Saka: faith in the spotlight

It’s rare to find a Scotland fan cheering on an England player in any national sporting competition, let alone a World Cup where our own squad is sitting, dejectedly, at home. However, this Scot was doing exactly that this week. Not, I would hasten to add, because of English footballing prowess. I’ll be as French as onion soup for the next 24 hours. Rather, I was cheering some comments by inspiring young England and Arsenal winger, Bukayo Saka.

At a press conference in Qatar last week Saka was asked about his reading habits: “You’ve said you read the Bible, are you still doing that out here?” quizzed a journalist. The footballer, 21, replied: “I read my Bible every night, I’ve been continuing to do that out here. For me, it is really important to have the presence of God in me all the time and it gives me more confidence to know that God’s plan is perfect. So I can go on the pitch and know that God has my back.”

Bukayo Saka: ‘I read the Bible every night’

Going on to describe his approach to games, in an international competition that would stress out the most experienced and accomplished players, the youngster added, “the main thing for me is just keeping my faith. Just having faith in God so I don’t need to be nervous or worry about any outcomes because obviously this is my first World Cup. You know, I can start worrying about different things and different outcomes, but instead I just choose to put my faith in God”.

It isn’t the first time Saka has mentioned God. He previously told GQ Magazine, “throughout life, you keep exercising your faith, so when you get into different challenges, you decide, ‘this time I’m going to trust God’”. He also told pupils at his old school he’s trying “to get to know God more” and reads the Bible “a lot”. In the world of football – associated with wealth, sex, and prestige – he’s describing the pursuit of treasures that do not spoil (Matthew 6:19-21). It’s lovely to see.

It was also encouraging for UK Christians to witness such a natural, and open articulation of Christianity in the public eye. These kinds of testimonies are much, much rarer than they used to be. In fact, it has become increasingly difficult for Bible-believing Christians to speak about their faith in public life. In politics and the media, perhaps more than other areas, being open about faith can mean being subjected to abuse and hostility – even mild persecution.

I can start worrying about different things and different outcomes, but instead I just choose to put my faith in God

Bukayo Saka

In my last article for The Critic, I covered the case of David Campanale, a professing Christian who left a successful career as a journalist at the BBC World Service to enter politics as a candidate for the Lib Dems. Mr Campanale alleged that he was “humiliated, ostracised and punished” by party members, who conspired to have him de-selected as candidate in South London because they hated his Christian beliefs. There was nothing liberal or democratic about their behaviour.

Rising anti-Christian sentiment is also evident in wider culture. High-profile cases in recent years have involved Christian people being wrongly arresteddragged to court for refusing to endorse political slogans or fired for not complying with woke diktats. In November, Glasgow City Council was ordered to pay £100k to the son of late evangelist Billy Graham for cancelling his booking at a big venue in the city. In court, it emerged that a Green MSP had urged the cancellation.

The UK is far adrift from its Christian moorings, and has become increasingly secular. In some ways this is good – the Christian religion has become disentangled from worldly power structures where it ought not to have been, for example. In other ways, secularism is decidedly bad – the efforts of militant secularists have led to a place where, in the words of theologian Michael Bird, people “seek to sanitise religion from the public square and even regulate aspects of religion”.

It has become increasingly difficult for Bible-believing Christians to speak about their beliefs in public life

I could wax lyrical about secularisation and the need for, and benefits of, religious freedom. But I want to end on a positive note here. Christian testimonies in the public eye may be rare today. They may be met with hostility and anger, when they weren’t so much in the past. However, the fact people like Bukayo Saka can speak as he did shows freedom is still there. In spite of changing culture and cancel culture, it is still possible to humbly and openly articulate faith in Jesus Christ.

This knowledge can help lift weary, fearful heads, and encourage us to pursue joyful, and winsome expression of the Gospel where we are today. We mustn’t let culture dictate the terms on when and where we can speak. This was never a premise the disciples, or Jesus himself, accepted – and they risked far more than we do in speaking out. Let’s speak fearlessly, and in love, in whatever sphere we are in. The Spirit empowers, and the Lord brings the harvest.

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”.

Romans 10:9-10

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