When too much sport is barely enough

“Football is not a matter of life and death; it’s far more important that that!” said Bill Shankley, former manager of Liverpool Football Club. This may seem extreme, but what should our attitude as Christians be towards sport, both as participants and as spectators?

There can be little doubt that sport is a major feature of the landscape of modern society, and it is important in a host of different ways. There are now vast amounts of money involved in sport. Millions, if not billions, of dollars will be involved in this year’s Olympics. At the time of writing, Manchester United are now worth over £1 billion on the stock market. And, of course, unimaginable amounts of money are involved in sport through TV and sponsorship.

For a variety of reasons, sport is important politically. We have seen sport used as a political lever, for instance in the banning of South Africa from international competitions and the boycotting of major events such as the Olympics. Sport is promoted by governments to improve national esteem. In many countries, including the UK and Australia, the governments are directly involved in promoting sport.

Sport is also important on a personal level. Many people play sport. If you are not a sports fan yourself, there is a good chance you are married to one. Hours and dollars are consumed watching our favourite teams either in the flesh or on TV.

As Christians, what are we to make of sport? It is all around us, and many of us are involved in one way or another. Should we stay involved as we are, or should we be more involved? Or less involved? What should we make of the great tournaments like the Olympics? What should be the place of sport in the Christian life?

The Bible on sport

Given that it is such a big part of many of our lives, it is perhaps a little surprising to find that it is addressed (as far as I know) so infrequently from a Christian perspective. I suspect the simplest explanation for this is that the Bible has so little to say about sport and recreation. If you sit under an expository ministry, you have a long wait before you get to the passage that addresses the sport issue. Of course, competitive games were well known to the first century, and like all decent preachers, the Apostle Paul was prepared to draw on sport for illustrations (e.g. 2 Tim 2:5, 1 Cor 9:24, 25). But on the sports issue, the Bible is neither positive nor negative. It neither encourages nor discourages participation or observation. This should preclude any simplistic evaluation of sport. No one can say either “sport is essential” or “no Christian should be involved in sports”.

But the fact that the Bible has little to say about sport has not stopped people constructing a theology of sport, however inadvertently. I suspect a potent influence has been the Oscar-winning film, Chariots of Fire. In the film, Eric Liddell, who won gold at the 1924 Olympics, is depicted as explaining to his sister why he was delaying going to China in order to run in the Olympics: “I believe that God made me for a purpose. For China. But He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure. To give it up would be to hold him in contempt … to win is to honour Him.” Can that be right? I think not.

Contrary to the sentiment attributed to Liddell, there is no indication in the Bible that God is honoured by our winning. The Bible has a great deal to say about what does please God, and running fast isn’t in any list I have come across. Our winning or losing doesn’t bother God, but playing in a godly or ungodly fashion does.

If God is not that bothered about us winning or losing, is there anything else we can say about sport? Well, yes; applying biblical principles broadly, we can see that sport can have many beneficial effects. The Bible commends physical training (1 Tim 4:8), and sport can certainly serve that end. We are created with the capacity to enjoy physical activity and athletic skill, and it is good to enjoy this aspect of creation. Watching a top class sportsman at work can be thrilling. We can but marvel at what God has given us the ability to do. Sport can be a very useful tool in building relationships. Playing or watching sport can bind families together. Sport can help build friendships. It can also provide very good opportunities for getting the gospel out. Following or playing provides opportunities for meeting new people, and the godly sports pro has his own mission field. It is great to see organisations like ‘Christians in Sport’ seek to make the most of these excellent openings.

For many Christians, we need say no more. Sport for them is good. But for others, sport is not always so helpful. Sport can often simply be a waste of time. Days can be frittered away in an undisciplined fashion either playing or watching. Our minds can be uselessly occupied as we ruminate over the previous game and make plans for the next. Television can provide endless temptation with its wall-to-wall sports coverage. Wives and children can be neglected as the sports fan feeds his addiction. Sadly, some seem to forget they are Christians the minute they cross the white line onto the field. What does God make of foul language, wanton violence and cheating?

Sending myself to the sin bin

There is also another mechanism by which sport can be destructive, and if you will allow me to bare my soul for a moment, I think my own personal experience is illustrative of what is a common phenomenon amongst sports fans—Christian or otherwise. The first sign of trouble was 1970 when England were knocked out of the Football World Cup by West Germany. I was only a kid, but I could not cope with my country’s humiliation, and I remember going out into the garden to cry. I have not shed any tears as a spectator since, but there have been a good number of times when I have been absolutely gutted by my team’s defeats—England’s defeats in penalty shoot outs in 1990 and 1998 being the lowest points. There have of course been correspondingly high points owing to victory—although they never feel as good as the low points feel bad. Sport has triggered in me feelings of elation, anger, indignation, sadness and even hatred. I only have to look into my own heart to see the explanation for sport hooliganism.

Now you might at this point simply want to throw the charge of ‘bad loser’ at me, but I think it is more complicated than that. One of the factors that really got me thinking was noticing that I wasn’t really having a problem with losing in the sports in which I participated. Sure, I don’t like losing (do you?), but it never affected me in the way watching sport did. A quick sulk, a firm handshake and “well done” through gritted teeth, and it was all over.

I began to analyze how I was thinking about sport. The question I began to wrestle with was why did a group of men I had never met playing a group of other men I had never met have such a grip on me? Why did I care so much about what was going on in a game that could be thousands of miles away? Why did I care so much about Nick Faldo against Greg Norman, or England versus the Wallabies? It became fairly obvious that it had such a grip because they were representing me. I identified myself with them, whether it was through a local team or the national team. So when I watch England against the All Blacks, it is us against them. Of course, when my teams are not involved, it is just a game of rugby. But when my team is involved, it is so much more; it is me against them. In the one, I am detached; there is no involvement other than enjoying the sport. In the other I am involved. So if my team wins, I feel elation; if my team loses, it is my defeat.

Now, in and of itself, this representative way of operating is not wrong, but it can snare us in a couple of ways if we are not careful. Firstly, it can act as a vent for all sorts of sinful attitudes and behaviour. Take pride, for example: pride tells us that we are the best and that our tribe (be it country, county/state or town) must be the best because I am part of it. (Our politicians reinforce this by telling us we are part of a great country, which is simply flattery because they are telling us we ourselves are great.) So when my team win, fine, well what did you expect? But when my team loses, disaster. It begins to look like I am not so good after all. The temptation is then to turn on the team who have failed to represent us properly. (Listen to any radio ‘phone in’ after a defeat and you will see that the air is full of hatred towards the defeated, who have failed to represent adequately, rather than praise for the victors.) Pride is often accompanied by hatred and contempt. My own observation is that those who are genuinely humble and have a true respect for others care little about vicarious defeat or victory.

Is it unfair to suggest that activities we wouldn’t countenance in our own lives are quite acceptable when done by our representatives and are enjoyed by us vicariously? Is it that we long to do those things ourselves? Consider the violence in sport, the raking in rugby, the foul language in cricket, the cheating and the gloating in all sports. Do we really enjoy these things? A moment’s reflection on passages such as Colossians 3:5-9 should help us tune into God’s commentary: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your human nature …”

On one level, it is understandable why many schools wish to play down competitive sports. Given all the negative behaviour associated with sports, the tribal violence of soccer hooliganism, increased aggression and overheated fathers on sports day, it is surprising they are not banned completely. But of course it is not sport that is the problem; it is the human heart.

We need to get our ‘representative’ thinking sorted out or else we will lose our Christian perspective. This whole concept of living representatively/vicariously is an ever-present concept in the Scriptures. Adam was our representative in the Garden (Rom 5). David functions vicariously for Israel. The Christian belongs to Christ. He is our head—our representative—and we share vicariously in the benefits of his victory. The Christian not only belongs to Christ, but he belongs to the church both locally and internationally. The primary loyalty—the primary identification of the Christian—is to Christ and to his people. The Christian is first and foremost a citizen of heaven and, grateful for the victory he has in Christ, he is concerned to grow in godliness and see the gospel spread.

The Christian’s true identity

What has this got to do with sport? I have seen in my own life that there is this tendency to identify with and be represented by our sportsmen, and to let their victory be our victory and their defeat our defeat. The sports team is the wrong place for a Christian to be staking his identity. To be over-involved with sports is to suffer a massive loss of Christian perspective. If my real joy comes from my team’s victories, then I have completely forgotten what I have been given in Christ. What does it say about our Christian mindset if the things that cause us to lose sleep and to feel down are not our sin and the unbelief around us, but the fact that our team didn’t make the finals? If our identity remains too tightly bound with our nation or other tribal group, then we have probably failed to grasp fully what it means to belong to Christ and his people.

Understanding that we function representatively also helps us to see why sport can function as an idol. You don’t have to be a great analyst to note that the great stadiums are like temples, and that the sporting calendar has its liturgical high points and festivals. The sociologists have long since noted that sport functions as a surrogate religion. There are hymns, heroes and martyrs. Is it any wonder football fans have their ashes scattered over their team’s pitches? This should all come as no surprise. If a person’s primary identity is with their team—if their team is their source of joy and the other fans their main tribe—then inevitably this will be what they live for. And that is idolatry. Christians beware.

Analyzing your game

Let’s try and draw some conclusions by addressing three sorts of Christian sports fans:

1. The healthy participant.

You are the person for whom sport is truly beneficial. For you, sport is great fun. It keeps you in shape. You use your contacts for evangelistic purposes. You enjoy without becoming over-absorbed. Whilst enjoying sport, you don’t stop being other-person-centred. You enjoy light-hearted banter with followers of other teams. Sure, you might have been over-involved at times, but you quickly get things back in perspective. Go on enjoying!

2. The absorbed fanatic.

You will have to do a serious rethink. It could be that you are wasting far too much time either playing or watching. It might be that you have become far too absorbed; you feel down for hours or days after your team loses. Your family might be suffering because you are so dedicated. For some, sport may be arousing all sorts of sinful desires. These things are not right, and repentance and self-control are needed. Let me give you a tip: the less you watch, the less you care. And I can’t believe you haven’t got anything more useful to do than watch sport on TV.

3. The overwhelmed addict.

You are the hard case. You’ve known for some time that sport has too strong a hold on you. You are an addict. You can get up in the middle of the night for a game on the other side of the world, but you can’t get up at 7 am to read your Bible. Your days are spent thinking about sport. Defeat plunges you into despair time and time again. Read 1 John 5:21: a perfectly innocent thing in and of itself has become your master; keep yourself from this idol. It’s time to give up. You need a long break from watching sport; you need to make sure that you are its master. Remember you have only one life to live; don’t let sport rob you of all that mental energy and time.

Further reading

The Bible (before you reach for the latest football magazine).

Sport Matters by Eric Dunning (sociological studies of sport, violence and civilization).

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (a novel about football obsession).

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