He was the fastest man in the world. He loved running. He had high hopes for an Olympic gold medal. But then he learned something that made his heart sink: the qualifying heats for the 100 were scheduled for Sunday. The 100 was his best event, and he had been looking forward to the Olympics for a long time, but Eric Liddell would not race on Sunday. He loved God and honored Sunday as a day of worship and rest. His coaches and government pressured him to run and skip church just this once, but Eric refused. He put God first. While the other sprinters competed in the heats for the 100, Eric spent the Lord’s Day in church.
Still, Eric did not go home from the Olympics empty-handed. He went home with his integrity and his relationship to God. He also went home with a little something else: a gold medal and a world record. Eric did not run in the 100—his best event and the one for which he had trained—but he entered the 400 instead and ran it faster than any human had ever run it before. That was in the Paris Olympics of 1924. Eric’s victory was later the focus of the Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire.
After winning the gold, Eric Liddell trained for gospel ministry and went to China as a missionary. The situation became very dangerous there in the 1940s, but Eric would not leave. The man who had enough integrity to put God’s will ahead of sports also had enough courage to put God’s will ahead of his own safety. Eric kept doing God’s work among the Chinese. Eventually he ended up in a prison camp. He died there of a brain tumor. He was only 43 years old.
Now here’s the story of another athlete who died of brain cancer at age 43. Unlike Eric Liddell, this athlete had sports as his god. He would stop at nothing to win. He played almost all of his games on Sunday in his position as a defensive end in the National Football League. Lyle Alzado accomplished everything he dreamed of: he led the lead in sacks, was named Defensive Player of the Year, and won the Super Bowl. He couldn’t have done these things without playing on Sunday, and he couldn’t have done them without using steroids. The steroids made him bigger, stronger, and more aggressive on the field. The steroids were against the law, but sports mattered more than the law. The steroids endangered his health, but sports mattered more than his health. The steroids caused mood swings that ruined relationships, but sports mattered more than relationships. Alzado’s second wife said that Lyle sometimes hit her in fits of anger and was impossible to live with because of his changing moods. By the time he reached his early forties, Lyle Alzado had been married four times. Then he got brain cancer and died at 43, convinced that the steroids killed him.
Who had a better approach, Eric Liddell or Lyle Alzado? Who was wiser, the man who put God first or the one who would stop at nothing to win? Which perspective is more typical today?
Some winning athletes might say that God helped them win, but how many refuse to compete on Sunday out of reverence of God as Eric Liddell did? Many sport-loving families claim to love God, but when there’s a clash between worship and sports, which do they choose? When parents skip church so a ten-year-old won’t miss a practice or game, they’re not raising a new Eric Liddell.
One Christian father says, “I told my boy’s coach he wouldn’t be playing on Sundays, and he looked shocked. I said, ‘You act like nobody’s ever said that to you before.’ And he said, ‘Honestly? They haven’t.’”
Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly says,
Sports has nearly swallowed Sunday whole. Every pro sport plays on Sunday. The big day in pro golf and tennis is Sunday. College football started playing bowl games on Sunday. [In college basketball] March madness, Ten NCAA tournament games were played on Sunday. Now more and more youth sports teams are playing on Sunday, when the fields are easier to get and parents are available to drive.
The head of a youth soccer association says, “We don’t feel particularly good about it, but with today’s busy schedules Sunday is the only time some of us have to do these things. And if you’re going to travel two states away, it doesn’t make sense not to play on Sunday, too.”
According to Rick Reilly, religious institutions may be as likely as anyone to cram Sunday full of sports. Notre Dame’s softball teams play more games on Sunday than any other day. In some areas, the YMCA (which, lest we forget, means Young Men’s Christian Association) sponsors youth sports on Sunday.
Now, Rick Reilly loves sports. He makes his living writing about sports. He’s been named Sportswriter of the Year eight times. He’s not a zealot for keeping Sunday sacred. But even Rick Reilly says, “I just feel sorry for these kids who get nothing but organized sports crammed down their gullets 24/7… Even God took a day off. Kids might weep with joy to get a day off from sports. If they don’t spend it at church, maybe they’ll spend it getting to know their siblings’ names again” (Sports Illustrated, April 26, 2004).
Many of us are sports worshipers. We don’t treat Sunday as sacred; we treat sports as sacred. For example, earlier this year Major League Baseball officials announced a plan to put ads for a movie on the bases of many stadiums. Fans gasped in horror. What crass commercialism! This would violate the purity of the sport! The outcry was so loud that baseball officials backtracked, and the bases remained white and clean of any advertising. Amid the horror at making money from ads on bases, did anyone object to pro players working for pay on God’s day? Did anyone object to selling tickets and beer on God’s day? Did anyone protest against flocking to stadiums instead of worshiping in church? Apparently bases are too holy for movie ads, but the Lord’s Day isn’t too holy to cram with commercial sports. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad.
Fun and Games
Let me be clear that I like sports. I’m not an anti-sports nerd. I’m six-foot-six and have played a lot of basketball in my life. I like playing various games with my kids. I like watching sports on TV now and then (when I have time). I enjoy fun and games as much as anyone.
Sports can provide good, clean fun and other benefits as well. Kids are healthier getting plenty of exercise than sitting around getting flabby. It’s better to be in tiptop shape than to be couch potatoes. They’re better off spending their spare time playing sports than spending it in front of a TV, filling their minds with mush. They’re better off playing games than hanging out on the street looking for trouble.
What’s more, involvement in sports can help them develop self-discipline. They learn how to manage time. They learn to train and strive and sacrifice to reach a goal. One result is that even with less free time, kids involved in athletics often do better in school than those who don’t play any sport.
Sports involvement can also strengthen relationships. It can teach teamwork and foster friendships with teammates. It can make kids and parents feel closer to each other. The time they spend together just driving here and there may give them opportunities to talk that they might not get otherwise. The shared experiences, the shared joys of victory, and the shared disappointments of defeat can bond parents and kids and make them feel closer. Kids relish their parents’ attention, and parents love seeing their children have fun and perform well.
Add these benefits together, and even the grumpiest critic has to admit that involvement in sports can be good.
Still, we need to ask whether we’ve got too much of a good thing. One problem occurs when pushy parents pressure kids to perform. Many kids, especially younger ones, would rather just play and have fun than try to meet the adult expectations of parents and coaches. Playing sports ought to be a relaxing diversion, but it can become a stressful obsession. Some sports crazy parents are robbing kids of their childhood. It’s bad enough when parents howl at referees and umpires over a judgment call or heckle a coach for not giving their kid enough playing time, but it’s even worse when parents scold kids for having a bad game or push them to practice harder and harder—as though the future of the world depended on the outcome of a kids’ game.
What happens when kids feel too much pressure in sports? Many quit playing altogether. 73% quit their childhood sport by age 13, mostly because they’re not having fun. Meanwhile, many who keep playing end up absorbing the harsh, sports-is-everything, win-at-any-cost mindset of parents and coaches. Even if they become great at games, they may turn out to be rotten at relationships and lousy at life.
There’s also the problem of kids having unrealistic goals. Top athletes are so hyped and glamorized in the media that many kids want to be like them. However, the likelihood of a boy or girl eventually making the Olympic team or having a professional sports career is much less than one in a thousand. Some kids neglect homework and study to chase the dream of a sports career. When that doesn’t work out, they lack the skill necessary to succeed at things that don’t involve sports.
Obsession with sports makes many turn to steroids. Kelli White was the world’s fastest woman, winning the 100 and the 200 at the World Championships. But she couldn’t run in the Olympics because she was a steroid user. Other top athletes have also been banned. Still others are suspected of using illegal steroids without getting caught. Many baseball stars are playing under a cloud of suspicion. And steroids are not just a problem among pro athletes or Olympic competitors. Many youth are so eager to make it to the top that they use steroids. They lie and cheat and endanger their physical and emotional health just to improve their athletic performance. Underlying the whole steroid scandal is an attitude of sports as god and a willingness to do anything and sacrifice anything for that god.
But even if sports-crazy kids stay away from steroids, study hard, and grow up to be successful, well adjusted, good natured adults, the biggest danger is still lurking: the danger of missing what matters most in life. Let’s imagine a situation that seems ideal. You’re good at a certain sport. Your parents are supportive but not pushy or overbearing. You become so good at your sport that you receive a full athletic scholarship to the university of your choice. You win championship trophies in high school and university. You go on to win Olympic gold. You star as a pro, make millions of dollars, and win many championships. And through it all, you manage to be a decent, likeable person. Does that sound perfect? Well, even if all this went right, something would be horribly wrong if sports crowded God out of your life.
Sports involvement may be most dangerous not when it’s bad but when it’s good—good enough to crowd out what’s best. The most common danger in sports isn’t the emotional damage of pressuring kids too hard or the steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs or the corrupt players and dirty agents who care only about money or the gambling scandals where athletes are bribed to change the outcome of games. These things have been covered in the media, and they’re bad, but the most widespread problem with sports is that a sport can seem so exciting, so wholesome, so fun, so satisfying, so glorious that it becomes the center of your life and matters more to you than God himself.
Sports can ruin a relationship with God just as surely as crime or booze or pornography or some other vice. Something good can make you godless just as surely as something bad. Some parents are so busy racing from game to game with their kids, even on Sundays that they don’t worship God in church. More and more teams schedule practices and games on Sunday, and they even schedule them during the worship hour. Even families that might otherwise attend church may rearrange their Sundays to fit the sports schedule. Games matter more than God. Sports is supreme; church is optional. And this doesn’t just affect Sundays. Throughout the week, more families are spending all their spare time on sports. They seldom share a meal together as a family, and they never have time for family prayer and Bible reading.
The deadliest part is that it all seems so healthy and normal. Even as I talk about these things, you might be thinking, “What’s wrong with this guy? Why is he so worried about sports?” Questioning sports is a bit like questioning motherhood or apple pie. What’s wrong with playing a few games? If kids are into drugs and gangs, there’s a problem. But if kids are into sports instead of drugs, if they wear a sharp-looking team uniform instead of dressing as a gang member, how could anyone object?
Sports and Satan
Strange as it may sound, sports can destroy you. Anytime you put something other than God at the center of your life, you are playing with fire. If sports is what matters most to you, you’re falling for Satan’s scheme. You’re in danger of leaving God behind forever and finding yourself in hell.
You see, Satan has just one main goal for you: to lead you further and further from God. If Satan can do that through making you a drunkard or a vicious criminal, he’s happy to do so. But Satan is just as happy if he can lure you away from God by making you so sports crazy that you don’t pay attention to God or cultivate a relationship with Jesus or think about your eternal destiny. Satan is no happier if you worship a pagan idol than if you worship soccer or hockey. Satan is no happier if parents drive their kids crazy through abuse than if parents make their kids crazy about baseball. Satan is no happier if senior citizens get drunk all day Sunday than if they play golf all day Sunday. All Satan cares about is keeping you away from God, and whatever it takes to do that is okay with him.
In fact, the sports trap may be more effective than some of Satan’s filthier methods. After all, people who fall into sleazy behavior may sense something is wrong and feel unhappy and perhaps even pray for God’s help. But if you’re in the sports trap, you may not see anything wrong. You think it’s clean and wholesome to have sports at the center of your life, and you feel no great need to put Christ at the center.
Your main problem isn’t that you’re too excited about games but that you’re not excited enough about God. It’s not that you care too much about sports but that you care too little about salvation. The reason you’re cramming every spare moment with sports is that you haven’t found anything better to fill your emptiness. The reason winning is your ultimate goal is that you haven’t found a higher goal.
Satan would like to keep it that way. Satan wants you to fill your time with anything but God and have you seek any goal except becoming godly and spending eternity with God in heaven. But now you know better. You’ve heard how Satan can twist sports from an innocent pastime into something that can draw you away from God and destroy your soul in hell. To defeat Satan’s scheme, don’t just admit that you’ve been too crazy about sports; confess that you’ve cared too little about God.
Trying to find ultimate satisfaction in sports is like chasing the wind. Living without Jesus at the center of your life may seem fun and fulfilling for awhile, but at some point, you come up empty. Athletic achievements don’t last, and when they’re gone, what will you have left?
Get a Life!
If you care more about sports than anything else, you need to change. You need to get a life! If you’re a kid dreaming of becoming a star, start dreaming of something greater. If you’re a mom or dad trying to live out your dreams through your kids’ athletic achievements, set higher goals for yourself and your family. If you’re a middle-aged person who spends countless hours trying to improve your golf swing, work on something more worthwhile. If you’re a fanatical follower of some college or pro team and you go wild when your favorite team wins and get gloomy when your favorite team loses, find something more important to get excited about. If you’re a sports junkie who stays glued to a TV sports channel watching game after game after game even when you hardly know who is playing, get a life!
I mean that literally: get a life. Get a life that is joyful even when you can’t run fast or jump high. Get a life that enriches your family even when your kids aren’t star athletes. Get a life that nothing can spoil. Get eternal life in Jesus Christ. Don’t let anything come between you and the Lord.
The Bible never says it’s bad to play games or be involved in sports, but the Bible does say it’s bad to put anything ahead of God. Sports is worth something, but it’s not everything. Games have value, but the value is limited. Training and workouts may improve your physical fitness—and that’s good—but physical fitness isn’t as important as spiritual fitness. The Bible says, “Train yourselves to be godly. For 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). A healthy body is good, but it’s not nearly as important as a healthy relationship to God.
As for the thrill of competing and winning, it may be fun while it lasts, but it doesn’t last forever. Eventually your playing days come to an end. Any games you win become faded memories. Any ribbons, trophies, medals, or championship rings you collect become junk on a shelf. They have no lasting value. As the Bible puts it, athletic champions “get a crown that will not last” but those who pursue eternal life “get a crown that lasts forever (1 Corinthians 9:25).
If you want eternal life, believe in Jesus as God’s best gift. Prize Jesus more than anything else. Trust his blood to pay for all the ways you’ve offended God when you placed other things, including sports, at the center of your life. Count on Christ’s perfection credited to you as the only way you can be worthy of a crown in heaven. Rely on God’s Holy Spirit to live in you and keep you in touch with the Lord. Then, energized by God’s Spirit, go after godliness and eternal life with even more desire and determination than an athlete seeking a championship.
The Bible sometimes compares the Christian life to a race and urges us to make Christ our goal and to press forward to know him better (Philippians 3:12-14). This involves effort and training. Once you’ve been born again through faith in Jesus, his Spirit moves you to get involved in the kind of training that will make you a strong spiritual athlete. Just as athletes need good nutrition, you need the nourishment of Bible reading, prayer, church involvement, and regular participation in the Lord’s Supper. Just as athletes give up things that interfere with their goals, you must give up sins and even cut back on some good things that may be keeping you from the best things. Just as athletes need to practice over and over to get something right, so you need to practice obeying God and helping others until holiness becomes a habit. “Train yourselves to be godly” says the Bible (1 Timothy 4:8). Athletes go into training “to get a crown that will not last,” but followers of Jesus “do it to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Corinthians 9:25).
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.