Playing for an Audience of One

By John Smoltz, as told to Tim Luke   •   September 2, 2005

Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz, 38, is in his 18th season with the Atlanta Braves. He won the 1996 Cy Young Award as the National League’s top pitcher and twice has been named Marvin Miller Man of the Year by the Major League Baseball Players Association. Smoltz’s greatest highlight came in 1995—and not because his team won the World Series. That was also the year he accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. His career and Christian walk have faced many challenges, including four surgeries on his pitching elbow. This summer he spoke with Tim Luke, a former Braves beat writer, to share his testimony and tell how the Lord is helping him grow as a Christian.

Ever since I’ve been in baseball, I’ve gone to baseball chapel. Every step of my life I’ve always tried to do what’s right. So I thought that I had life pretty much figured out. I thought I was a good person. But reading and hearing about what a personal relationship with Jesus means has made me think about a lot of things.

Enduring a rocky career with many ups and downs, I’ve always been molded through perseverance. But I also needed people’s approval. So everything I did was geared around making sure people thought and said the right things about me.

In 1995, I sat down at a restaurant with Walt Wiley, our team chaplain at the time. I asked him, “Why can’t I just live the way I want to live until I’m 42 or 43 and then get serious about God?”

He said, “Nothing prevents you from doing that–with the exception of one thing: You might not get to your target date.” At that point I no longer wanted to take chances, so I accepted Jesus and began to live for Him. Someone might think that’s why I had my Cy Young season in 1996, but it’s not. However, it is why I was able to handle my Cy Young season.

From one standpoint, my testimony is boring because God has protected me from so many things. I don’t do drugs. I don’t drink. I don’t curse. I’m pretty much the nerd who grew up getting picked on. Yet I’ve had favor in the clubhouse and in life because of athletic talent.

In my 18 years with the Braves, I think people know where I stand. They know they can come to me. And I’m going to try to make that approach as easy as possible and try not to miss an opportunity to share, even though I’m sure there are times when I have. I think anytime a guy is going through struggles, it helps to express your personal beliefs. When you start giving a lot of yourself and revealing yourself to others, it shows a real love and concern, especially because guys don’t generally do that. But, personally, I’m just trying to be obedient.

Early on in my walk, I was somewhat ashamed to stand for the Gospel. I’m certainly not ashamed today. Back then I was probably worried about being persecuted. I’m not worried about that today. I’ve been falsely accused. I’ve had many different things written about me, many rumors. But what I know is that character stands the test of time and that Jesus didn’t say if you are persecuted–He said when.

One area of incredible growth for me is a constant breaking down of who I thought I was and who God is making me.

I’m dealing with the grace vs. truth principle right now. Some people live in one camp or the other. It’s hard to be in both. If I just pound you with truth, how receptive are you going to be to what I have to say–or how much are you even going to want to be around me? If I only shower you with grace and never give you truth, then how much are you going to learn and grow? Some people are going to be offended by us, and some people are going to welcome us. It shouldn’t be all one or the other.

Today, my biggest challenge is my time alone with God–my quiet time. Another challenge is the area where I have the greatest capacity to fail: my thought life–the instant flesh reaction to what I want to do versus what I really should do. I’m not there yet, but that’s why I love being surrounded by people who will hold me accountable.

The reality of all of this is that we’re not in control as much as we think we are. I’m one of the most incredible control freaks ever, but God is dealing with me in that area. He’s putting me through Patience 101. I’m a guy who believes that part of my mission as a Christian athlete is to break down some of the myths about Christians being soft and on a puppet string. That’s far from the truth. I’m as competitive as I’ve ever been.

But as a believer I’m following a different set of rules. I’m playing for One instead of for 50,000 fans or even for my family. And these days I find myself experiencing a lot more patience that at times makes me wonder, “Hey, am I losing my edge?” But I know that I’m merely experiencing what I think God has for me in my life now.

It seems that every year He brings something different into my life to make me grow in Christ–and I’m forever grateful.

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  1. Jean Thompson says:

    Wonderful testimony that I have felt so many times myself. I have some years on you, but I can tell you that God is working in you. It is hard to know …when we should share the Gospel, however; everytime you do, its because he gave you that event, time, opportunity. That is how he works through us. When you get the almost immediate calming in a tough situation, to rethink in split seconds what your response will be….not worldly…but his will, you are walking his walk and talking his talk. Blessings to you, your doing a wonderful job by speaking out.

  2. Jeri grey says:

    So glad to have those in the limelight in the sports arena share their walk with Jesus as Lord of their lives. Praying that many fans will get the message and surrender their lives to Him. God bless you for sharing His message of Salvation.

  3. Jean Steele says:

    During these — more than nine — years, I pray John’s faith and hope in Jesus Christ has continued to grow. It was inspiring to read this account of his accepting full accountability of his decisions, and the decision to live for Jesus Christ. I pray that God will forever be glorified in his and his family’s life.

  4. Diana Mitchell says:

    I’m very proud of you and know that our Lord is going to continue Blessing you. Thank you for being a great example for the world. God Bless You

  5. Ben Pittman says:

    What a powerful witness!