“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” - Eric Liddell, Chariots of Fire
I’ve never been what you’d call a sports person. Growing up I always preferred a good book over a football game, and while I’m not un-athletic, my reflexes fall somewhere between “Sloth” and “Giant Clam”. Still, even I’m not immune to the lure of big sports. The cheers of a crowded stadium, the rush of adrenalin you feel when scoring a goal or crossing a finish line, it’s no wonder so much time and money is spent on professional sports. All this begs a question though; as Christians, shouldn’t that time and money go towards feeding the poor, helping the sick, and getting people saved?
Barnabas Piper found himself confronted with this same query after a recent podcast on faith and sports. Many Christians believe our love of athletics has become an idol, and that we should separate ourselves from such an extravagant pastime. However, Piper asserts that sports themselves aren’t the problem, human nature is. He writes,
“As we discussed on the podcast, sports can easily become an idol. But that does not make it an inherently bad thing. Money can be an idol. So can music; attend any concert and you will find worshippers there. Or family. Anything that we devote ourselves to can become an idol which can then become a religion – something which gives structure to our lives and determines our values. But the human ability to make idols out of anything does not make those things bad. And sports contains enormous good as a reflection of God’s creative power and the unique abilities he has poured into people as athletes, coaches, strategists, broadcasters, journalists, and more.”
Piper continues by saying physical games are God’s gifts to mankind, and while we should certainly strive to help those in need, this does not necessarily equal their removal.
“I believe sports are a gift, a good gift, that God gave through human creativity for our enjoyment. They should be participated in at every level and in every way as such. And just like all of life, we ought to approach them with thoughtfulness, discernment, and intentionality. This is why I wanted to respond to the objections posed. I hope these answers further the thoughtfulness and expand the perspective with which we approach and participate in sports going forward.”
Piper’s thoughts, and the dissenting arguments, can probably be best understood by observing the Olympic Games, which just recently concluded in Rio. Many of the arguments leveled against professional sports can be seen in the Olympics: they’re costly, ostentatious, time consuming, and their resources could be put to better use serving others. But the Olympics are more than just a spectacle, they are a testament to the human spirit, and their existence frequently advances the gospel in ways we’d never expect. Consider the divers who gave glory to God for their talents, or the runner who stopped to help a fallen competitor, or even Eric Liddell, a man whose passion for sports taught hundreds about Christ. Yes, professional athletics have the potential to become a spiritual idol, but they can also point the way towards Christ.
In the end, it’s up to Christians to be discerning in their spiritual journeys. However, we must never forget that God also created us to be physical creatures who take joy in our abilities, and perhaps God take joy in watching them as well.
*Ryan Duncan is an Editor of Crosswalk.com