It sounds sacrilegious. But it’s not. Paul spoke of the Greek games to teach about our walk with God, or we could say our “race” to God. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize?” (1 Cor. 9:24) or “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1).1 Games are a microcosm of life. Teams (relationships) are formed, rules (laws) are learned and enforced, victories and defeats are experienced, skills acquired, and the parallels go on and on. So if Paul can use the word “race” (Greek stadion) to illustrate the spiritual, then pickleball, the current sports craze, may have a lesson or two as well.
For those not familiar with pickleball, it is an amalgam of sports. It’s played on a badminton-sized court, uses a supersized paddle akin to a ping-pong paddle, hits a wiffle-like ball over a net, and feels like mini tennis.
During a vacation at some condos, I headed for the courts. Four young guys were already there. They were moving around on the pickleball court, swinging pickleball paddles, and hitting pickleballs. To a passerby it would look like they were, well . . . playing pickleball . . . , but I assure you, they were not. There is a unique rule in pickleball: one is not allowed to hit the ball out of the air if one is standing in, or even touching, a seven-foot zone on each side of the net. This nonvolley zone is affectionately called the “kitchen.” This kitchen rule is essential to the game. The strategy, shot selection, stroke technique, and body position all revolve around obeying this single rule. Since these four guys were not respecting this one rule, they were having fun playing something, but it wasn’t pickleball.
This idea of believing oneself to be performing something when one is not is reminiscent of the religious delusion of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Every Christian on the planet recoils from identifying with Jesus’ greatest antagonists. But if we don’t think we are susceptible to the same problem, it’s easy for Jesus’ words to lose their relevant edge in our lives. As a teacher, Jesus had the most undesirable job possible: to verbally shock people out of the delusion that they were right with God when they were actually at cross purposes with the God they professed allegiance to. Remember, Jesus was speaking to leaders whose full-time vocation was to maintain strict holiness through Torah (law) observance. Here’s my paraphrase of snippets of the Gospels where Jesus is in full intervention mode:
You honor God with your words, but who you are on the inside is far away from the God you’re speaking about (Matt. 15:8).
Your worship of God is pointless (verse 9).
None of you keeps the law (John 7:19).
You have neglected the most important matters of law: judgment, mercy, and faith (Matt. 23:23).
You are full of greed and self-indulgence (verse 25).
You are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (verse 28).
You actually prevent people from entering the kingdom of God. It’s bad enough that you don’t enter in, but then you don’t allow others to enter in either (verse 13).
You put forth great effort to make a single convert, but what have you converted him to? Not a child of God, but twice more the child of hell than yourselves (verse 15).
Not quite the ringing endorsement religious leaders are familiar with. Is it any wonder that they accused Jesus of merely hurling insults (Luke 11:45)? Like the four guys who thought they were playing pickleball but were not, so Jesus exposed those who thought they were faithful to God but were not. And the kicker is this: there is no reason to think that a delusion like this in the first century can’t happen in the twenty-first century.
The question is:, Will we be humble enough to apply Jesus’ sternest warnings in this matter to ourselves, and not to the guy in the pew in front of us? It may sting a bit, because Christ reserved His strongest language, not for blatant moral failings, but for lips that were not aligned with hearts (Matt. 15:8), and for religious showmanship done in His name to veil “lawlessness” (Matt. 7:21-23). Think of any censure spoken by Christ, and none of them comes close to the intensity and frequency of His use of “hypocrisy” toward those immersed in a religious delusion.
So what can we do? We can find that place of naked honesty and vulnerability and let the words and warnings of Jesus wash over our souls. Then we listen—both to the encouragements and convictions of the Spirit. Then we surrender. Then we let Him change us.
It’s not easy to make that pickleball do what you want. There are endless hours of Internet training videos that focus on how to control the ball’s speed, spin, and direction. Even after years of practice, players (including me) will still blast the ball straight into the bottom of the net or launch it clear off the court into nearby courts or residential backyards. The game is just plain hard. Mistakes are inevitable. Even if someone held a gun to my head, I could not make myself play a game of pickleball flawlessly. But despite the mistakes, no one would doubt that I’m playing the game; some might even say I’m playing it well. And even with a few mistakes, victory is still attainable. Absolute flawless performance is not necessary for repeated victories.
These scenarios offer a subtle insight into the issues of Christian performance worth considering. Living as a disciple of Christ is just that. It is a learned, ever-developing lifestyle of inculcating the commandments/law of God (Matt. 28:19, 20) and aligning oneself with the principles of His kingdom, with the result of being restored to His image (Gen. 1:27). Given that it is “His” image, we are being restored into, how could the call on our life be anything less than “perfection”? “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48, NIV).
“Perfection” should not be a burdensome concept to be avoided. On the contrary, it is a description of our Father’s impartial divine love (yes, He loves evil people, too; see Matt. 5:43-48), and it is an honor to be called to possess the same. Since we are called to reflect the Father, logically we are commanded to do as He does. Can you imagine Jesus absurdly saying, “I want you to be just like the Father, except not in this area, because . . . well, it’s just too hard!” So in every rally of pickleball played, each player embraces the call to perfection. No one plans or purposes to fall short of that standard. No one says, “I think that in this game I’ll hit two balls out, four balls into the net, and then foot fault on match point.” No. The goal of every rally is perfect performance—and it should be. Whether it turns out to be or not is a different issue. The fact is that on any given day I may play a nearly perfect game, without what’s called any “unforced errors.” But over multiple games and days it is highly likely that I will make a mistake. Some may think that a juxtaposition of “perfection” and “mistakes” is untenable. Perhaps. But Jesus did just that when he called us to “perfection” in Matthew 5:48 but then commanded us to pray for the forgiveness of our trespasses a mere 12 verses later. So “be perfect” and “ask for forgiveness.” Embrace the tension. Jesus holds us to a high standard. But Jesus is also a realist. Let’s not foolishly shun the idea of biblical perfection, but let’s not hypocritically claim we don’t need forgiveness, either.
Living as a disciple of Christ
is just that. It is a learned, ever-developing lifestyle of inculcating the commandments/law of God (Matt. 28:19, 20) and aligning oneself with the principles of His kingdom, with the result of being restored back to His image (Gen. 1:27).
For those who think this idea will give some a justification for rampant willful sin—it may. But those who want to sin will find an excuse regardless of what is said here. In the end they are only fooling themselves. If I purposely drove the ball into the net and then gave myself two points for doing so and then hit the pickleball into a swimming pool and added three points for making a splash, no one would be impressed. I would not convince anyone watching that I simply was making “mistakes.” They would discern the difference between a player who is genuinely doing their best to play the game but falters, and the player who is claiming to play the game but grossly violates its rules. Hypocrites usually fool only themselves.
Recasting familiar conversations in fresh language is what metaphors are all about. Pickleball may seem like a silly parable to use for communicating theology, but if it has aided in adding nuance or insight to Jesus’ teachings, then it has done its job.
Concerning the first lesson, making His listeners self-aware was a critical goal of Jesus’ ministry as He attempted to verbally shock those who were under a dangerous religious delusion. He may need to continue that ministry at times in my life and yours. Let’s be receptive to it.
Concerning the second lesson, I honestly don’t know if Christians still debate the tension between grace and works, law and faith, or whether the word “perfection” is a good word or a bad one, a blessed gift or a dangerous heresy. To the degree that following Christ is truly a disciplined skill developed over time, such reflections on the life of pro athletes as training, growth, setbacks, and stunning performances may inform what the Christian life may be expected to look like.
Thinking harder about pickleball will go only so far, but it did provide us with a few cautionary takeaways. Jesus commands us to pray for forgiveness in His model prayer, which implies we’re doing something that needs forgiving (Matt. 6:9). We can’t minimize this fact, fearing that determined sinners will use Christ’s mercy as a pretext for willful sin. If we choose sin over Christ, then let’s not feign surprise when we receive hell over heaven. The choice was always ours to make. On the flip side, Jesus commands us to be “perfect.” That’s hard, and the context only makes it sound more difficult (i.e., loving enemies). But we must resist the temptation to water down His calls to holy living just because some will use His words to launch into perfectionistic insanity. We can’t let our walk with God be a reaction to those who double down on some theological imbalance. We have only God to answer to, not theological factions that create identities in opposition to each other.
Perhaps Paul, thinking of the games of his time, said it best: “Not that I have . . . already become perfect, but I press on.” “Forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize [award for victory in games] of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore, all who are mature, let’s have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that to you as well” (Phil. 3:12-15, NASB).2 So think on these things—perhaps while you play a game of pickleball.
Joseph Olstad is a graduate from the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies and Andrews University. He lives in Utah with his wife and four daughters.