The Wonderful, Dangerous World of Sports

I grew up on grass and turf. What did kindergarten-me want to be? A professional soccer player. Where did I spend most evenings as a teen? My club’s soccer complex. How did I choose a college? Division I soccer or bust.

Eventually, my left knee would be the one to bust (twice), but not until I’d devoted nearly twenty years to the game. Looking back on the cotton-tee rec leagues, the pricey club seasons, the long-awaited college career, the coveted national team camps — I see, sharp as a whistle, how God used soccer to increase my wonder of him. But what I also recognize (more painfully than two ACL tears) is how little I guarded myself against sins common to sport.

For every chance to worship God through exercise and competition, there is just as great a risk that we will “love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15). Surely, sports can inspire worship. But often even more so, they can divert our hearts from heaven, casting them instead onto the fleeting rewards of fitness or fame.

Whether you’re young and yet to blow out a knee, a backward-looking athlete like me, or the person who simply loves sports, let’s wonder together at the God enthroned above every beautiful game. And let’s beware together the dangers lurking behind all the practices and tournaments, the social media feeds and TV screens.

Embracing Frailty

We live in an era of “easy everywhere,” as Andy Crouch puts it in The Tech-Wise Family. At the flex of a foot, we can travel from Connecticut to California by car. Our thumbs wiggle, and a friend in the Netherlands instantly knows how we are. Press a button, turn a knob, and lights flicker, water spouts, food warms, pictures snap, books play, music stops, presidents speak, gifts and ambulances and flowers and repairmen arrive. Everywhere we look, life is easy.

Because we can accomplish much while moving little, we tend to see ourselves as masters over matter, rather than creatures under a Creator. The ease with which so many exist can obscure our need to receive “life and breath and everything” from the God who first made and now upholds us (Acts 17:25).

But there is something about dripping sweat and feeling faint, leg muscles refusing to move much faster than a brisk jog, that pushes us to acknowledge our dependence on something outside ourselves. Whether it’s water or electrolytes, a quick banana or half a pizza, fifteen minutes of ice or ten hours of sleep, a teammate or a surgeon, sports make us feel the kind of needy we always are.

Mindful Christians can turn the likes of wind sprints and long recoveries into opportunities for spiritual humility, as we remember that we are weak because we are creaturely — and created to submit our bodies, hearts, and lives to our Creator.

Searching for Fool’s Gold

Unfortunately, sports often rush us headlong in the opposite direction, tempting us to worship “the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). When we watch LeBron James dunk, we may be more likely to exclaim, “He’s a basketball god!” than “How awesome is the God who made such an athlete!”

“Christian athletes fight an uphill battle to satisfy themselves in God alone, to pursue his glory alone.”

And that’s just the way the sports world would have it. College programs, ESPN, betting apps — what is “the glory of the immortal God” to them (Romans 1:23)? Usually, nothing more than a detour from the track on which they run: the worship of “mortal man.” As we engage with sports, we would be naive to think that they won’t make unending grabs for our gaze, our hearts, even our very persons, as “followers of [select one of a million players, teams, or leagues].”

The danger isn’t confined to leagues we stream on TV. Sports tempt us to worship ourselves alongside the games and elite athletes who play them. Because of the fall, anywhere we set foot, our sinful flesh starts digging for the fool’s gold of human glory. The rec center’s basketball court is no exception. Sports, whatever the scale, can stoke our millennia-old longing to sparkle in others’ eyes.

In my experience, athletes crave all kinds of self-exalting glitter. There’s physical dominance, which men tend toward, and then there’s physical perfection, more of a female problem. As we mold our bodies into one ideal appearance or another, we simultaneously wield them for other worldly ends, like winning for winning’s sake and success for man’s approval.

Immersed in an arena that not only values but requires physical fitness, Christians can be tempted to care more for the body than the heart — a mistake so common that God would issue a warning as early as three thousand years ago (1 Samuel 16:7). Centuries later, he would remind us again through Paul, “While bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).

Along with the body, sports culture obsesses over here-and-now victory and applause. Christian athletes fight an uphill battle to satisfy themselves in God alone, to pursue his glory alone, to seek his kingdom alone, and to believe his word above every other: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (Matthew 20:26–27).

Grasping the Unseen

While sports can distract us from spiritual realities, they can also expose them. Throughout his letters, Paul uses athletic imagery to illuminate unseen, eternal truths (2 Corinthians 4:18).

For example, in 1 Corinthians 9:24 Paul asks, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it [that is, eternal life].” When I read passages like this, I thank God for athletic competition. In the golden age of participation certificates and star-shaped stickers, we hear time and again that there’s no such thing as not reaching our potential. There are no losers, only people doing their best to be themselves (which, of course, they’ll succeed at being, what with no external standard to reach).

But as Paul reminds us, the Christian life is not the free 5k we like to know about but never run. No, the Christian life is the Pikes Peak Ascent, the Boston Marathon, the Summer Olympics. Meaning: to finish, we must run. And not only run but train, disciplining ourselves “that by any means possible [we] may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:11). As J.C. Ryle puts it,

It would not be difficult to point out at least twenty-five or thirty distinct passages in the epistles where believers are plainly taught to use active personal exertion, and are addressed as responsible for doing energetically what Christ would have them do, and are not told to “yield themselves” up as passive agents and sit still, but to arise and work. A holy violence, a conflict, a warfare, a fight, a soldier’s life, a wrestling, are spoken of as characteristic of the true Christian. (Holiness, xxiii–xxiv)

To say with Paul, “I press on to make [eternal life] my own” (Philippians 3:12) doesn’t mean that eternal life is earned. This life is graciously given. Even still, that does not make it a given. Like the most serious of runners, Christians race heavenward — Bibles in our hands, prayer on our lips, church by our side — because we know that fervent, frequent Godward movement confirms that he has already obtained us: “I press on to make [eternal life] my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

How remarkable that we might perceive grace and faith more clearly, simply because Paul reminds us “that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24). Some unseen things shimmer better when we sweat.

Competing Ends

Yes, we do well to look and move heavenward through our beloved tracks and fields. But as we do, we should again remember that athletics may actively hinder our ability to live like Christians. The players we watch aren’t pastors. Many coaches we play for don’t pray. By and large, sports culture is thoroughly, proudly, and profitably secular.

Which means it operates under its own moral code: win, usually at any cost. As believers who play or follow sports, we can struggle to resist the pressure to prioritize first place above honoring God and his word.

Imagine it’s the last five minutes of a tie game. Whether playing or watching, most unbelieving coaches, teammates, and fans want you to do or say whatever you can to get the win — even if it means disobeying God. We know he not only commands slowness to anger and self-control, but he also commends them as more rewarding than strength and success (Proverbs 16:32). Still, there’s a game on the line. So, from overly aggressive fouls to jeering at refs, as long as the behavior helps to take the win by might, your team and fans will likely applaud. After all, you’re just being competitive.

Oh, what Christians might communicate instead. What if we walked away without retaliating, faced defeat with calm and even contentment, and experienced sports as a gift meant to reveal the Giver? In doing so, we would express how incomparably pleasing it is to belong to God, not the game.

At their best, sports are an exercise in worship and witness. We have only to believe that Jesus is worthy in every loss and worth more than every victory (Philippians 3:8), and then train and play and watch and cheer like it.

works from home as a wife, mother, and editor. She and her husband, T.J., live in Denver, Colorado, with their sons.