I turn on the radio. They’re talking sport. I go to the shops. The shop-keeper asks if I’m following the World Cup. I phone a friend. He can’t talk now – he’s watching Andy Murray. Children walk the streets blowing into vuvuzelas. Flags flutter from cars. Complete strangers come up to me to tell me the latest scores.
As a nation it seems we’re obsessed with sport. We reward successful athletes with knighthoods. We pay premiership footballers seven figure salaries, apart from what they earn through advertising and endorsements. We buy our children the latest kit from their favourite club, so that they can live out their fantasy life as Wayne Rooney or Fernando Torres. The media report every detail of the stars’ personal lives – what they eat for breakfast, where they holiday, who’s sleeping with who, and we, the great British public, drink it all in. Sport is one of our national idols and I struggle to know how to respond to all this.
As a Christian, how should I react to this idolatry?
Some Christians tell me that I ought at least to take an informed interest in sport, get along to football matches from time to time, watch key events on TV. It’s all part of living in our society, of being in the world but not of the world. And it would give me something to talk to unbelievers about. A conversation which starts with England’s latest performance may end with an opportunity to talk about the gospel.
But I wonder how far I can take that. In the course of that conversation what am I going to say to my new friend about his obsession with sport? Am I going to condemn it for what it is – a false worship which provokes God’s wrath and will lead to hell? Or am I going to give the impression that it’s fine for him to worship at Old Trafford every week? Am I going to give the impression that, even if I don’t get along there very often, I at least respect his idol? And for me personally, I have to ask whether I’m being honest. Am I trying to show an interest in sport because I actually enjoy it, or just as to impress my ungodly friends?
Other Christians take the opposite line. If sport has become a false god in our society, have nothing to do with it. “What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols…Come out from among them, and be separate, says the Lord”. (1 Corinthians 6:16-17). But again, I wonder what that would mean in practice. Is it wrong for me to send Jesse to a tennis club to learn which end of a racquet to hold? Is it wrong for me to let him play football with other youngsters in the street? Am I encouraging my children along a path that could lead them step by step away from the living God? For that matter is it wrong for me pick up a table tennis bat myself, or play cricket with John in my garden? That’s sport isn’t it?
Do I draw the line at the point where sport becomes professional? Was Rugby Union OK as long as the players had to work Monday to Friday in an office or a school, while playing for Wales on Saturday? But why should it be wrong for them to be paid for what they do supremely well? Is sport only safe if I’m not very good at it, or don’t take it very seriously?
Well, I haven’t worked out the answers to all my questions. That’s work in progress. And even if I did come to the point where I was sure what was right for myself, that wouldn’t mean I could tell you what’s right for you and your family. This is another of those areas where Paul’s words must surely apply: “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5).
But however we resolve the questions, we need to understand what the real issues are. A good starting-point is to make sure we understand what sport actually is. What do we mean when we talk about sport? I’d suggest a three point definition.
1. Sport is physical
We don’t speak of chess, Monopoly or mental arithmetic as sports. Sport is about bodily strength and skill. It may certainly involve mental activity. A top-class footballer will be thinking strategically all the time. To win Wimbledon you have to outthink your opponent, not just serve harder and faster than him. But still, we define sport in terms of physical prowess – the capacity to perform set physical actions more quickly, more forcibly, with better control than other people.
And therein lies a danger. A society that idolises sport is saying that physical prowess is something supremely important.
A man or a woman can be admired, praised, honoured, not because he or she is honourable, unselfish, brave or godly. It’s enough if he or she is good at kicking a football, steering a motor car, lifting weights, or hitting another man very hard on the jaw.
The media will set up as heroes and role models people who if they were not sportsmen would be despised for their gross lifestyles. Whatever they do is excused simply because they are blessed with powerful muscles or superb co-ordination.
Belfast City Airport has been renamed in honour of a drunken wife-beater who was good at running round opponents on the football field. Tiger Woods has confessed to deceiving his wife and exploiting a string of women – but continues to draw crowds desperate to see the greatest golfer in the world. Even sports-people who are have a reputation for cheating or foul behaviour in their sport continue to be admired. Diego Maradona cheated his way to victory over England in the 1986 World Cup, was sent home from the World Cup in 1994 after failing a drugs test – and today is Argentina’s manager.
The message that’s sent to countless youngsters all around the world is that the world’s most skilful footballer has the right to do anything he wants on or off the field. The laws that apply to others don’t apply to him.
As Christians, we believe that the body is important. We believe that it’s good to keep our bodies fit, to have them trained and controlled, to be capable of determined, strenuous physical effort. But we believe that there are more important things than excellence in physical activities. Paul wrote, “Physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life, and the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8). If we involve our children in sport, whether as participants or fans, we must remember that we’re introducing them to a world where it’s assumed that physical excellence is the supreme goal.
Even in children’s sports clubs, we are encouraged to believe that sport can be the answer to all ills. It will rescue children from delinquency, turn them into well-balanced personalities, give them meaning and fulfilment in life. Anne hears this sort of rhetoric constantly. And we have to be countering it. We have to be reminding our children that the fastest swimmer or the most graceful gymnast in the world, without a Christ-like character is an evil person to be pitied and abhorred. We have to tell them that it’s more important to be truthful, honest, kind, hard-working, than to be good at running, swimming or passing a rugby ball.
We want them to have as their heroes, men and women who love God and live for him, rather than people who for a few short years lead the world in their sport.
2. Sport is competitive
Again, that’s part of the definition. Two men digging together in the garden are doing something physical, but we don’t call it sport. Sport involves competing against other people – proving that we are more skilful, stronger, fitter than they are. It’s not enough to do something well. We have to find out which is the better player or the better side. It’s not enough that everyone performs as well as they can. It’s only sport if each side plays to win.
Is that a problem? Maybe not. Maybe, if I were the Christian I should be, I could play table-tennis, play with all the determination I could muster, and yet be as pleased when my opponent wins, as if I had won. That’s how I would react if I loved my neighbour as myself. I would be just as delighted with his skill, his strength, his success as with my own. But how many of us have reached that stage in Christ-likeness?
For most of us, it’s impossible to compete without selfishness and pride surfacing. We are disappointed when we lose, we are exultant when we win.
Even as supporters and spectators we feel that pressure. Millions of fans will be in mourning if England loses tomorrow. Why? If they were really concerned only to see brilliant footballing skills displayed, they wouldn’t mind which side displayed those skills. But that’s not enough for fallen human beings. We’d prefer our side to play badly but win, than play well but lose.
Paul is happy to use metaphors from sport to describe the Christian life. At the end of his life he looked back and wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith”. And then he looked forward. “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness…” ((2 Timothy 4:8). Paul was eager to receive his crown – the wreath that the winner in the Games would be awarded. But then he was quick to add that the crown was not just for himself: “the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing…” Paul longed for others to receive their crown, as much as he longed for his own. Effort, dedication, self-discipline – yes, these are the fine qualities that we can find in sport.
But Paul makes it clear that for a Christian, there’s no place for the competitive spirit which says “I want to succeed; I want my fellow competitor to fail”.
Once again, we need to recognise that sport is dangerous. Can you watch, can you play, without being stirred to selfish and sinful feelings? “Blessed is he who can make that choice without offending his conscience” (Romans 14:22 – my paraphrase!). The rest of us may have to pluck out our right eye (or tear up our season ticket).
3. Sport is unproductive
Don’t misunderstand what I mean. I don’t mean that no good can come of sport. What I mean is that for an activity to be labelled sport, it has to be done for no productive purpose. Robin Hood and Little John spend a morning hunting deer in Sherwood Forest because they’re hungry. To succeed they certainly need physical skill. And it may be competitive – they may each be trying to outdo the other. But we don’t call it sport. We call it getting their dinner. It’s a productive, purposeful activity. But the following day, the Sheriff of Nottingham organises an archery competition. Robin and Little John turn up and compete. They spend the morning firing arrows at a straw target. It’s a completely unproductive activity. There’s no reason why anyone should want that target to be filled with holes. But that’s the nature of sport.
What good reason is there to want a football to go between two posts and under a crossbar? None, except that we’ve agreed that that’s the chosen test of skill. In itself, kicking the ball through those posts is a completely unproductive exercise. And so, in every sport. We choose something completely arbitrary – something completely useless in itself – and devote all our skill to achieving it.
Isn’t that strange? That we should value so highly activities that are in themselves completely unproductive? A workman who fixes a roof has done something productive. A nurse who bandages a old lady’s sores has done something that’s genuinely useful. By contrast, a snooker player who clears the table has done nothing useful. A rugby player who makes a sixty yard dash and scores a spectacular try has done nothing productive. He may have given people great pleasure. So we may argue that that makes it worth doing. But it’s still a fact that there was no reason to carry the ball over the line apart from the arbitrary rules of the game.
When I’m watching old film footage of Barry John shimmering his way past defenders, when I’m gaping at Roger Federer smashing opponents off the court, I have to remind myself that the activities they’re involved in are ultimately purposeless.
Their work is surely less important than the work of the man who empties my bins or delivers my post. Their work is completely insignificant compared with the labours of the church-members who clean our church building each week or the Sunday-school teachers who prepare my children for eternity. They are the people who really deserve my admiration and thanks.
I believe there’s a place in this world for things that are purely entertaining. Indeed God has built such things into the world. I believe there’s a place for music, for art, for sitting round camp-fires, and yes for sport. But let’s get things in proportion. Is it really important whether Englishmen are better than Germans at kicking footballs past goal-keepers? Is it really important whether Andy Murray is better than Roger Federer at hitting a rubber ball with a racquet? There’s no harm in watching and enjoying them, providing we remember how unimportant it all is, compared with the things that really matter.
Barry John got it right. The most gifted rugby player of my lifetime retired at the age of 27 because he couldn’t cope with the hype – with people who wanted to treat him as a hero or a god. He knew that what he was doing just wasn’t that important. He wrote in his autobiography these wise words,
“I would never persuade any boy, and certainly not my own son, into any sport. I would like him to be interested is sport – and I hope my girls will be interested – but only for the fun they get out of it, the exercise and the company… If one of my children turns out to be gifted at a game, I hope that she – or he – would not squander the gift by becoming dedicated to it to the exclusion of everything else…”
Barry has never professed to be a Christian as far as I know. But he knows that the person, however gifted, who makes sport their great goal in life, has squandered their gift.
People sneer today at Longfellow’s lines. But he was right. “Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal…”
Our goal is an eternal world. And our great task is preparing ourselves and others for it. Nothing must distract us from that.