Friday, February 1, 2013

The Christian and Sports

Picture a scenario with me, about a man devoted to his religion. An essential component of his religion is a period of worship that takes place on Sunday. Much of the man's week is centered on the upcoming worship. He spends much time discussing the focal point of his worship with friends, family, or even complete strangers. The man takes special care that his obligations are taken care of by Saturday evening so as not to interfere with the day of worship. After much anticipation, the day arrives. Long before the service commences, the man begins his preparations. The man may need to prepare food to enjoy in fellowship with other faithful worshipers as they await the beginning of worship. He arrives at the house of worship hours early for such brotherhood as well as to consecrate himself to render unreserved adoration to the focus of his worship. Finally the worship service starts, and for the new few hours the man's attention is completely absorbed with his devotion to his religion. No boredom here. In fact, the man could be described as a religious fanatic. The service ends, and the man departs the house of worship with his fellow believers. The man's worship experience engages his mind long after returning home, and he shares about it freely with others. Soon, the anticipation for next Sunday's worship begins to build.

In the above scenario, the object of the man's worship I was discussing was not God. It was football. I speak these things from personal experience, and they lead me to consider a question. What role should sports play in the life of a Christian? Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with sports. Problems arise, however, when folks start putting way too much emphasis on the simple act of a watching grown men play a game. The word "fan" to describe a devotee of sports comes from fanatic. Does such fanaticism help us seek first the kingdom of God?

My upbringing makes me very informed on this subject. As long as I can remember, my parents have been enthusiastic followers of professional baseball. Like them, I spent years devoting an incredible amount of time either watching baseball, reading about baseball, idolizing certain baseball players, and so forth. Yet, for all this baseball enthusiasm, I never once actually played baseball. Without doubt, I spent a lot more time in a given week thinking about baseball than about God. I could have told you the entire starting lineup of "my team," but I would have been clueless if you had asked me to name just one of the tribes of Israel. Based on the tens of thousands of people who typically attend a single major league baseball game, I was not alone in my devotion.

The trend only continued when I started college. At my university, football was king. On game day, the whole city came to a stand still, with almost all eyes focused on the stadium. I attended several of these games, and over time the behavior I witnessed both in the stands and outside of the stadium became increasingly alarming. For one thing, it was typical to scream insults and obscenities at not just the opposing team, but the opposing team's fans, the officials, or anyone else who provided a tempting target. In Ephesians 4:31-32, God's Word says, "Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice; and be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you."

During games like these that I have described, with attendance figures of 80,000 thousand fans, many of the spectators can get whipped into an emotional frenzy that often results in real hatred of the other team and its fans. Folks watching the games on television can of course be caught in this unloving spirit as well. In some cases, these feelings will subside after the game's conclusion, but I know first-hand that this is not always the case. Teams with long-standing rivalries will have die-hard fans who can, in extreme instances, become violent towards one another. At the least, there is a lot of simmering bitterness, which makes it rather difficult to show the love of Christ. "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?" (1 John 4:20).

Beyond the wrathful feelings generated by the veneration of sports, there is the utter waste of money. You are not a real fan if you do not buy your team's clothing, memorabilia, autographs, athletic equipment, trading cards... The list goes on. Then there is the money spent on the games themselves. The ticket to one football game during my college days cost approximately thirty dollars, and that does not include parking. The biggest sports fans with money to burn buy season tickets, so they can have the chance to go to every single one of their team's home games for an entire year. Such season tickets can feature price tags of thousands of dollars per person. Why do they cost so much?  Professional athletes being paid salaries of millions of dollars to play a game is a significant reason. All these resources are wasted on athletic entertainment when they could have been used for the work of the kingdom of God. How many people groups have never heard the Gospel? Or what about the worldwide tragedy of child starvation? The United States is the richest nation in the world, and a large percentage of the population professes to be Christian. Do we spend more money on helping those in need or on our sports? "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (Matthew 6:21).

Not only is the work of the kingdom neglected financially, it is also short-changed the gift of time. A typical professional baseball game lasts for three hours. In an entire season, each team plays approximately 80 home games. When you do the math, this means a season ticket holder could spend theoretically ten entire days doing nothing but watch millionaires throw a baseball around a field. When I was in college, I usually went to church meeting on Sunday evening. Because college students do not like to get up early, the service was typically crowded. However, on Super Bowl Sunday, the attendance would be drastically lower, so much that the minister would comment on it. The loyalty to football superseded the loyalty to the church. Why will some people spend so much time on sports while struggling to find time for Christian responsibilities? I believe the answer is that devotion to sports can be a surrogate religion for many, providing (temporary) fulfillment and purpose apart from God. It is of course one of Satan's goals to distract people from their need of a whole-hearted, obedient relationship with Christ, and he employs many deceptions to achieve this end. Is it possible that he who is transformed into an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14) can use something "harmless" like sports for this purpose?

I am largely able to avoid exposure to the permeation of our culture by sports since I do not watch television or follow the news. However, I still receive catalogs in the mail selling all sorts of items. In one of these catalogs, there was a shirt printed with the message, "Anyone who says money can't buy happiness never had season tickets." The product description elaborates on the "ecstasy of having season tickets to your favorite team."  This is the spirit of the world. It would be wise for Christians to heed the warning of the Apostle John.

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.
(1 John 2:15-17)

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