It might be hard to believe, but in this social-media-driven age, I have never written an “open letter.” Congratulations, I guess, for being the recipient of my first one. Admittedly, I find the “open letter” kind of strange and awkward. After all, this is addressed to you and I’m (almost) pretty sure you will never read it. I would guess most open letters are not read by the person to whom they are addressed. Maybe six people will read this one. Maybe 600. I don’t know. But I’m still addressing it to you because otherwise, well, it wouldn’t be an open letter.
After game five of the Finals on Sunday, you said in the postgame interview, “I’m confident because I’m the best player in the world.” How can we blame you for being honest and authentic? You released those words so effortlessly, so calmly, like you believe it. And I’m sure you do. It would have been dishonest of you to say otherwise, of course. Everyone knew you were right. You are, in fact, the best all-around basketball player in the world at this time. Maybe ever. That’s quite a feat–one that should bring you a great sense of accomplishment. You have worked hard, as you said. You’ve earned it.
But I do wonder. Are you really confident? And are you confident because you are the best player in the world? I ask for the obvious reason: if you have to sell us on the fact that you are the best player in the world, then perhaps you are trying to convince yourself of your own value and worth and ability. To put it bluntly, I wonder if you were trying to justify your entire existence. But not to us. To yourself.
You probably don’t see it this way. And I understand that, but hear me out. We all know you are the greatest. We don’t need you to tell us. We were already convinced. Your play has convinced us. You are, truly, justified in our eyes. So why the sales pitch? Why the need to voice it? Why the justification?
It’s natural for me to pose this question, of course. You are down 3-2 in a best of seven. You are playing at such a high level, scoring more, passing crisper, rebounding harder than anyone on that floor. You are a beast and a ballerina–at the same time–on the floor. All-stars stand in awe of you. And yet it might not be enough. You very well could lose this series–tonight even. The best player in the world could be on the losing end of things–at least this year. And, if I know anything about the human heart, you will continue to try to convince yourself that you are enough even (especially?) in defeat.
You should know, LeBron, that I’m not above this. On a daily basis, I attempt to justify my existence to others. I want to show others that I am enough. These people don’t write articles and blogs and op-eds about me (thank God!). But I still go about the sales pitch. I defend myself. Blame shift (I’m very skilled at this one, ask my wife). Exaggerate my virtues. Hide my vices. I make my case like a seasoned attorney but deep down, in my sane moments when I’m honest, I realize that I’m not trying to convince a jury of my peers–my wife, my kids, my parents, my friends, my enemies. I’m trying to convince me. Your sneakers may be a bit bigger than mine, but rest assured, I’ve walked in your shoes. I’m not calling you out for something I’ve never done or acknowledged. My words have just never made it on SportsCenter.
When a person resorts to self-aggrandizement and self-promotion, everyone else cringes. We find it ugly. We might not be able to put our finger on specifics, but we realize it’s not meant to be that way. There’s something very attractive and beautiful about someone who has attained mastery, or near mastery, of some skill or subject and yet is able to go about his business with a quiet, dignified humility. This person knows who he is. He knows his worth and value. He doesn’t need to defend or sell or give witness to himself. Above all, he knows that if he were to extol his greatness, it would diminish his achievements. I want to be more like that.
If this series doesn’t go the way you want, you could say, “Wait ’til next year.” That’s the great thing about sports, right? There’s always next year. Until there’s not a next year. You won’t play forever. Nobody does. Eventually, your body will break down and you will be a shadow of your “prime” self. (My athletic prime lasted for about four and a half innings playing spring baseball as a sophomore in high school. But I digress.) You will have to walk away from the game. Like Michael. Like Magic. Like Larry. You will be the best ever, probably, but walking away nonetheless. And in the end will you be enough? That’s what this is really about: is LeBron James enough for LeBron James?
There is a way to know you are enough. There’s a better way than the road of self-aggrandizement and self-justification and self-promotion. Everything in this world is finite. It ends–games, seasons, careers. Money and possessions. Family and relationships. Even life. It all goes away. Everything in this world, if we put our hope in those things, will leave us feeling unsatisfied and incomplete. Therefore, if we seek to convince ourselves, or others, that we are enough based on things that fade away (i.e. being the best basketball player in the world) we’ll be disappointed. Every time.
The things I’ve said about you, about me, are true of everyone. We are all trying to convince ourselves of our worth. Everyone is trying to justify their existence. And that turns in to a radical rebellion against God. There was a great thinker back in the fourth and fifth century named Augustine and he prayed once to God, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” He’s getting at something profound. We were made for sweet relationship with God, finding our identity and sense of worth in him. If we find it elsewhere, we go about the sales pitch.
An author named C.S. Lewis once wrote, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” LeBron, you were made for another world–a great world. A world beyond your wildest dreams. A world where you can have rock solid confidence based not on your performance on the court or in life but based on the performance of Another.
You see, LeBron, there was one Man who walked this earth and had mastered everything. Life. Temperament. Personality. Love. Conversation. Forgiveness. Mercy. Justice. He got it all right. Nothing imperfect or amiss. And yet, curiously, he never pointed to himself. He didn’t self-promote. He never had to justify himself before others. It’s like he knew who he was and found his identity–his sense of “enough-ness” in something other than himself and what people thought of him. And people, remarkably, found this refreshing and beautiful.
This Man? His name is Jesus.
And this sad story of humanity is why Jesus entered the picture. Because we’ve committed this kind of treason against a good Creator, we should pay. We stole glory and praise and applause from God. That’s treason! But Jesus takes our place. He’s the perfect one. The Master. The only one who had it all figured out and actually deserved to self-promote! He deserved to be praised and worshiped! And yet, he entered the picture to pay the penalty for us on a Roman cross. On that cross, he took the punishment we deserved for stealing from God. And at the same time he took the punishment, he did the unthinkable: he promoted us to the Father. He took the blame in our place, and he gave us everything he deserved: innocence, perfection, righteousness, and, yes, the approval, acceptance, and praise of God the Father. What more could we ask for? This is so much more than being the best basketball player, or husband or father or employee or anything, can give us.
LeBron, as much as I can in an awkward open letter, I invite you to bank your life on this Man, Jesus. If you do, there will be freedom and joy and true confidence that, no matter what, you are loved and accepted and welcomed and approved. So then when your back is against the wall–like tonight in game six, for example–you can be the hardwood beast and ballerina God made you to be, but with a quiet, dignified humility knowing that what Jesus has done, not what you do for yourself, him, or anyone else, is more than enough for you.
I wish you the very best tonight.
With the utmost respect and sincerity,
Clifton Park, NY