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Are We Allowed to Enjoy Sports?

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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I have very few regrets in life, but my earliest one is from tee-ball. I forgot to bring home the signup sheet to register for the tee-ball season. Somehow, at the tender age of six, I knew that I was called to play baseball. And, very sadly, I had just missed my first golden opportunity to take part in the nation’s pastime. But that wasn’t all.

The apartment my family lived in was an old greystone house located right across from the elementary school I had just begun attending. Also across the street? The fields upon which the tee-ball games were played!

That first weekend of tee-ball was the worst. I sat in the window sill, curled up in a ball, wearing my Oakland A’s hat (I was a Bash Bros. fan) and cried all morning and afternoon. Every Saturday for the rest of the spring I took my place on the sill and displayed my sadness for all to see.

Through the years I have participated in baseball, basketball, track and field, volleyball, soccer, tennis, golf, table tennis, ultimate Frisbee, field hockey, and even Atlatl (yes, you read that correctly).

For the longest time I considered my love of sports, whether as an active participant or an avid fan, lying somewhere between a guilty pleasure and an obsession to an idol. So I held to a certain tension considering my love of sports. That tension was this: If I’m not making a living in sports or at least as a chaplain to a sports team, I should probably drop my love of sports altogether because this love is distracting me from “doing God’s work.”

I’m a full-time campus minister with the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO) through the Shippensburg First Church of God. Doing work at a relatively small state school, one of the easiest ways to engage with students is through sports. And although my supervisors have always encouraged “relational ministry in any context,” in the back of my head I always wondered, “But where’s the line?”

“I should be evangelizing more.”

“Do these student always know why I am out here?”

Then I started wondering, “Do I know why I am out here?”

I seriously considered hanging up the cleats on sports entirely. God’s word can be expressed over coffee, in philosophical conversation, and certainly through the Bible and prayer, but what good was I doing getting all sweaty and playing games with all these college kids?

But I would always come back to an inalienable fact about myself… I love sports!

I didn’t find a great answer to my dualistic tension until I read a section from an excellent book, Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview by Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew. They write,

“If one embraces a narrow, world-negating view of the gospel, one will have little place for sports and athletic competition. But since the gospel is a gospel about the kingdom of God, sports and competition cannot so easily be jettisoned from a Christian view of things, for these too are gifts of God in creation, to be richly enjoyed with thanksgiving.”

I now understood something more about my love of sports! I don’t have to live a dual life: a "spiritual" life over against a sports life. God has told us that the “fruit of His spirit is… joy…” (Galatians 5:22) and we all have these areas where we are like Eric Liddell when he said, “When I run I feel His pleasure.”

I have no doubt that our participation in athletics, our watching sports, or having conversations about sports can lead to conversations about the Gospel or even lead to a direct experience with God (see for example the mystical book Sermon on the Mound: Finding God at the Heart of the Game by Michael O’Conner).

But if that is the only end to our participation with the sports realm, I am afraid we are missing out on much that God has to offer.

To truly engage in this realm takes an understanding not only of how to participate in and with sports in a godly way, but how to be a man or woman of God who understands the great value that sports has to tell the story of God. That story is this: God created a good world, a material place with physical people that he called "very good." But humanity is now in rebellion against God's good intentions for his creation and creatures. Jesus Christ, who is God in the flesh, comes to show the way to be human again in these physical bodies. He dies and raises from the dead to give us salvation and the hope of life everlasting.

Sports is a gift of the good creation. But, like with any good gift from God, sports can become an idol. As Charles Prebish has noted, sport is the fastest growing religion in America, far outdistancing whatever is in second place. So how much more important is the Christian’s engagement in sports? We have the opportunity to point people to the One who has given such a wonderful gift!

This then is the high calling of navigating the world of sports: to engage in the ongoing story of God through the most popular and fastest growing medium there is today.

In hindsight, those weren’t tears of regret that I shed on that windowsill. No, those were tears of missing out on the great unfolding plot of God that He had planted deep within my six-year-old heart.

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Sports for the Glory of God

If God has created humanity with bodies that are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” we need to develop a Christian way of living that incorporates play and recreation, leisure and competition, sports and athletics. Faith in the Creator and Redeemer should lead us to identify the way sports and athletics are meant to be, discern when something is wrong with sports in our broken and sinful culture, and imagine ways to be instruments of redemption in this sphere. In this series, "Sports for the Glory of God," we engage with stories of people who are working through these issues on a daily basis.

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