Sport is Good, But it is Not God

In this article from the recent Bulletin of the Affinity Social Issues Team, former Chelsea and Newcastle United star Gavin Peacock highlights the value of sport in human endeavour, but warns against it become an idol that replaces God in our lives:

In May this year Liverpool FC won the Champions’ League – football’s biggest domestic club trophy. To the winner it is worth millions of pounds, and the final game draws huge numbers of viewers – 400 million worldwide. To put it in perspective, the Super Bowl amasses under half that number.

In the 1970s the late Bill Shankly, who was arguably Liverpool’s greatest ever manager, summed up his love of the game when he famously said, ‘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 fans or participants, football (or sport in general) is their raison d’être. They find their joy in the thrill of victory; they find their identity in the feeling of belonging and in being someone; they find their hope of glory in the sporting arena.

So how should Christians view sport? On the one hand, some of us treat it simply as recreation with no special value. On the other, many are in danger of making sport into a god; even as Christians, they may give more devotion to following their favourite team or playing their favourite 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 the goodness of creation. 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 see that he worked to do this (Gen 2:2) and that he was satisfied with his creation by declaring it good (Gen1: 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). So, creation is good.

We also recognise that man is made in the image of God. And part of the dominion-taking aspect of the creation mandate for Adam and Eve was to extend the borders of Eden and to delight in it as they worked and rested (Gen 1:26-27). ‘Play’ is intrinsic to this; it involves work but it also has restorative value for the individual.

Erik Thoennes writes, ‘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.’[1]

As God’s children play in new, imaginative ways through sport and in so doing experience joy in the garden of God’s creation, it points to his goodness and that of all he has made.

Also, when we play against one another and strive together for excellence within the rules of a game, it develops healthy competition, which is beneficial to oneself and others as it spurs us on to the goal of the game. Team sports in particular emphasise working together against opposition in a concerted fashion. This requires exertion and ends in satisfaction and even physical and emotional restoration. It is 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 sport – 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 pervade both amateur and professional sport.

And then of course we have the issue of sport becoming an object of the heart’s worship – something to which even the church is not immune. In America, Christian families often go missing from church for several weeks at a time during the hockey or ‘soccer’ season because of Sunday fixtures. Christian parents sometimes locate their hope for their promising child athlete in sport, not Christ. Christians may look for their identity and joy in their favourite team instead of their Saviour. Suddenly, sport is the object of worship, not Jesus. 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 honour 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 sport fans with whatever platform God give us – big or small, local or global.

This witness begins in the home because we can use sport to disciple our children, as David Prince skilfully unpacks in his book, In The Arena.[2] Spiritual warfare marks the Christian life, and Prince shows how the New Testament’s many athletic metaphors highlight the temporal goals of sport to give a framework for the eternal goals of the gospel. Persevering in the face of hardship is a key element in both sport 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 sport must be subordinated to desires for Christ. He makes the point that sport is 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 football 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 sport in this life is not everything. It is a foreshadowing of life to come in a new arena – the 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 is the goal and glory to which sport 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.

Gavin Peacock                         

(Originally posted at a ministry for which Gavin writes.)

This article was originally published in the Affinity Social Issues Bulletin for July 2019. The whole edition can be found here. A PDF of this article is available to download here.

The Social Issues Team publishes The Bulletin three times each year, containing information about current issues relevant to churches and Christians.

[1] ‘Created to play: Thoughts on play, sport and the Christian Life’ in The Image of God in the Human Body: Essays on Christianity and Sports, ed. Deardorff and White (Lampeter, Wales: Mellen, 2008).
[2] David E Prince, In the Arena: The promise of sports for Christian discipleship (Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2016).

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