Ultimate frisbee has something to teach us about the spirit of God.

Everyone’s got a favorite Seattle sports team, right? Yours might be the Sounders or the Seahawks. Mine is Seattle Mixtape. Never heard of them? I can’t say I’m surprised. They play a sport that, while growing, still comes in under the radar—Ultimate (frisbee).

It’s not just a backyard barbecue game or a hippie pastime anymore. Ultimate is a professional sport—and it’s huge in Seattle. Seattle’s professional teams appeared in the MLU (Major League Ultimate) finals in 2015 and AUDL (American Ultimate Disc League) finals in 2016. And our men’s, women’s, and coed club teams (like Seattle Mixtape) have all been at the top of the national pack the past few years.

Talent isn’t the only thing we’ve got going for us. We’ve also developed a tight-knit community. From the professionals to the fair-weather rec league players, you start to recognize most of the faces. Tournaments, parties, fundraisers, and clinics draw similar crowds throughout the year. It’s a hospitable, socially-conscious, family-oriented community. Many players coach youth teams, sharing their skills and passion with the next generation. A big reason why the Ultimate community developed this way is because of something called the “Spirit of the Game.”

The governing body for Ultimate in the U.S., USAU, defines Spirit of the Game like this:

Ultimate relies upon a spirit of sportsmanship that places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of mutual respect among competitors, adherence to the agreed upon rules, or the basic joy of play.

Ultimate has flourished for over thirty years, reaching a highly competitive level, without the use of referees. In Ultimate, the honor system works. Sure, human nature rears its ugly head from time to time—just as in any sport, just as in life. Yet, one of the many beauties of Ultimate is how, even amid the most difficult of situations, utmost graciousness is allowed to meet that challenge head on. Through this balance, Ultimate players are free to demonstrate the most honorable and the most joyous sides of human nature in sport.

The (Holy) Spirit of the Game

I’ve always found it interesting that an overwhelmingly secular community defines its ethics using the language of “spirit.”

I’ve always found it interesting that an overwhelmingly secular community defines its ethics using the language of “spirit.” Even though “spirit” is not meant to imply anything supernatural in this context, the phrase “Spirit of the Game” suggests an understanding that there’s something more at work on the field than sweaty bodies and a plastic disc. Ultimate acknowledges the holistic nature of sports. They require more than physical ability. They require mental and even spiritual engagement.

We often misinterpret “secular” to mean “godless.” But if we as Christians believe that God is the creator of all, we know that nothing is truly god-less. There’s nowhere we can hide from God’s presence (Psalm 139), and we cannot deny the spiritual element to our beings. Spirit of the Game is that shadow of the divine—unnamed and unrecognized, but present nonetheless.

The desire for community and greater purpose is engrained in each of us. Ultimate creates a beautiful community due in large part to principles like Spirit of the Game. Teams become more like families. They rally around each other in times of heartache. They celebrate each other’s successes. I’ve witnessed how Ultimate drives people to work harder and love deeper. I’ve watched teammates grow in responsibility and maturity.

But I’ve also seen a lot of pain and brokenness. I’ve seen what happens when we run into the wall of our physical and emotional shortcomings. Seattle Mixtape has been within spitting distance of four gold medals, so I know that the pursuit of gold can become entangled with self-worth. Ultimate becomes our identity. When we lose, we lose something of ourselves. Even teammates who handle the loss of a game well can still be emotionally devastated by personal failure on the field. And those emotions impact our teammates and the interactions we have with our opponents. When our “spirit” is crushed, it shows.

Adherence to Spirit of the Game is supposed to enable us to process and check our own emotions. Sometimes it works but it’s far from a foolproof system. As USAU says, “human nature rears its ugly head from time to time.” Spirit of the Game teaches us to dig deep and rely on the “graciousness” we are capable of finding within ourselves. My concern is not that Spirit of the Game is failing to mitigate conflict—it’s that “graciousness” isn’t enough to meet those challenges. What we need instead is grace.

Grace Over Graciousness

Graciousness implies some innate ability to rise to the challenge. It implies that we are “good” enough to overcome both external and even internal adversity. Grace recognizes that willpower often leaves something to be desired. When human nature “rears its ugly head,” swinging the sword of self-will may chop off the head and slay the beast—or it may reveal our enemy to be a hydra, and for each head we sever, two appear in its place.

I’m continually surprised by my capacity for foolishness, selfishness, and irresponsibility. Maybe that’s just me—but somehow I doubt it. No matter how hard I try to be perfect, how much I worry about all the possible ramifications of my behavior, I always manage to trip up along the way. And I don’t think I’m alone. Call it total depravity, call it human nature. If we’re honest with ourselves, I think we’ll agree that there’s something lacking.

Fuller Theological Seminary’s professor Marguerite Shuster talks about this in her book The Fall and Sin: What We Have Become As Sinners. She writes, “And this is our human misery, that we are aware of what we ought to be; and we know, at the deepest level of our awareness, that we cannot be it.”

So, what now? Do we throw up our hands? Do we excuse our poor behavior because, well, it’s inevitable?

Shuster doesn’t think so. She rejects the critique that accepting our sinful nature denies personal responsibility. Rather, she argues that it focuses our efforts. “The proper end of this awareness [of our sinful nature], then, must be faith in Jesus Christ.” Instead of placing our hope in our own ability to be gracious under fire—to mold ourselves into responsible human beings—we place our hope in the limitless power of God’s grace.

Instead of placing our hope in our own ability to be gracious under fire—to mold ourselves into responsible human beings—we place our hope in the limitless power of God’s grace.

As Shuster writes, “hope depends utterly upon grace.”

When we recognize that our hope lies not in our own abilities but in God’s, then we have a much greater pool of strength to draw from. After all, God’s accomplishments include parting the Red Sea, raising the dead, and claiming victory over sin and evil. Not a resume I want compared with my own.

The Creator of the entire universe saw fit to give each and every one of us life. He delights in our abilities. He doesn’t care if we win Nationals or if we even go to Nationals. He is pleased by our enjoyment of the bodies he’s given us, the minds that dreamed up a fun game like Ultimate, and the hearts that want to play honorably and connect with both our teammates and our opponents. In other words, Ultimate’s “Spirit of the Game” will only work if that spirit we seek is God’s.