A Christian guide to sports

A Christian guide to sports

I grew up playing all kinds of sports.  I played baseball, soccer, football, and hockey when I was young, but mostly I focused on hockey.  I just loved it and could not get enough of it.  I made it to the Division I level and while many of my teammates burned out during college or right after, I did not.  I still love playing and have a blast every time I get on the ice. Because of hockey, I stayed out of jail, off of drugs, and did not become a teen dad.  I have had the opportunity travel all over the United States, spent a year in Canada, and got to go to Germany and Austria to play.  It led me to meet my wife, got me a free college education, and a good job after college.  I have a lot of reasons to be thankful for sports, especially hockey.  However, when looking back, I also see the damage it caused in my life.  It contributed to my getting lower grades; the money spent on hockey almost kept me from going to college; it kept me from just about every other experience you can think of; and it prevented me from building genuine friendships which still makes it hard for me to relate to people today.

 
I would venture to guess that most people just accept sports as good and acceptable because they are such a big part of our culture and to question that makes you weird.  Have you ever considered how sports fit into a Christian worldview and the principles of the Bible?  What about the impact that sports have on people and society?  Before reading on, think for a few minutes about the impact sports have had on your life and how you think God might view sports.

 Hopefully, you really did take some time to think about it.  Now, let me offer a view that has been growing in my mind and conscience for a couple of years and has become more and more clear as I read the Bible and pay attention to sports from the outside.

 
The Good (disclaimer)
Let me first say that I do not think sports are inherently bad, or at least not all sports.  I still play in leagues for hockey and bowling, play many other sports recreationally, and occasionally watch tennis.  Many good things come from sports,  They bring people together, encourage physical fitness and teamwork, teach sportsmanship and mental toughness, build confidence, create jobs, and give people hope.  I do not want to deny these benefits or take them away from anyone.  The point I want to make is that participation in or support for specific sports and high-level competitive sports are not good for society, are antithetical to Christian values, and Christians should be extremely careful in the way that they participate in or support sports.  While I am aware that there are many exceptions to what I discuss below, please remember that I am speaking in generalities and that exceptions are exceptions, not the norm.

 
The Bad & the Ugly
Our country, like just about every country, is obsessed with sports.  We don’t just have one major sport, we have four.  We like to play, but as Americans really like to enjoy sports in more sedentary ways.  We watch the games, re-watch through highlights, check stats online, discuss the games at work, play in fantasy leagues, bet on the outcomes, stay up on drafts and trades during the off-season, and buy apparel to wear, decorate our houses, and stick on our cars.  We pay for premium channels so we can watch every game, buy bigger and better TVs to watch the games on, record games we can’t watch, and spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to go to sporting events.  When we watch the games, we overindulge on (unhealthy) food and usually alcoholic beverages.  As a society, we pay billions of dollars to build stadiums, attend events, buy apparel, and play in fantasy leagues.  To top it all off, all the time and money we spend on sports ultimately goes to people who contribute virtually nothing positive to society.  Even the exceptions to this, athletes who are positive role models and give back to society, are only in a position to do so because of our obsession with their profession.  Many of them could be and probably would be doing much better things if professional (and probably even college) sports did not exist.  I would probably be a doctor serving on the mission field if it were not for hockey.

 
To put it in Christian terms, I would say that for most sports fans, sports are an idol and probably the number one idol they have in their life.  In secular terms, I would say that sports create an unhealthy addiction that distract people away from more important matters.  At this point, I concede that sports are not unique in this way.  However, sports are unique in the extremely high degree to which they distract people away from other things and the volume of people they are a distraction for.  While sports are not the only idol to be aware of, the other main issues I will mention are more or less unique to sports.

 
Not only do sports distract people away from God, family and friends (in some cases they bring people closer to family and friends), work, caring for others, legitimate political discussion or understanding, and other more important topics, but they also bring out the worst in people.  Sports, by their competitive nature, create an environment where the situation often overpowers the person.  Often times kind and gentle people will become complete lunatics while watching or playing a game, and that is when they are sober!  They scream expletives refs and opposing players, name call, tear people down, cheer when people fail, argue with fans of the opposing team, throw things, and sometimes even get happy when a “bad guy” gets injured.  For players, these are all present and usually even to a higher degree.  It’s not uncommon for a player to intentionally try to injure another player or even a referee in order to gain an upper hand or seek revenge.  It’s normal for people to lose their temper while involved in sports, but unlike just about every other situation, people accept this as normal behavior.

 
Many people allow a coach to yell at or even berate a child (especially as kids get older); however, if a teacher did the same thing, the parents would probably file a lawsuit or try to get that teacher fired.  But coaches aren’t the only bad examples. Parents often set terrible examples for their kids regarding sports.  They yell at refs, coaches, and opposing players (children).  They encourage or tolerate unrealistic and unhealthy goals or behaviors from their kids by spending thousands of dollars (their potential college fund?) on the sport, allowing mediocre academic performance, pushing them to practice more, and tolerating a disconnected family.  Sports injuries, especially concussion, can have permanent effects on children, yet parents and coaches accept and rationalize unsafe practices.

 
The nature of sports is competition, which in most cases means that cheering for one team or person forces people to cheer against the other team or person.  In sports where the opponents go head-to- head such as in hockey, basketball, football, baseball, nascar, boxing, and tennis, success for one side means causing the other team or person to fail*.   It is this competitive nature that drives people to forget who they are and act like psychopaths.  Sports that do not have direct head-to-head competition are a little better.  In golf, bowling, skateboarding, skiing, and many track and field events, success does not require directly interfering with the opponent in order to make him or her fail. The result is usually a more positive and ideal atmosphere between opponents and spectators.  It is much more rare to see these inappropriate actions, but still not unheard of.

 
People may get obsessed with other hobbies, such as movies, books, stamp collecting, or anything else, but they do not typically watch or participate in these events to watch someone get hurt or die (there are some exceptions) and they do not actively hope for others to fail.  I will focus on movies because that it my favorite hobby for relaxing.  For movie fans, you can be a fan of Steven Spielberg and James Cameron.  You will never have to hope for one to succeed at the others expense.  You may go to a movie to watch blood and gore, but most people probably do not want to actually watch people get injured or killed in movies (as opposed to fights, highlight reel hits, and car crashes).  Most movie goers do not spend hours talking about movies every week, continually check stats on movies, act like grumpy children when their favorite movie, actor, or director does not do well at the box office, riot when their favorite movie wins best picture, or get into fights about who the best actor is.  There are many idols in our society, but none of them are as widespread, damaging, meaningless, or expensive as sports are.

 
The Solution
Since sports are not inherently bad, I do think there is a way for Christians to participate in and watch sports in a Godly way.  The first thing to do is look at Scripture for guidelines on how to do that.  I think ultimately, as Christians, we should remember that our goal is to glorify God in all we do, live sacrificially for others, be humble, and love others.  Here some of the verses that make those points and can guide or behavior regarding sports (All NASB unless otherwise noted; I intend to add to this list as I find more verses): 

Philippians 2:3-4 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others

Mark 12:29-31 The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord;  and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ “the second is this, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ there is no other commandment greater than these.”

James 4:6 But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

1 Corinthians 10:31 Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

Colossians 3:17 Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.

Galatians 5:19-25 Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.  Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another.

Genesis 1:27 God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

1 Corinthians 10:14 & 1 John 5:21 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.

Romans 13:10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

John 13:35 By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.

Psalm 82:3 (NIV) Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.

Matthew 6:21 & Luke 12:34 for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Proverbs 12:11 He who tills his land will have plenty of bread, But he who pursues worthless things lacks sense.

Proverbs 25:27 It is not good to eat much honey, Nor is it glory to search out one’s own glory.

Using those Scriptures as a guideline, there are many things to think about.  I would start with considering aspects of the specific sport you want to watch or play.  Is the purpose of the sport to cause someone harm?  If so, I cannot imagine any way in which any kind of support for that sport would glorify or honor God.  This means Christians almost certainly should not watch or participate in sports like professional boxing or MMA (amature boxing, martial arts, and greco-roman wrestling are possible exceptions since they are not necessarily concerned with beating another person down so badly that they can no longer fight back).  I do not know what to think about head-to-head sports like hockey, football, baseball, and basketball (1).  On the one hand, the purpose is not necessarily to harm another person (but that does often happen, and hockey fights are about hurting the other), but one cannot play and succeed in these sports without making another person fail.  I would only warn you to be particularly careful in the way you watch or participate in these sports, especially contact sports.

 
Regardless of the sport, another thing to remember is that as Christians, we should want (and even actively pray for) what is best for others, even if they are our opponent in a sport.  This means we should show genuine joy when our opponent performs well and even congratulate them.  This includes watching sports and playing them.  When playing, remember that it is still a game.  We are there to honor God in all we do, have fun, get some exercise, and build relationships.  Do not get caught up in the game and yell at or even argue with the referees, do not jeopardize anyone’s safety, and don’t trash talk or harass your opponents.

 
If you feel the need to pray before or during a sports event, your prayer should include the health and safety of players on both teams and that God be honored by the event.  If you feel you need to pray for the outcome, I would advise you pray more generally for all players to perform at their best, have fun, and to show good sportsmanship instead.

 
Another thing to consider is the amount of time and money are you putting into sports.  One way to know if it’s too much time is to add up all the time you devoted to God per week (reading Bible or other books pertaining to religion, praying, church, missions work, etc.), and compare it to the amount of time spent on sports per week (watching, playing, watching highlights, reading articles, checking stats, talking with friends, etc.).  If the two numbers are anywhere close, you’re probably spending too much time with sports.  My guess is that for most people, watching one football game (average 3.25 hours (2)) is more than their time devoted to God (2 hours at church).  Other guidelines to follow, which also apply to non-religious people, are whether or not sports are negatively affecting your work productivity, your parenting, or your marriage.

 
Conclusion
Sports can certainly be good, especially for kids, but over glorification of them is bad for everyone.  Whether you are watching a sport or participating in it, always remember that your purpose is to glorify God in all that you do.  This means you should be selective about the sports you support and when playing or watching, you should be an example others want to follow.  Always be full of joy and let your light shine.  Most people, even many professing Christians, do not or will not read the Bible, but they will read you.  Make sure you are living your faith in accordance with God’s commands.

I highly recommend listening to the David Platte sermon below on this topic, which will probably be more inspiring than this article.  There is also a good article on CNN that you can find in the footnotes (3).
 
Footnotes

  1. I am personally struggling with whether or not head-to-head sports or morally acceptable.
  2. Average football game last 3 hours 12 minutes but only has 11 minutes of playing time. http://qz.com/150577/an-average-nfl-game-more-than-100-commercials-and-just-11-minutes-of-play/
  3. Another good article on sports and faith. “It’s an incomplete Christianity that’s brought to bear on sports…They are blind and silent on the larger moral issues that vex the sports sector.” http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/wayoflife/05/25/God.sports/index.html?hpt=C1

 

Right Click here to download this highly recommended sermon from David Platte on the same topic, which is more thorough and inspiring than this article.

 

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