When I hear someone say, “War Eagle,” or see someone wearing Auburn sports gear, I almost reflexively feel obligated to respond, “Roll Tide!” It seems like a duty, a moral responsibility even. To call football in the South culturally a big deal is akin to saying the Grand Canyon is a big hole in the ground. Any time Alabama and Auburn meet on the football field, everything else in the state grinds to a halt. Football analyst Beano Cook once said, “Alabama-Auburn is not just a rivalry. It’s Gettysburg South.” The thought of a wedding or funeral in the state of Alabama on the day of the Iron Bowl would be met with a “Bless their heart.”
I am an unabashed sports fan, but I do not write this article as a fan — rather, as a Christian pastor and a seminary professor. Any discussion of the widespread love of sports begs the question, Is this good or bad? My answer is an unequivocal yes. It all depends on whether sports are summed up in Christ or abstracted from him. God did not create sports — people did. But people created sports in a reflexive response to the world God created. Sports are capable of providing spectacular glimpses of truth, beauty, and goodness, as athletes tune and discipline their bodies to perform amazing feats. I consider sports to be a competitive manifestation of the performing arts.
But God’s good gifts are always in danger of being corrupted into idols. Idolatry is often subtle because we tend to make idols of good things — like sports. We can fixate so much on a particular good thing that it becomes an ultimate thing to us. Any time we think that we cannot be happy or satisfied without something, we have made it an object of worship — an idol.
Is your commitment to sports becoming a substitute god rather than a means of delighting in God? To help you decide whether or not you are corrupting God’s good gift of sports, I have offered several guidelines.
Do you enjoy sports as a good gift of God even when your favorite team loses?
Tragically, it is not difficult to find, even among professing Christians, idolatrous excesses in devotion to sports competition as a player or as a fan. In my home state, the Alabama-Auburn rivalry has been connected to incarceration, divorce, violence, and recently, the poisoning of majestic trees that were a part of one of the grandest traditions in college football. For such people, allegiance to a favorite team is not an enjoyment of God’s good gift of athletics, or a rooted cultural identity marker, but an obvious idol. Most who read this article will never contemplate such atrocious acts; however, idolatry that is more subtle is no less an act of rebellion.
If one cannot delight in God with thanksgiving for a hard-fought contest when your team loses, then you are perverting God’s good gift of athletics and teaching those around him to do the same. Christian parent, if you cannot root like crazy with your children for your favorite team — only to see them lose — and afterward laugh and play in the yard with your kids, you have a problem; it’s called idolatry. I have known children who desperately wanted their dad’s favorite team to win, not because they cared all that much but because they knew their father would be sour the rest of the day if his favorite team lost. Such behavior is pathetic for one whose identity is in Christ.
I once knew a godly man who just happened to have season football tickets for the local college team and invited me along to attend a game. During the middle of the game, I was stunned when he blurted out an occasional profanity I had never before heard him utter. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. His demeanor was also aggressive and rude to those around him. When I saw him later at church or at his job, he was back to the godly and faithful man I had always known. At the stadium, the outcome of the game was functionally his lord, which is a problem for one who confesses Jesus is Lord.
If your behavior at a game would make it awkward for you to shift the conversation to your faith in Christ, you are making an idol of sports. I have known Christians who prefer to watch games alone because they did not want others to observe the way they act. Abraham Kuyper’s dictum should shape our interest in sports: “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”
Paul seizes the metaphor of sports as a key image to explain Christian living because success in athletics demands purposeful self-sacrifice and requires self-discipline for a cause greater than the individual (1 Cor 9:24-27; Phil 3:13-14; Gal 2:2; Eph 6:12; 2 Tim 2:4-7). A Christian approach to sports as a participant or as spectator involves being inspired to worship the Creator through witnessing the honed physical gifts and agonizing determination of his image-bearers who compete with excellence. Therefore, Christians should be challenged to offer a similar purposeful, sacrificial devotion and discipline in their vocation and endeavors.
How many Christians rigorously critique the job performance, dedication, and work ethic of the coach of their favorite team while simultaneously complaining about their job and excusing their own lack of work ethic and dedication? Such is a sad commentary on their lack of commitment to the priority of the kingdom of Christ. Where this is happening, the love of sports has become detached from the Christian life and transformed into a barrier rather than a bridge to worshipping Christ. Participants and fans watch and enjoy the beauty, effort, and focus that the sporting contest brings out in its participants and Christians should be challenged to agonize in similar fashion for the glory of Christ in their own vocation (Col 3:17).
A Christ-centered approach
Throughout church history, Christians have struggled with their relationship to sports, which is appropriate since we are called to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). Unthinking rejection or enjoyment of sports are both a failure of Christian discipleship. I believe that the Christian with a rightly ordered, Christ-centered worldview is uniquely in a position to enjoy athletic competition as a good gift from God. Nevertheless, we must be aware of the danger of rendering sports an idol rather than a gift.
David E. Prince is assistant professor of Christian preaching at Southern Seminary and pastor of Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky.