By Brian Jennings
As the third base coach for my son’s T-ball team, my job was to instruct kids to halt at second, come to third, or dash home. This was a great job, even though many of the kids viewed my instructions as mere suggestions. One time a player ran from second and I waved him home. I can still see the enormous grin on his face as he rounded third. When the play was over, the coach in our dugout asked me where this boy was. We looked up and he was back on first. He had rounded all of the bases, including home, and had gone back to first. He couldn’t get enough of the fun.
The Beauty of Sports
I still get goosebumps from remembering the thrill of winning for the first time as an underdog. I was in junior high and we were playing a basketball team that had whipped us by 39 points the year before. They had not lost in three years and had guys with lots of facial hair. (I think some of their players had been in eighth grade for a long time.) Their small town packed the tiny gym, but they went home stunned. We pulled off the improbable upset. We could have run home without touching our feet to the ground. One of the beauties of sports is that the effort and passion in a tiny community gym can rival what you’ll find in an Olympic stadium.
Sports and hobbies are a beautiful gift from God. They bring rest to our minds, brighten difficult days, foster discipline, form friendships, and promote physical health.
The Ugly of Sports
I once read of a father who slipped drowsiness-inducing drugs into the water bottles of his son’s tennis opponents. His conniving act was discovered only after one opponent died from the medication. Consider the difference between the boy running the base paths, grinning from ear to ear, and the obsessed father spiking kids’ water bottles. Erik Thoennes asked: “What will keep us from turning sport into something ugly [idolatry] rather than beautiful?”
David Platt appropriately mocks the worship of sports (specifically, college football which dominates his hometown) in a hilarious yet depressing portion of a sermon. He describes how fans talk about the sport all week, spend thousands to watch it, call the field “hallowed ground,” and stand for three hours and scream at the top of their lungs. They empty their wallets, overwhelm their calendars, and consume their thoughts with sports.
Unhealthy devotion to sports isn’t confined to large-scale events. Youth sports require more and more time, money, and commitment than ever. Parents feel the pressure to give their kid every advantage, which may mean yearlong participation. For many families, sports dominate long seasons of their lives.
How can we enjoy the beauty of sports yet set boundaries to prevent it from turning unhealthy? We need principles and action steps for wise families:
Principle 1: Participation in sports must
be informed by the knowledge of God.
When we behold the glory of God, it makes all of the difference. When we cast our glance away from him, we lose perspective. “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3).
• Action step: Commit to growing in your knowledge and love of God as an individual, as a family, and as part of the local church. As you daily dwell on God, his Word, and his concerns, you’ll gain perspective. You may need to revamp your calendar. You may need to build new routines. Do whatever it takes.
• Action step: Be humble. God’s glory, goodness, holiness, power, and love drive us to our knees. We aren’t worthy, yet he showers us with grace. C.J. Mahaney wrote, “Only an ignorant, arrogant fool would draw attention to himself and exalt himself in light of the glory of God.” There’s no room for personal adoration and self-promotion in the kingdom. I’m not the King, so I’ll posture myself as the servant, thankful to be called son.
Principle 2: Sports is a good gift. We can praise God for it, or we can replace God with it.
“Every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). God has given us a beautiful gift. Platt points out that the book of Romans teaches that sin is often not bad things. Sin is often a good thing that we begin to treasure more than we treasure God. Sin twists the good into evil. Sin replaces the Giver with the gift.
• Action step: Be thankful to the Giver. If you enjoy sports, be thankful to God. Praise him. Adore him. Remember that the gift never deserves our praise. Make a list, praising him for whom he is and for what he’s done.
Principle 3: All things must be done to bring glory to God.
“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:31-33).
There are no exceptions to the command—all things. That’s great because sports make lousy gods. Any god other than the one true God leaves us empty and headed on a path of destruction. Perhaps you’ve never considered that you can bring glory to God with sports. But think of the testimony of a player who chooses integrity over winning, the coach who uses sports as a platform for meaningful friendships, and the family whose church allegiance causes them to sacrifice some “great opportunities.” Whether you are a player, parent, or fan, you can honor God with your decisions about sports.
• Action step: Examine your life. Examine your heart. Is your heart devoted to sports? Examine your mind. Tim Keller said, “The true god of your heart is what your mind automatically, consistently goes to when there is nothing else to think about.” Do sports dominate your thoughts? Examine your conversations. What do you most passionately speak about? Examine your emotions. Are you inordinately happy or sad based on the outcome of a game? What do you really care about? What would others say?
Examine your use of money. How much money do you pay in a year to participate in or watch sports? Examine your calendar. How much time did you give to sports this week? this month? this year? How much time did you give to God? family? serving?
• Action step: Model godly behavior when you play, watch, and cheer. “Do everything without grumbling or arguing” (Philippians 2:14). There God goes again. He grants zero loopholes. So we must not complain even when the referee blows the call or when the coach unfairly benches our kid. If you dismiss this command, you’ll black out the light that God intends to shine through you. If you argue and complain, you’ll teach your children how to respond to authority, so don’t be surprised when they respond this way to you.
• Action step: Be a missionary. John Frame wrote, “In one sense of course, we cannot increase God’s glory. But when we speak truly of him and obey his Word, we enhance his reputation on earth, and we ourselves become part of the created light by which people come to know God’s presence. So Jesus says his disciples are ‘the light of the world’ (Matthew 5:14), as he is (John 8:12; Matthew 4:14-16).”
The bleachers, dance studio, and ball field serve as our mission field. Nothing has brought more joy to our family’s life than seeing God work through us to draw others to him. Before we sign up a child for any activity, we talk about the real reason we play. We play to bring glory to God, which means that we’re missionaries. And before we get out of the car or leave the house, on our good days, we pray that we’ll be a light to others. We’ve missed chances. I’ve blown opportunities. But we’ll keep at it and we’ll celebrate that even losses on the field can end with victories in the home.
Sports, like the arts, music, and academics, can be a beautiful gift to our families. They can also be a destructive idol. Let’s choose to honor God with our sports.
Brian Jennings serves Highland Park Christian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His book Lead Your Family offers practical ways for parents to spiritually guide their children (leadyourfamily.net).
Discuss with Your Family
• What are we teaching our children by how we approach sports?
• What have been the most God-honoring byproducts of sports and hobbies for our family? What have been the most negative?
• Is there a sport or hobby we need to adjust? If so, how? Is there one that we need to completely drop?
• Do we need to make changes or limitations to our schedule and budget regarding sports and hobbies?
• Have we transferred a love for God and our church to an allegiance to a sport or hobby?
• What are some practical ways we can we become missionaries through sports?