God and Sports: Keeping it together
“I was a Christian and a basketballer,” said Darren Smith, who played in the Australian National Basketball League. But, he admitted, “I felt that they were two different spheres.” That was until Darren was asked to play in a series of games with a touring Athletes in Action team. The squad was comprised of players mostly from the United States.
They held daily devotionals, recalls Darren, and spent a lot of time praying for each other. This had a big impact on the young basketballer: “It was the first time I’d ever done that with basketball players. That’s when I started recognizing that God is in everything… including basketball.”
Darren’s original outlook is common amongst believers who are involved with sports. Their Christianity is one sphere of their life, while their sporting involvement is another distinctive and quite separate sphere. The two do not interact in any significant way.
On the other side of the globe, Andrew Winfield Digby once thought similarly. The sports-mad son of an English vicar, Andrew was converted in his late teens and went on to represent Oxford University in cricket. Now a minister, he recalls: “As a new Christian I saw no real connection between sport and my Christian faith. It was like something I did when I was ‘off duty.’ I had no real understanding of how sport was a gift from God, or of how it could actually be part of my Christian ministry.”
Recognizing that sports are part of our Christian life, not separate to it, can be revolutionary. Thinking about and participating in sports Christianly glorifies God, helps us to get more out of the activity and enables us to take part in a way that can significantly promote both our spiritual lives and God’s work in this world. This is something both Darren and Andrew came to understand.
So, how can we think about sports Christianly? How would the Bible have us assess athletic endeavour? Jeremy R Treat very helpfully summarizes biblical teaching applied to this topic by saying that sports are a great gift from God that have both intrinsic and instrumental value. However, in a fallen world we need to beware of the dangers of idolatry and immorality.
Sports have intrinsic value in that they are good in and of themselves. They were given to us by God—the ultimate author of all good things—and should be enjoyed with thanksgiving (1 Tim 4:4). Participants will appreciate the physical challenge, the mental test, the thrill of competition, the feeling of performing an athletic movement well, and the satisfaction of contributing to a smoothly functioning team. Similarly, spectators can gain real joy from observing the performances of others—whether these others are the world’s best or the spectator’s own children.
Sports also have great instrumental value. Participating promises many positive outcomes: rest and relaxation, friendships, opportunities for Christian witness and spiritual encouragement, improved health, character development, and travel or employment possibilities.
But in the real world, sports are played, run and watched by fallen people. There is the danger of idolatry: taking a good thing and making it into a god thing. This is extremely common. In the 1960s, the American runner Jim Ryun set world records in the 800 metres, 1500 metres and the mile. Looking back, he admits: “For ten years, running was my god. I gave my god the best of everything—my time, my energy, my love.” Not only does this misuse of a sport fail to bring glory to God, Jim, now a Christian, admitted that it was not a satisfying existence.
The other danger with sports, as with all spheres of life, is immorality. Bad thinking and behavior can be associated with sports both on and off the field. People can play in a violent and selfish manner. Sportsmen and women can find themselves embroiled in drink, drug and sex scandals. Examples sadly abound.
The key to sports being a spiritual help not a hindrance is for the Christian to seek to live with and for God both on and off the field. This is done as we stay close in our relationship with God, and as we wisely consider the pluses and minuses associated with particular athletic interests. In terms of our relationship with God, Jesus says:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
This ‘remaining’ is done as we stay connected with the Coach via Bible reading and reflection, prayer and consistent Christian fellowship. Reflecting on sports from this perspective will better equip us to identify the opportunities and dangers associated with them. When we walk closely with God as players and fans, truly great things can result.
Jill Ireland was a freshman at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom and, for a sports-mad girl from Yorkshire, things could not have been better. She was playing in the university firsts for hockey, and off the field was enjoying the freedoms of campus life. Lynda Hewitt, a final year student from Northern Ireland, was also in the university firsts. An extremely fit and competitive player, she was also kind, funny, considerate and caring. In addition, she was a Christian. Lynda’s behaviour caught Jill’s attention.
One day, when Jill was sitting next to Lynda during a post-game three-hour bus trip, their conversation moved from boys to God. Jill was interested and Lynda offered to read the Bible with her. The two of them started to meet to do this each week. Lynda introduced Jill to other Christians—including Christians who played sports—and before long Jill prayed and committed her life to Christ.
The two women started attending church, the university’s Christian Union and a Christians in Sport prayer group. They helped run a Christian camp in Northern Ireland, and went on a Christians in Sport hockey mission trip to Kenya.
At the end of her studies Jill started to work with Christians in Sport and moved to Oxford. The position involved encouraging students to do what Lynda had done for her: to pray for their non-Christian teammates, to play sport in a way that honored God, and to say something about Jesus when the opportunity arose.
In Oxford, Jill joined a local hockey club and soon found herself in spiritual conversations with a teammate called Wendy. They became friends and spent time together. “Very simply, I did for Wendy what Lynda had done for me,” says Jill. This was a case of 2 Timothy 2:2 in action: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” Before long Wendy committed her life to Christ. Says Jill: “There is no greater privilege than seeing God at work in a friend’s life, as he draws them to himself, and they accept his wonderful offer of life in all its fullness!”
We see here a sport being not only enjoyed for its own sake, but also as a place for friendship, Christian witness and discipleship. It also provided opportunities for travel, employment and (presumably) good health. When sports are integrated into our Christian lives they can truly be a real plus for the kingdom of God.
Stephen's new book, The Good Sporting Life is available now!