Young men and women, lend me your attention for a few minutes. Your love for sports might make this a sensitive issue that you would rather not consider, but I think this is a necessary caution. I also believe myself qualified to write this warning because I have an appreciation for sports. I played at the high school and college levels, and I continue to value it even today. Athletics can benefit men and women with respect to social and leadership skills, as well as improvement in mental and physical health. There is an extreme view that sports have minimal to no value, but I heartily disagree. And yet, at the same time, there are dangers I want to counsel you about. Dear young people, I write as one who has succumbed to the very temptations I warn about—with a prayer that you would fight them with me.
There are two basic areas to address: watching sports and playing sports. They are related but different activities with the same general danger: We tend to make the sport we watch and play an idol. While this is familiar to us, I do not think we truly realize the enormity of this false god in America.
At the beginning of last year, my attendance at the Worship (I mean, United) Center of the Chicago Bulls sparked many thoughts about this idolatry of sports. On the way home from the game, my wife and two oldest boys began to discuss the eerie resemblance of this event to that of Exodus 32. At both events, the bull was glorified—Chicago’s was red and Israel’s was golden. Surrounding Israel, Philistia revered a fish god and Egypt a snake god, while Israel at Sinai chose to bow before the bovine kind. Around Chicago are the tigers, lions, and wolverines of Michigan, but those gathered in the windy city had a heart for the bull (and bear). As the people “rose up to play” in their calf worship, thus did half-dressed women called cheerleaders dance before the bulls and their admirers to the beats of the world (see Ex. 32:6, 19). And in both arenas, there was much eating and more drinking. While my family did not think that our attendance at such a sporting event was wrong in and of itself, we were stunned by the parallels between it and paganism.
After this exercise of comparison, my mind began to make a slightly different evaluation, still related to the idolatry of sports—contrasting the worship of sports to the worship of God. Consider the actions of a fictional character named Jonny on Saturday, Game Day versus Sunday, the Lord’s Day.
- Anticipation—On Saturday, Jonny is so excited that he jumps out of bed far earlier than necessary. (On Sunday, Jonny barely gets out of bed in time to get his church clothes on and rush to the morning service.)
- Preparation—Jonny turns on the TV for the pregame analysis, preparing his mind by thinking about the stats, matchups, and commentaries by ESPN announcers. (Jonny rushes to church with a minute to spare and sits down without a thought about worship, except that he can’t be late for the formality.)
- Dedication—Jonny takes a two-hour drive through the snow, finding a parking spot two miles away and, in spite of the inconvenience, manages to get there with time to spare. (It takes less than ten minutes to drive to church, plus about thirty seconds to walk from the parking lot to his seat, but it was a long weekend and Jonny is thinking about how much more convenient it would have been just to stay home and stream it online.)
- Seating—Throngs of people join Jonny, earnestly desiring to see the action in the best seats up front. (Jonny whispers to the usher at church, “Somewhere in the back, please,” hoping to sneak out quickly after the service is done.)
- Offering—For the ticket, gas, parking spot, and food at the game, Jonny spends hundreds of dollars— money that he has saved up just for this day. (At church, Jonny frantically looks in his wallet for some spare change.)
- Participation—During the game, Jonny is on the edge of his seat anticipating the next great wonder, rising and cheering wildly when it happens: Amid the thronging worshipers, Lebron James will he bless. (In church, Jonny sits like a potato chip and stands like a banana, barely moving his lips to sing, unable to focus during prayer and the sermon.)
- Overtime—When the game goes into overtime, Jonny is pumped—more action is worth it even if it has to delay bedtime. (The sermon extends a little longer than normal and Jonny sulks, complaining about repetition and how we should not expect people to have such long attention spans.)
- Conversation—Jonny hangs with his buddies and describes the great assists, plays, and dunks, feeling close to his friends who have a common interest in sports. (Jonny knows he is supposed to have conversation about spiritual things after church, at dinner, and in society meetings, but he would rather not sound so pious.)
- Meditation—Jonny replays the highlights of the game in his mind and on the screen, imagining what it would be like if he could go pro. (Jonny does not, cannot, and will not meditate on the law of God day and night.)
- Role modeling—Jonny wants to be “an animal” like those hall of famers. He puts all his effort into getting his hero’s jersey, shoes, paraphernalia, and imitating his moves and swagger. (Jonny is not intentional in applying the command to conform to the image of Jesus in meekness and holiness.)
Too many churches today are full of Jonnys. If there is any similarity between you and Jonny, I pray that you would repent with me and delight in the forgiveness found in Christ Jesus alone. From my own life, I have noticed the idolatry while watching sports, but perhaps worse for me has been idolatry in playing sports. Here are a few related warnings to consider:
1) All pride in sports is idolatry. I had to (and still have to) ask myself these questions and answer honestly whenever I play a sport: What is my goal? Is my endgame truly to glorify God or to glorify self? Why do I practice and play hard? Why do I want to score double digits? Why do I want to win so badly? Why do I give that high look and celebrate in such a fashion after I score? Too often I have to repent of my heart’s goal. The sinful polytheism of my old man makes not only basketball and soccer my gods, but my self becomes the idol.
2) Success in sports must not be your source of confidence. In high school and college, I relied on and trusted in sports for self-confidence. Foolishly, I imagined that being able to put a rubber orange ball through a hoop supposedly made me a better person (even better than others). This was a deceitful and flimsy foundation upon which to build confidence, for you will find out quickly that many are better than you in this world, even if you are a star in your small high school. Our confidence must be found in Christ alone!
3) Winning in competition can itself become an idol. This became my idol, and I still struggle against it. This became evident to me when I noticed my heart desiring to win not only in sports but in every kind of occasion. Even when there was no real competition, I often made the activity into a competition! Grades became a competition. Every discussion or argument became a competition. Finding a date became a competition. Silently I competed, comparing myself to others. Instead of being content with the victory I had in Christ, instead of rejoicing that we are more than conquerors in Christ, instead of acknowledging the various talents given to each within the church, I craved winning and dealt poorly with losing. Beware of the idol of winning.
4) Your priorities prove your idol. If you are like me, you will insist as a young person that your idol is not an idol. Parents may even help with denial, as they live out their idolatry of sports through their children. But the proof is in the pudding. When sporting events habitually become reasons for skipping family devotions, when time and energy spent on practice constantly displaces time and energy spent on school work and catechism, we have over-prioritized sports and made it our idol.
I write this personal confession and warning not to give you an excuse in your idolatry (“Since this pastor did it, it’s not so bad.”), but rather to seek your repentance along with mine. Whether it be while watching sports or playing them, I sincerely pray that you recognize the seriousness of your sin, turn with your heart to rest in Christ’s forgiveness, and daily battle by His grace against this and all kinds of idolatry.