Sport Is Good But It Is Not God
In June Liverpool Football Club won the Champions League – soccer’s biggest domestic club trophy. It is worth millions of dollars, and the final game draws huge numbers of viewers - approximately 400 million worldwide. To put it in perspective the Super Bowl figures amassed under half that amount.
In the 1970s the late Bill Shankly, who is arguably Liverpool’s greatest ever manager, summed up his love of soccer by famously saying,
“Some people say to me, ‘Football is a matter of life and death to you’. And I reply, ‘Listen, it’s much more important than that.’”
For many people this is true. For many fans or the athletes soccer or sport in general is their raison d’etre. They find their joy in the thrill of victory. They find their identity in the feeling of belonging and in being something. They find their hope of glory in the sporting arena.
So how should Christians view sports? On one hand, some of us treat sports simply as recreation with no intrinsic value. On the other hand, many are in danger of making sports a god; even giving more devotion to their favorite team or playing their favorite sport than worshipping Christ and being an active member of a healthy church.
Sport is good
As we think this through we first need to consider sport as part of creation goodness. We know that God created the universe as a triune team, Father, Son and Spirit (Gen. 1:1-2; John 1:3; Heb. 1:3). We can recognise that he worked to do this (Gen. 2:2) and that he was satisfied in his creation by declaring it good (Gen.1: 4,10,12,18, 21, 25, 31). So, creation is good.
But we also recognize that man is made in the image of God. And part of the dominion taking aspect of the creation mandate for Adam and Eve is to extend the borders of Eden and to delight in it as they work and rest (Gen. 1:26-27). “Play” is intrinsic to this. It involves work but it also has restorative value for the individual.
Erik Thoennes says, “Play is a fun, imaginative, non-compulsory, non-utilitarian activity filled with creative spontaneity and humour, which gives perspective, diversion, and rest from necessary work of daily life.”
As God’s children play in new imaginative ways through sports and experience joy in the garden of God’s creation, it points to the goodness of God and his creation.
Also, when we play against one another and striving together for excellence within the rules of a game, it develops healthy competition, which becomes beneficial to oneself and others as it spurs everyone on to the goal of the game. Team sports in particular emphasize working together against opposition in an orderly fashion. This requires exertion and ends in satisfaction and even physical and emotional restoration. It’s a creative reflex of image bearing and we can see in this even a faint analogy to the actions of God in creation: actions that display imagination, order, exertion, satisfaction, and goodness.
So, sport is good and can be seen as an image bearing, dominion-taking reflex and a gift from a good God as we flourish and delight in his creation.
Sport is not God
However, all things, including sports, are affected by the sweeping destruction of sin. To begin with the participants - sportsmen and women - are sinners and are tempted to go beyond the rules in order to win. Whether it involves taking drugs, diving on the field to con the referee or a “win at all costs” mentality, sinful greed and immorality pervades both amateur and professional sports.
And then of course we have the pervasive issue of sport as god, to which the church is not immune. Christian families often go missing from church for several weeks at a time during hockey or soccer season because of Sunday fixtures. Christian parents sometimes find their hope for their promising child athlete in sports not Christ. Christian sports fans can look for their identity and joy in their favorite team instead of their Saviour. Suddenly sport is the object of worship not Jesus. So we must remember that sport is good, but sport is not God.
Sport is a gift redeemed by the gospel
Nevertheless, the gift of sport is redeemed by the gospel. Because of the love of the Father and the life, death and resurrection of the Son, and because of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit applying the benefits of the atonement to us, Christians have a new identity, a new joy, and a new hope in Jesus Christ.
Our motives for playing are now different. We can seek to honor God with our talents and display his creative wisdom. In the film, Chariots of Fire, Christian athlete and missionary to China, Eric Liddell, said, “God made me for China but he also made me fast and when I run I feel his pleasure.”
When you know that all sporting skill is from God, wisdom means diligently using and refining that ability in acknowledgement and fear of the Lord. The appreciation of fans for that moment of beauty in the game is a reflection of the need to praise something good and true and glorious. And so the thrill that the Christian athlete feels in the moment of achievement and the response of the fans is an echo of the pleasure of God himself delighting in the goodness of his creation.
Followers of Jesus can also seek to play sports with a Christian ethic: competitive within the rules of the game, fair minded, sacrificial and persevering. And we can be gracious in victory or defeat knowing our ultimate destiny lies in the victory of Christ and the defeat of Satan and sin.
Furthermore, we can seek to witness to our teammates or fellow sports fans with whatever platform God give us big or small – local or global.
Of course, this witness begins in the home because we can use sports to disciple our children, as David Prince skillfully unpacks in his book, In The Arena. Spiritual warfare marks the Christian life, and Prince shows how the New Testament’s many athletic metaphors highlight the temporal goals of sports to give a framework for the eternal goals of the gospel. Persevering in the face of hardship is a key truth about both sports and the Christian life; putting up with bad calls from referees is part of the game, just as injustices are part of life in a fallen world. But Prince is careful to repeatedly show that desires for sports must be subordinated to desires for Christ. He makes the point that sports are useful in serving Jesus, but that “anyone who says ‘Christ is useful’ is worshiping self, not Christ”.
In summary then, sport is good but it is not God and sport is a gift redeemed by the gospel.
Many people remember Bill Shankly’s famous quote about soccer being more important than life and death. But they don’t remember what he said next; that because of his obsession, “my family suffered and I regret it”. The Christian however, knows that playing sports in this life is not everything. It is a foreshadow of life to come in a new arena – a new Jerusalem - and as the prophet Zechariah says,“…the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets” (Zech. 8:5).
That’s the goal and glory to which sports point. To be children of the Father, conformed to Christ, free from fear of defeat or broken relationships or dissatisfied longings: receiving and participating in the grace of God with joy unspeakable.