad watching. It’s a joy I’ll never have on earth. I don’t know that I’ll have it in heaven. I have no idea how the distinct joy of playing catch with a 7-year-old while being watched by a 70-year-old could be there. How old will we be in heaven?
A mother knows that the pleasure of holding her newborn is one of the highest joys of her life. But how can there be newborns in heaven? And isn’t my heavenly baseball game just like a barren woman who pictures herself in heaven rocking her newborn to sleep? What is the point of imagining such impossibilities?
But in my case, the heavenly ball game is not what I really want. The ball game is a placeholder for something. It’s a way of reaffirming my belief in Revelation 21:4: “he will wipe away every tear from my eyes.” It’s my way of believing the promises of God.
But God didn’t promise me the baseball game with my sons and my dad. That’s true. But he did promise, “No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11). “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).
All things, including the baseball game and the barren woman’s child. Either heaven will have my ball game, or something better. Either heaven will see the barren woman with her baby, or something better. But since I have no clear picture of what the “something better” might be, I project my greatest desires (which are often the converse of my greatest earthly sorrows) and then say, “Even better than that.”
Make Imagination Serve Your Joy
So you see, the exercise is not in vain. The fact that the mind of man has not conceived what God has prepared for those who love him doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t exercise our mental muscles, just as the fact that the love of Christ surpasses knowledge doesn’t mean that we should cease trying to know it. Pushing the limits of our conceptions (provided we remember that they are only our conceptions) doesn’t threaten the joys of heaven. No one will be disappointed, least of all me. We work out our imaginations here so that we can, metaphorically speaking, give God’s omnipotent goodness a workout there.
Joy in the things of earth become joys in God when they are
received and recognized as pictures of spiritual reality and on-ramps to spiritual virtue,
shared with others as a way of loving them,
wielded as a weapon in the fight of faith, and
enjoyed (or grieved) as a way of anticipating the joys of the new heaven and new earth.
And that’s just a sample. There are countless variations and combinations of earthly joys, custom-made for each one of us, all designed as invitations from God to know and delight in God. Each joy individually, and all earthly joys together, are calling us to go further up and higher in to the life of the God of all pleasure.
When enjoyed rightly, they transform the idolatry and ingratitude of Romans 1 into the thanksgiving and adoration of the renewed heart. Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father, and every good and perfect gift is designed to lead us back to the Father of lights, in whose presence is fullness of joy and at whose right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Joe Rigney (@joe_rigney) is assistant professor of theology and literature at Bethlehem College & Seminary and author of The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts. He is a pastor at Cities Church.