“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?