I played basketball in High School. When I was a senior, our opening game was against a highly ranked team. I was to play defense against an all-state point guard, and that week in practice my coach was particularly hard on me, trying to get me prepared. If he saw me losing focus even for a second he would blow his whistle and yell, “Smith, get your head in the game!!!” It was a rough week being yelled at so much, but it did get my attention. Come game time I was ready.
We played that first game at home, and we had a raucous crowd behind us. The energy was flowing through the building. I was trembling through the warm-up time. Then something happened to me right at the tip-off, something that had never happened to me before, and never happened again. It was as is if, in an instant, the crowd noise became silent. I could hear the beating of my heart, and my breathing, and nothing else. The game seemed to slow down. I was fully present to the moment, and completely unaware of myself. I was in what athletes call “the zone.”
Right away I anticipated a pass by my opponent, and jumped in for an interception, raced to the other end and scored. We were ahead 2-0. The next trip down the court I was all over my star opponent, and once again stole a pass and went down and scored again. We were up 4-0. The other team quit trying to pass to my opponent, and they stalled offensively. With each trip down the court for us I scored—on six straight possessions. They only managed one basket. We were ahead 16-2, only ten minutes into the game, and I had scored all 16 of our points.
During a dead-ball near my bench, I ran over to throw the ball in to one of my teammates. As I stood on the sideline, one of my teammates on bench swatted me on the rear (athletes do this to one another despite it being inappropriate in normal life) and said, “Smith, you’re playing awesome—keep it up!” I turned and looked at him, and in that moment I realized something I had forgotten for the past ten minutes: that I was playing basketball. The crowd noise suddenly blared, like someone had just cranked up the stereo. I nervously threw the ball in bounds, and tried to get back to that zone. To no avail. For the rest of the game I played terribly. I never scored again, and made a lot of turnovers. My star opponent soon caught on fire. It was a nightmare, until the last few seconds of the game.
In the final seconds, down by a point, my teammate stole a pass and threw the ball to me and I raced down the court for a lay-up, only to be fouled (pretty hard) by my opponent. With no time remaining on the clock, I was awarded two free-throws. I made the first, tying the game. With a chance to win the game, I let the ball fly, only to watch it clank off the back of the rim. Now tied, we went into overtime. We lost, by five points, and I never scored again. I was crushed and felt defeated. What had happened?
When I was in the “zone” I was in the flow of the moment. I was completely concentrated on what was in front of me. I had my “head in the game,” as my coach had barked at me all week. In the zone, I played with a clear focus. I played without self-awareness. It was only later, in the locker room, that I learned I had scored 16 straight points. I played without fear. Every time I shot, I never thought of missing. When my teammate swatted me on the rear, that all ended. From that moment on I was self-aware (“Smith, you’re playing awesome”). I played with pressure (“keep it up!”). I played with fear. My opponent, whom I had dominated, now intimidated me. My head was no longer in the game, and I was awful.
I had not thought about that story for at least a decade until one morning in prayer I said to God, “Just tell me this—what is the one thing, the one thing I could do that would strengthen my life as an apprentice of Jesus?” I heard the Spirit say, “Get your head in the game.” It was the exact same phrase as my basketball coach, but said in a much more gentle tone. In that time of prayer I asked the Lord to explain what that means. God then brought this verse to my mind: “Set your mind on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:2)
Set your mind. That is the key. In that verse, those three words “set your mind,” comes from one Greek word: phroneo. It is also translated as “savor” or “be mindful” or “think on.” Bible scholars say it refers to “the seat of intellectual and spiritual activity.” The ancient Greeks used the word to describe an inner disposition “oriented to the good and the beautiful.”[i] One important verse where phroneo is used is in Matt. 16:23. In that passage, Jesus tells the disciples that he will be killed, but raised again, on the third day. Peter says, “Never, Lord, will this happen to you!” And Jesus responds with the famous rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan, you are an offense to me, because you set your mind (phroneo) not on the things of God, but the things of man.”
The “things of man” would refer to the kingdom of this world, and its values, such as power, pleasure, self-preservation and wealth. Jesus is essentially telling Peter, “Get your head in the game, the real game, which is the Kingdom of God, and its values of self-sacrifice, beauty, goodness, truth, and love.” To “set your mind” of the kingdom of this world is tempting, because we are constantly bombarded with its values. Everywhere I turn I see it. Buy more, be more, have more. Yet seeking the kingdom of this world is fraught with frustration and fear.
Jesus tells us to “seek first the Kingdom of God and his right ways, and you will have everything you need” (Matt. 6:33). He says this in response to those who spend their life worrying about what they will eat, or drink, or wear. To get your head in the worldly game is to live in anxiety and despair. To get your head in the Kingdom of God game is find life and peace. Paul says the same when he tells the Colossian Christ-followers, “Since you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above. Set your mind (phroneo) on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1-2). Christ-followers are united with Jesus and his new reign, and we are invited—urged even—to get our heads in that game.
That is what I most want right now. To have the same kind of focus on the Kingdom of God that I had in that basketball game long ago. To be utterly caught up on this game that is happening all around me, the with-God life to which I have been invited, is my aim and purpose. To be so in the zone of Kingdom of God that I am completely unaware of anything else, not the least of all, of myself. And when I get in that zone I pray that no one snaps me out of it.
[i] Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 9, p. 222
Dr. James Bryan Smith (M.Div., Yale University Divinity School; DMin Fuller Seminary) is the Executive Director of the Apprentice Institute. Dr. Smith is currently a theology professor at Friends University, in Wichita, Kansas, and an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. He is the author of eight books, most notablyThe Apprentice Series (InterVarsity Press), which continue to shape the work of the Apprentice Institute. Dr. Smith’s other titles include Devotional Classics (with Richard J. Foster), Embracing the Love of God, Room of Marvels, and Hidden in Christ.
Join Dr. Smith and other Christian Formation authors and speakers this October for The Apprentice Gathering 2015 – The Joy of Kingdom Living. Learn more at www.apprenticegathering.org.