Few seemingly neutral realities today claw for our hearts like sports and athletics.
Many Christians aren’t allured in the least by spectator sports. God bless you. But for those of us who claim Jesus as Lord and also get hyped about our favorite teams, we need a regular soul-check. And especially at the onset of football season.
Sports and athletic competitions are good gifts from God, but we dare not go all-in without our eyes wide open. Not in this culture. Sport is one of the most alluring, and subtle, competitors for our heart’s deepest allegiance.
“Watching football has become deeply religious for millions.”
Our favorite teams are not just after our wallets; they’re after our hearts with every detail of carefully constructed game-day liturgy — from tailgating to cheers and chants, fight songs and the national anthem, concessions and fireworks, the rhythms and habits of what it means to be a fan. Watching football has become deeply religious for millions, and for the Christian, becoming aware of the draw that our favorite teams have on us is not meant to spoil our sanctified enjoyment, but to preserve it.
And college and professional football have a particularly powerful effect on its faithful. I confess, I’m excited about the new professional football stadium in town — and even more excited about my favorite college team — and I want to save myself, and those I love, the long-term grief of my being unhealthily engaged.
Seventy Thousand Worshipers
For years, we Minnesotans have been looking forward to this weekend. Our pro-football Vikings play their first regular-season game in the new billion-dollar stadium in downtown Minneapolis — and against our rivals from one state over, the Green Bay Packers.
The new stadium sits on the same site where the Metrodome sat for more than thirty years. The dome was a sight in its day; now the new house dwarfs it. Word is the old Metrodome could fit fully inside the new stadium without even touching its walls or roof.
Beginning two and a half years ago, we watched as demolition workers deflated the dome, imploded her walls, and carried away the pieces to clear the site. Then for months on end, we have seen the new structure rise, higher and huger than we thought was possible for a stadium. The new structure is so massive and imposing that it’s seemed to some of us who frequent that part of town (Bethlehem Baptist is only a couple blocks away) as if an invading army is building the siege works to conquer our city.
Now the edifice is complete, and this Sunday chiseled soldiers in helmets and shoulder pads will come streaming in to the deafening roar of 70,000 worshipers.
And if the cheapest ticket this weekend wasn’t going for $200, I’d be eager to be in attendance. As a sports enthusiast, I’m excited. But as a Christian, the pomp and extravagance of it all is eye-opening, and serves as a reminder to keep my fickle heart in check.
What Is Your Temple?
There was a Colosseum in ancient Rome too, completed in A.D. 80, as the sect of the Nazarenes was emerging from Judaism and becoming what we know today as Christianity. This veritable temple to humanity towered over the building-less fledging church of the first century, which met in homes and faced increasing persecution. Some Christians even died as spectacles in the stadium, chewed up in the entertainment juggernaut of the Colosseum.
Today that Colosseum stands in ruins. The church it once dwarfed now has more than a billion members worldwide, and stands ten thousand times taller in the world today. And it will be infinitely more significant in the age to come.
Our team, and our new stadium, and each weekend’s big game can feel so significant in the moment. They tug at our heart strings. They yank. Victory can make us unfittingly happy, while defeat unsuitably drags us down. At these junctures — and perhaps every weekend during football season — it is wise to ask ourselves how much this derivative reality is calling the plays in our hearts. What is the biggest temple of our affections? Where is our worship? What captures our idle thoughts? Because what captures our idle thoughts threatens to be the idol of our hearts.
“What captures our idle thoughts threatens to be the idol of our hearts.”
How much am I building my life around my favorite team and its games, and what important things in life are suffering because of this growing priority? Am I getting so attached to this team and to this season that I’m neglecting much more important realities like family, friends, work, studies, and most significantly the stirring of my heart for Jesus? Am I closer to him because of sports, or are the games subtly moving me away by eclipsing him in my heart?
If you’re with me in often feeling the unrighteous pull of sports and athletics on your heart, you may need to withdraw and take a break. I’ve done that before, and may do it again. But that also can be the easy way out. God is indeed the giver of every good gift, but no gift is truly good apart from him.
We don’t enjoy his gifts most by intercepting them and running the other direction, but by letting their unique joys and thrills lead us back to him — the greatest joy and the truest glory. That may not mean we say a prayer before every down and sing a hymn after every score, but the full life is a Godward life — Godward in our marriages and families, Godward in our work, Godward even in our rest and entertainment. When Jesus is our greatest treasure, then football can find its good, chastened, and truly enjoyable place.
With holy resolve and the help of the Spirit, we will not let the biggest temple in town become our temple as well.