By Dr. Charlie W. Starr
As I write this article, college football has just wrapped up with a comeback win by Florida State over Auburn, the NFL playoffs are only now getting started, Dennis Rodman has just announced he’s taking a group of basketball players to North Korea, and the Winter Olympics are only a few weeks away. Watching football with my father-in-law over the last few weeks has brought me back to thoughts on the significance of sports in our culture and our lives.
Like many other religions, Christianity argues that the soul is more important than the body (Matthew 10:28; Luke 12:5). Unlike other religions, however, Christianity celebrates the body as important to the soul. When God became a man through the incarnation, he signaled the importance of the physical body. He even celebrated physical life by turning water into wine at a wedding feast (John 2:1-11).
God gave Adam work to do in the garden; it wasn’t laborious, but it was definitely physical (Genesis 2:15). Paul taught us that the body had to be brought under control (1 Corinthians 9:27) and that we’d receive new bodies in Heaven (15:35-50). And James taught us that if our spiritual faith is not accompanied by actions of love, that faith is dead (James 2:26).
Our participation in and love of sports is proof that we are composite creations: bodies and souls. Rest and play are good for us. Enjoying sports as both spectators and players includes spiritual benefits as well.
I don’t watch sports very often: a little football (if the Cowboys are playing), the Olympics or soccer’s World Cup when they come around, and games on the campus where I teach. (The latter is important because the students get really energized when their teachers show enough concern to watch them play.) And I’ll bet a lot of Americans who never watch sports still watch the Super Bowl, at least for the commercials and the halftime show.
Sports are a great way for families and friends to bond, a great door opener for developing relationships with unbelievers, and one of the enjoyable pleasures God gives to mankind in this life. Sports can also allow us to experience positive patriotism, the kind of pride we have in our country when it excels on the world stage.
Of course, the idea of the sports fan comes from the word fanatic, and some people do definitely make sports their religion or an excuse to be profane. So for some people, watching sports is an opportunity to work on self-control.
The obvious first benefit of active participation in sports is physical health, something our bodies need. But there are spiritual benefits as well. Being an athlete offers us opportunities to learn. What we learn about hard work and fair play in sports can be applied to our work ethic in life.
When I coached soccer I especially emphasized to my Christian college players that who they were in the heat of the moment—when, for example, an opponent illegally tripped them and caused some serious pain—was a good measure of where they were spiritually, especially in terms of self-control. As a type of conflict, a sport can often bring crisis, and the crisis gives an opportunity to act sinfully or rightly. Sports participation gives us an opportunity to strive for excellence while putting God first—to find the balancing act between work, play, place on earth, and our allegiance to a more important world.
Unhappily, playing sports means injuries. But physical pain, whether just from practice and play or from injury, gives us an opportunity to learn through facing adversity. Playing sports also gives us the opportunity to learn how to win and lose with grace and how to avoid the dangers of both pride and putting too much stock in earthly glory. Most importantly, stories abound of athletes who came to Christ through relationships developed during the sports they played.
It’s true that some parents may push their kids too hard to succeed at all costs, but competition gives families opportunities to play with each other or cheer each other on from the sidelines. Sports could dumb down education but can offer educational opportunities to people who could not get them otherwise. Professional athletes can be idolized, but they can also inspire people by their examples of humility, service in their communities, and open proclamations of faith.
Sports are definitely worth our time. Play on.
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.