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In two of the last three Chicago Cubs games, Ben Zobrist has hit a late double to spark a rally. The first—against the San Francisco Giants in the ninth inning—helped the Cubs win the National League Division Series. The second—against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the eighth—led off an inning that would end with a game-clinching grand slam and a 1–0 lead in the National League Championship.

Zobrist is a key player on a team that hasn’t won a World Series since 1908. The young team won 103 regular season games, its most wins in 106 years and more than any other team in the Major Leagues. Most of the players are on multi-year contracts like Zobrist ($56 million over four years), igniting hopes among Cubs fans that they’ll be even better next year.

But for Zobrist, the utility player hired fresh off his World Series victory last year with the Kansas City Royals, it isn’t all about the win. It isn’t even all about the game.

Real Deal

“Ben gets it,” says his pastor of 10 years, Byron Yawn. He leads Community Bible Church in Nashville.

“He understands redemption and has a great grasp on what’s important in life. His greatest joys are at home with his family or in the church in the purposes of God. He finds great satisfaction in what he does, but when he leaves baseball, he’s going to endeavor to use whatever celebrity that remains to place himself on a different mission field with the same agenda. It’s hard to overstate or make it clear—he really is the real deal.”

Zobrist’s dad is a pastor, and he’s been a believer since childhood. When he points to the sky while crossing the plate, there’s no doubt “he means it,” Yawn says. “There’s a lot of sincerity there.”

Indeed, Zobrist hasn’t hidden his convictions. There’s no shortage of stories detailing how his faith affects his life.

Real Weakness 

While Ben’s star has risen about as far as it can, Yawn still maintains he’s “a normal human being with frustrations, anxiety, and weakness. . . . He doesn’t handle everything perfectly.”

It’s no wonder, because professional baseball is, according to Yawn, “a very guilt-ridden, self-conscious industry, where working harder for success can contradict the realities of the gospel itself.”

Professional athletes are expected to “work their tail off” to improve their mechanics, exercise their bodies, and stay healthy.

While this works well for Zobrist on the diamond, there was a temptation to allow his tireless work ethic to become the basis of his faith, believing that working hard at prayer or Bible study gained God’s approval.

“When Ben first came into the league, he struggled significantly with this,” Yawn says. Things hit a crisis point early in Zobrist’s career during a prolonged slump that adversely affected his faith. “I had a chance to fly out to spend some time with him and this immense emotional weight and the stress of living under this legal spirit.”

Yawn’s plan was “to talk and pray and throw away all of his crappy Christian books.” He remembers telling Ben, “I would be here for you whether you were a professional baseball player or not. The things you’re suffering are normal, they’re just made exponentially greater.”

Everybody wants to draw a direct correlation between how hard they work and God’s benevolence, Yawn says.

“It’s in our DNA.”

Failure, Forgiveness, Progress  

This temptation is especially strong for Christian athletes. They might connect their current slump to their recent lack of diligent spirituality. Yawn called this mindset a type of “hyperspiritualized transactionalism.” Yet it’s also easy for fans to think this way. Half of Americans—and 60 percent of white evangelicals—believe “God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success.”

“There was a time when Ben would beat himself up or overspiritualize [a slump], thinking it was a result of him not being faithful as a believer,” Yawn recounts. “Teaching Ben that his identity is in Christ and not in his batting average has been the greatest liberation in his life.”

Baseball is a game full of failures. If a player get a hit one out three times, he’s probably in the Hall of Fame. But it’s also a game of forgiveness.

“You can fail 7 out of 10 times and be great,” says Zobrist’s first pastor, Tom, who is also his dad.

Tom likened the game to the Christian life, as each underscores the necessity of maintaining perspective through the process.

“You can’t measure by results,” he said, “but by whether you’re faithful.”

He’s right. Throughout the whole of October, Zobrist can do everything right at the plate and watch his screaming line drives caught for an out; similarly, a missionary can evangelize his or her whole life and never see any conversions.

Knowing this, Tom prays for Ben, but not that he’ll win games, he says.

“I pray for his faithfulness—that he’ll be faithful to work hard, faithful to the process of baseball, faithful to his testimony.”

This mindset has been a source of peace for Ben, who told his dad, “If I’m faithful to do what I’m supposed to do, then I can accept the results in the end.”

Tom has gone through a process himself, morphing from a diehard St. Louis Cardinals fan to a fan of the rival Cubs.

“It’s evidence of God’s gracious sense of humor,” he said. “The worst thing in the world isn’t your son playing for the Cubs.”

Baseball and Jesus 

Ben was 3 years old when his dad headed to Calvary Bible College and Theological Seminary—now Calvary University. After seminary, the Zobrists settled into Eureka, Illinois, a town of about 5,000 two hours south of Chicago. Tom became the pastor at Liberty Bible Church, a nondenominational congregation where he still serves today

The rest of Tom’s family lives close by, and they’re split in their loyalties between the Cubs and the Cardinals. Tom always cheered for St. Louis, so Ben grew up a stout Cards fan.

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One of my favorite scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies appears early in the Fellowship of the Rings when Frodo and company first encounter Aragorn. Frodo and his adventure mates were putting the happy in happy hour at the Prancing Pony Inn, frolicking, tipping mugs of ale, and generally making a public hash of themselves—foolhardy behavior for a party of hobbits and dwarves embarking on a dangerous clandestine mission. Frodo slipped the ring on his finger and instantly became invisible, took it off, and reappeared to an astonished audience of merrymakers. Aragorn appeared from a dark corner of the pub, grabbed him by the collar and slung him into a side room as if he were a side of beef. “Are you frightened?” Aragorn asked the wide-eyed hobbit. Frodo answered a breathless, “Yes.” Aragorn’s counter line is unforgettable, “Not frightened enough. I know what hunts you.”

Ringwraiths. That’s what hunted Frodo. The evil emissaries of the dark lord Sauron were searching meticulously for the ring bearer; they wanted to destroy him and capture the one ring that ruled them all. Indeed, Aragorn was spot-on: the naïve little hobbit did not know what hunted him. And his naïveté was anything but humorous: the future of Middle Earth hung in the balance.

That scene came to mind Thursday night as I watched the sad news about Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim outfielder Josh Hamilton scroll across the screen: Relapsed, again. Drugs and alcohol, again. The sin that has hunted Hamilton since he was a teenager found him, again. I whispered a prayer under my breath: “Father, lavish your mercy on Josh Hamilton and his family. And have mercy on us. Let us never forget what hunts us.” I’m a big fan of our national pastime. I’m a big fan of Josh Hamilton. And like Josh Hamilton and Frodo Baggins, I, too, am hunted. I’m well aware that something hunts me, something deadly, an enemy I can only shake by unilateral grace: sin.

All-World Talent

Hamilton’s story is deeply compelling. At 18 years old, he was an all-world talent with a powerful bat that reminded some of Mickey Mantle and a howitzer arm that conjured memories of Roberto Clemente. He was the top overall pick in the 1999 draft, chosen out of high school in Raleigh, North Carolina, but Hamilton’s path to greatness was blocked by the twin demons of alcohol and drug addiction. Twice he failed drug tests, and on another occasion he was arrested after smashing the windshield of a friend’s car. Major League Baseball suspended him for most of three seasons from 2003 to 2005. His star appeared to have fallen.

But the effectual grace of God found Hamilton after this tumultuous period. God gave Hamilton new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His conversion also breathed new life into his baseball career. Hamilton made his Major League debut in 2007 with my beloved Cincinnati Reds. He was an instant star. During the past seven years he has become what scouts expected him to be from the beginning: one of the best players in the game. He led the perennially mediocre Texas Rangers to consecutive World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011 and was named American League MVP in 2010. There were hiccups along the way, like a time in 2009 when he was photographed in a bar in a compromising position. And there was a seemingly small slipup 2012 when he admitted to drinking three beers. But Hamilton has mostly kept a strong witness for Christ. His family has helped build an orphanage in Uganda and established an outreach called Triple Play Ministries. Hamilton chronicled his fall and redemption in a 2008 book, Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back (FaithWords).

Hamilton has kept accountability partners constantly at his side while away from home. He travels with only a small amount of cash and carries no credit cards. His wife, Katie, shuttles him to and from the ballpark during home games. After the Rangers won the American League pennant in 2010, Hamilton celebrated with ginger ale rather than champagne. I once heard Hamilton quote the apostle Paul, saying that he does not want sin to have mastery over him. No follower of Christ does.

Core Disease

Despite all that, sin continues to want to rule over Josh Hamilton. It wants to rule over us all. As a follower of Christ, Hamilton no doubt knows and agrees. Paul Tripp puts it memorably:

Sin is every human being’s core disease. It is completely beyond the power of any human being to escape it. It separates you from God, for whom you were created. It damages every aspect of your personhood. It makes it impossible for you to be what God created you to be and to do what God designed you to do. It robs you of inner contentment and peace, and it puts you at war with other human beings. It renders you blind, weak, self-oriented, and rebellious. It reduces all of us to fools, and ultimately it leads to death. Sin is an unmitigated, almost incalculable disaster. You can run from a certain situation, you can get yourself out of a relationship, and you can move to another location and choose not to go back again. But you and I have no ability whatsoever to escape from the hold that sin has on us. It is the moral Vise-Grip that has held the heart of every person who has ever lived.

Hamilton’s story could be my story or your story. The world, the flesh, the Devil is an unholy trinity that hunts us all. His story is in the news because of his profession; ours is not. What should we take home from Josh Hamilton’s sad brush with sin?

  • Life between the times is brutal war. We face enemies within and without that relentlessly wage battle against us. We will not defeat them fully in this life, but in the next. Thankfully, Christ has defeated them for us. My own pastor, Tom Schreiner, preached a powerful sermon from 2 Corinthians 10 this past Sunday on this reality. Even Paul, in Romans 7, continued to be hunted by indwelling sin.

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