Evidently, there was a little football game last night. One overpaid, under-educated team defeated another overpaid, under-educated team for a mythical national championship. (Sorry, still bitter about the two most evil forces in college sports playing in the BCS game). Twitter was atwitter and Facebook was booked solid with comments about the game – mostly the effusions of glee and self-adulation from Bama and SEC fans (sorry, another uncontrollable shot, undermining the point I want to make).
Americans love their sports. Athletes get paid extraordinary amounts of money because of our love-affair with sports. We pay hundreds of dollars for tickets to go to games, pay $75 for a $12 t-shirt with our team’s logo on it, rant about referees, and fill social media with our praise or curses concerning our teams’ play.
I am a sports fan. There is a certain 27-time World Series champion team from the Bronx that I like a little bit. My Durango has one sticker on it, a 2009 Yankees championship window sticker. Don’t know how long I will have to wait to add another. My office at the church has a Yankee mouse pad, a Yankee light switch cover, various Yankee paraphernalia and wall hangings, and a shelf full of books about Yankees from the past. I’m a fan.
That leads me to ask a question.
When does a love of sports become idolatry?
When does my obsession with the Yankees become an unhealthy idol? When does the exultation of Bama fans or SEC fans (or fans of any other team) become an ungodly obsession? When does rooting for or cheering against become a sin?
I think it is a question we need to ask ourselves. It is a subject that God has dealt with me about more than once. Let me tell you three stories that demonstrate my lifelong struggle with sports and idolatry.
Story 1: I was a high school sophomore and I made the JV basketball team – the proudest moment of my life to that point. I was sitting in church, probably day-dreaming about basketball, when I sensed that still-small voice of the Holy Spirit calling me to honor Christ by laying down my idol. I knew that I needed to quit the basketball team because it was too much of a passion in my heart. I said to the Lord, “I can’t do it. If you want me off the team, you are going to have to take me off the team.”
A few days later, I was at practice doing the the three man weave when I tripped over Bob Jones (not that one) and put my left arm down to brace my fall. I remember the doctor’s observation. “I don’t know how you could have broken only one of the bones in your arm.” One was all it took.
God is a jealous God – jealous for his glory and jealous against anything that competes for his rightful place in our hearts.
God will not accept second place in our hearts and he will not share first place.
Interesting fact: the cast came off my arm the same week the basketball season ended. Coincidence? You make the call.
Story 2: I was in my last year of seminary at SWBTS. I was taking 37 hours over two semesters so I could graduate in May of 1981. After leaving the academically challenging program at Dallas Seminary, my course load at SWBTS left me lots of time to run, and I was part of the “Seminary Striders” – our unofficial running club. Running had become the new passion of my heart.
I finished my first marathon (3 hours, 55 minutes) in December of 1980 and was working on my bringing down my time. My goal at the time was to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I was working on speed races. In April of 1981, I ran in a 4 mile race one Saturday and broke my PR by a significant amount. I was so excited. That Sunday, the Spirit again began to show me how much of an idol running was becoming for me. Again, I heard that still-small voice in my soul calling me to lay down my idol of running.
Again, I was stupid. Again, I told the Lord something like this. “I can’t give up running. If you want me out of running, you are going to have to take me out of running.” Oops, again!
I ran 11 miles on Monday morning and then went over to the Rec center at the seminary to play a couple of hours of basketball. I went up for a rebound and came down on another man’s foot. Ligaments and tendons tearing were my reminder that God was “El-Qanna” – the Jealous God. He would not be shoved aside for my obsession with running.
Story 3: It was the Year of Great Evil, 2004. After 86 years of glorious frustration for the baseball team from Boston, they came back from a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees in the ALCS, then swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series to “reverse the curse.” I liked the curse!
I turned over to game 4 of the World Series (which I generally refused to watch out of protest) and found the Red Sox comfortably ahead and ready to celebrate their championship. The camera was panning the crowd which was demonstrating a wild glee, the pent-up frustrations of over 8 decades of disappointment and frustration being released in that moment.
And I fumed. I thought to myself, “I hate these people with the white-hot intensity of a thousand burning suns.” I really did! Once again, the Holy Spirit mugged me. “How dare you? How dare you hate people God sent his Son to die for just because they cheer for a different team than you do?”
I actually spent the last moments of the “Year of Great Evil” repenting of my sins.
So, here are the facts as I see them.
- Sports can be a source of distraction and even idolatry among us. It’s happened to me and I don’t think I am alone in this. I think America is rife with sporting idolatry.
- God is jealous for his glory and refuses to share his rightful place as First Passion with anyone or anything else. An uncontrolled love of Sports can arouse his jealousy.
- Sports is not sinful, it is that obsessive love of sports that is the problem.
Believing these things, it is important to reflect on when sports is a pleasurable diversion and when it becomes an ungodly obsession, even a blasphemous idolatry. Here’s my thoughts.
1) Where is your heart?
In all three of the stories above, I had a similar problem. My heart had become centered and focused on basketball, or running or baseball, instead of on Jesus and his kingdom.
Christ does not want to be just our highest passion. Imagine if I told my wife, “Of all my women, you are my favorite.” Would she accept that? Do we expect God to accept that kind of fidelity. Remember, God calls us to love him with ALL of our hearts and souls and minds.
Fitting an unhindered love of Christ with being a sports fan can be a tricky thing.
2) Are you “redeeming the time?”
I do not believe there is anything wrong with rest and relaxation. Time spent watching a game, or playing a game or watching a movie, is not, de facto, wasted time.
But when we add up the hours we spend watching sports, or the things we leave undone while we obsess about sports, sometimes an unhealthy trend surfaces. If I am spending time on sports (or any other hobby) while I leave other important tasks undone, it becomes a problem.
3) Do I display Christlikeness?
Have you seen that new ESPN commercial about the two soccer fans (rugby?) in England. They each assume that the other is a lowlife human being because of their favorite teams. Ridiculous, but all too familiar.
Do I disdain fans of other teams? Do I display arrogance and unkindness as I cheer for my team? If I cannot exhibit the Fruit of the Spirit while I am cheering for my favorite team, there is an issue.
4) Do I derive my self-image from sports?
Our identity is in Christ, and when we derive our identity from anyone or anything else, we insult Christ.
Why do dads (and perhaps a few moms) go nuts coaching Little League or youth basketball? Because we all too often derive our personal status and identity from the success of the team we coach. The same is true of the teams we cheer for. Am I a better person because my team won the game? Am I diminished somehow when my team loses?
That just ain’t right!
5) Do we divide over sports?
Has your sports fanaticism (“fan” is just an abbreviation of fanatic) ever caused division between you and another person? Has a friendship been affected because of sports loyalties?
There are a few valid reasons for division spelled out in the Bible. Which team someone cheers for is not one of them.
Those are some of my thoughts. What say you? I enjoy sports and am passionate about them. But I think we need to be careful, though. There is a line between enjoying sports and falling prey to sports idolatry. Where do you think that line is?