This week, we've examined the benefits and dangers of sports from the perspective of Christianity. If you missed those posts, I'd encourage you to go back and read them, as they are the basis for the practical ideas I'm going to provide here.
As Christians, how can we respond to sports in a way that honors God and allows us to enjoy them without sin or shame?
First, do enjoy sports as a good gift from a kind and gracious God. Like we said at the beginning of the week, sports are a wonderful opportunity to honor God with our bodies. At their best, they provide us pure enjoyment without the sin that often accompanies worldly recreation. They can promote community and teach us values that are consistent with the character of God. So don't be afraid to play or to watch sports.
Second, intentionally praise God before, during, and after playing sports (or watching them). Go beyond mere participation and make a point of remembering the God who provides us with every good gift (James 1:17). Thank Him for healthy bodies, innocent fun, the chance to play and rest, and the weather that allows us to do so.
Third, play and watch in moderation. Don't let football or any other sport become an idol. If you think about your favorite team more than you think about God, then it's an idol. If you watch so many games that your family suffers, it's an idol. If your city-league softball game is the most important event in your week, then sports has become your idol. Set some boundaries around how many games you play or watch each week, in order to be sensible and disciplined.
Fourth, don't take sports too seriously. This relates to the issue of idolatry. This is going to rub some people the wrong way, but I'll say it anyway: it's just a game. It's meant to be fun -- it's supposed to be viewed with a light-hearted attitude. If you find yourself in angry confrontations with other fans, or if your team's loss leaves you depressed and unable to focus on work, you're probably taking it too seriously. If you scream at your kid's t-ball ref or encourage people to cheat in order to win, you're taking it too seriously. The game is not as significant as your character, your relationships, or your spiritual life. Remember Paul's exhortation in 1 Timothy 4:8.
Finally, encourage the best aspects of sports while discouraging the worst. Reconsider which sports you watch and promote -- are they filled with excessive violence, cheating, or drug abuse? Do they entertain an audience through the exploitation or abuse of young men and women? If so, should we actively encourage such behavior by buying tickets or patronizing advertisers? I'm being deliberately vague, so each person can work the specifics out before God. Still, we must submit our entertainment habits to Him, even if that submission is painful.
Hopefully this short series has been somewhat helpful as we evaluate the relationship between sports and the Christian life. What other questions or concerns would your raise about this subject?
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On Monday I discussed the benefits of sports and athletic activity from a spiritual perspective. Today I want to address the darker side of sports. It's no secret that cheating, bodily abuse, and other sins and excesses are fairly common in sports at all levels. The recent football scandal at the University of Miami is just one illustration among many.
So how do sports become so corrupted when there are so many positive elements in them? Like every area of human activity, sports are corrupted by human sin as a result of the Fall (Genesis 3).
Most of the individual problems we find in sports are rooted in one major problem: the sin of idolatry. Here are a few of the idols that creep into sports and keep them from being a pure celebration of God's goodness:
- Worship of the Physical Body -- Instead of viewing the physical body as a wonderful gift provided by our Creator, we're often tempted to treat the body itself as our god (Romans 1:25; Phil 3:19). When we do that, physical fitness and achievement become the ultimate goals of life. Consequently, people abuse their bodies through drugs, unhealthy appetites, and excessive exercise. Paul addresses this issue directly in 1 Timothy 4:8, a verse we'll return to in the next post.
- Worship of Entertainment -- We've all heard the phrase "sports widow," referring to a woman whose husband is so involved in watching and attending sporting events that he invests no time in his marriage. As I mentioned in my first post, I enjoy watching games from time to time. But when the entertainment value I derive from sports replaces my relationships with God and others, it's become an idol. If my attitude is determined by whether my favorite team won last weekend, it's probably time to reevaluate my relationship to sports.
- Worship of Celebrity -- This isn't a problem unique to sports; it exists in every area of our culture. Instead of identifying with and imitating Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:1), millions of men and women attach themselves to sports figures in unhealthy ways. Young people often fall into the other forms of idolatry above because they want to be exactly like their idols, the heroes our culture celebrates. At its best, celebrity status can direct men and women to Christ -- after all, we do need leadership. At its worst, though, celebrity status can create a twisted form of hero worship that has no place in Christian discipleship.
- Worship of Money -- The wish to be wealthy is often paired with the desire to be famous. If greed weren't a motivator for athletes, then scandals like those at Miami and at SMU in the 1980s wouldn't happen. But it's not just the athletes who are guilty -- it's a system that worships the financial benefits that accrue from television contracts and increased ticket sales. The current systems (and our participation in them) ought to be evaluated in light of passages like 1 Timothy 6:6-10.
- Worship of Self -- Finally, the drive to win at all costs is often nothing more than a desire to be personally exalted at the expense of others. I don't think friendly competition is evil in itself -- Paul wouldn't use so many victory and sports metaphors if he felt it was inherently wrong. However, when victory is obtained through excessive violence or dishonesty, it's time to rethink how we approach the game. When parents find their own significance in their kids' sports victories, hollering at referees and forcing their kids to practice obsessively, their priorities have gotten mixed up.
Again, sports is not evil in itself. It has the potential to create community and remind us of God's grace and kindness. However, when these idols creep in, it becomes much less than what God intended and diverts our attention from worshipping Him.
My next post will focus on the practical implications of these first two. How do we approach playing and viewing sports as Christians?
Do you have comments or questions on this post? Would you add to or disagree with any of the statements I've made?
“I think Jesus would have been a great basketball player. He would have been one of the most tenacious guys out there. I think he’d really get in your face. Nothing dirty, but he’d play to win.”
- Mark Eaton, former Utah Jazz basketball player
“If Christ came to Sydney today, he would be on ‘the Hill’ at cricket matches driving home the lessons of the game. One can imagine Christ reminding the crowd that Satan was the deadliest and most determined googly bowler of all time.”
- Rev. T. McVittie, moderator of the Sydney Presbyterian Church during the 1930s.
(Quotes taken from The 776 Even Stupider Things Ever Said, by Ross and Kathryn Petras)
I don't know what a "googly bowler" is, but the quotes above illustrate the sometimes awkward nature of trying to integrate theology with sports. For some, sports represent every positive character trait Christianity has to offer -- endurance, cooperation, leadership, and discipline. For others, sports are a dangerous pastime, one that encourages millions of people to worship the false gods of celebrity, violence, money, and entertainment.
So how should Christians understand and interact with the world of sports? In particular, how should we view the worlds of college and professional sports, which provide us with joy, but are also filled with sinful behaviors and attitudes?
I've never been a particularly good athlete, but I enjoy playing from time to time. I also enjoy watching -- last week I watched the World Series with interest, and I have college football on in the background while I'm typing this post. (NOTE: Both of my teams lost this weekend -- I'll try not to sound too angry as I write this).
To be honest, though, I've never spent a great deal of time considering what the Bible has to say about sports. I'd imagine that most of my readers are in the same boat. It turns out that the subject is quite complicated, and there is precious little written about it. It also turns out that the Bible is relatively quiet on the issue.
This topic will occupy my next few posts, because it's not as simple as laying out clear commands from the Bible. Instead, we need to look at what the Bible has to say about related subjects -- the importance of the physical body, the value of play, the joy of community, and the dangers of idolatry.
In this first post, we will briefly look at the value of sports when they are pursued in a way that honors God. We'll deal with some of the negative components of sports and with practical implications in the next couple of posts. So as we begin, how can sports honor God?
First, sports at their best are an expression of the fact that we are body and spirit. A common misunderstanding in Christian theology is that the body is evil or inferior and that spiritual development is all that matters. Biblically, though, our body and soul belong to God, and both are made for His glory (1 Cor 6:13, 19-20; 2 Cor 4:10; Phil 1:20). The miracle of life occurred when God breathed spirit into the dust that composed man's body (Gen 2:7). We are body and spirit, not simply spirits with a disposable shell.
For that reason, when we run, jump, and use the abilities God has given our bodies, we display His creativity and excellence. And when we watch and celebrate those who have extraordinary skills, we can praise the Creator who made their bodies and ours.
Second, sports remind us that we're created for community. Of course the purest form of community happens between those who are united in the Spirit of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). But there is also value in remembering that I'm not that different from the non-Christian who lives next door. We're both people, made in the image of God, and as a result we hold some values in common. When we watch or play sports together, we can unite around common joys and sorrows. Everybody appreciates bravery, discipline, victory, leadership, and camaraderie.
For example, while typing this post, I watched a football player return a kickoff for a touchdown. The camera panned to the crowd, where fans were hugging, high-fiving, smiling, and cheering together. For a brief moment, they were united in celebration of some common values -- values originally created by God -- whether they knew it consciously or not. As Christians, we have the opportunity to recognize those connections and even shed light on why we want to celebrate together.
Third, sports remind us that God gives His people joy. The writer of Ecclesiastes is generally pessimistic, but he repeatedly states that enjoyment and pleasure are God's gift to mankind (2:24-26; 3:13; 5:19). Even marriage is given as a gift for us to rejoice (Proverbs 5:18). For David, celebrating God was a reason to leap and dance around (2 Sam 6:16; 1 Chron 15:29). I see no reason why leaping and dancing and playing cannot be an expression of worship to God. God is not a miser, and He rejoices in giving joy to His people.
All that said, I know that sports, and professional sports in particular, contain many problems and sins. The world is corrupted by sin, so it's no surprise that physical enjoyment would be corrupted as well. So on Wednesday we'll explore the darker side of sports in more detail.
As you think about sports, are there other benefits or joys that I've missed? Do you have questions or concerns about the ones I've listed?