Sport and the Christian – Part 2
At the end of last month’s article we came to the heart of the matter – what principles apply to a Christian’s practice of sports? Here I try to provide some answers.
These principles view sport as it should be played – while recognising that in a sinful world people will tend to distort or abuse such principles. Certainly the Christian attitude to sport will be distinctive. What, then, can be suggested?
First of all, there is the matter of stewardship. The Christian is a steward of all he or she receives in this life. We are stewards, among other things, of our bodies and of our time. This will mean weighing up carefully how our time is spent.
This applies both ways – not only that we avoid spending too much time on sport to the detriment of more important things, but also that we give sufficient time to physical exercise, play and recreation for the benefit of our physical and mental health.
Work and rest
Secondly, there is the related question of work and rest. There seems little doubt that New Testament teaching (e.g. in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7) confirms that the Ten Commandments comprise core values and morality which ought to direct men’s lives. An examination of the commandments themselves reveals a timeless view of God and the principles of man’s life. How could these possibly change?
The fourth commandment deals with our time both in relation to work as well as rest. This principle cannot change because man’s life on earth does not change. There is need to demarcate work from rest, and this is done by the principle of ‘one day in seven’.
It is true that there have been differences over the perpetuity of the ‘moral law’ – as well as over identifying the first day of the week in the New Testament era as a ‘Christian Sabbath’ reflecting the fourth commandment. But all Christians surely agree that the Decalogue embodies unchanging moral principles.
One often forgotten aspect of Sabbath is the way it points to both the rest of faith and ‘heavenly rest’ (implicit e.g. in Hebrews 4). The Christian Sabbath provides rest from work but also a foretaste of heavenly rest.
Therefore Christians will eschew unnecessary work or recreations on that day. They will rejoice in the resurrected Saviour on the first day of the week, and in the birth of the Christian Church through the coming of the Spirit, also on the first day of the week. Further, unless there is one uniform day of rest and worship, the reality of fellowship will be seriously damaged.
Modesty and honesty
Thirdly, there will be the exercise of modesty (1 Timothy 2:9). This will be a serious challenge for a Christian sportsman or woman. In recent times women especially have been exploited by revealing sportswear. With this the Christian must be entirely unhappy.
Where one draws the line is not always easy to determine. Nevertheless the principle will be that the sportsperson should be adequately covered so that, for example, there is no pandering to sex-appeal in dress (or lack of it). This does not just apply to women.
Fourthly, there must be a demand for honesty. The need for ‘fair play’ should be self evident, but it runs counter to what is repeatedly heard from pundits and players – that you always try to get away with breaking the rules if you can. And, O yes, you never apologise for anything.
Anyone familiar with top sporting events today, especially in football, know that all sorts of dishonesty are practised, with players feigning fouls and injuries, ‘diving’ and so on.
Restraint and joy
Fifthly, there is the need for restraint. This is especially necessary in ‘bodily contact’ sports. Because of sin restraints may be limited. Nevertheless, the Christian will encourage restraint by a desire not to hurt anyone by over-aggressive play.
Unfortunately this could exclude Christians if sports develop in an aggressive direction. For example, in recent times professional rugby players have become stronger and bulkier with corresponding potential for hurt. Such games can become gladiatorial, excluding from some sports those who are more normal in build.
Sixthly, let there be joy! A primary motive for participants ought to be the pleasure and joy that the sport, recreation or game brings. The Christian rejoices first in God and in salvation – but then surely seeks joyful engagement in all his or her human and cultural pursuits. If you can’t enjoy it leave it alone.
Fitness, gentleness and godliness
Seventhly, it is good to maintain a measure of physical fitness. This is something spoken of by Paul in 1 Timothy 4:8. It is not necessary to take part in competitive sports, of course. Much physical exercise can be done entirely on one’s own.
Nevertheless, a desire for bodily fitness and a healthy life will be a prime motive in taking part in sports. It will go with other abstemious things, like restraint in eating and drinking and the avoidance of unhealthy practices like smoking.
Eighthly, let there be the exercise of gentleness, or gentlemanliness (Philippians 4:5). If one is involved in competitive sport, for example, it ought not to sour relationships. There ought to be graciousness in defeat or victory, and a readiness to think others better than ourselves.
Ninthly, let all be done to the glory of God (we have referred to this already, 1 Corinthians 10:31). ‘And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men’ (Colossians 3:23).
If we believe that the Lord’s eye is upon us we will be careful to avoid anything that will compromise our faith. A real issue when watching sport (and no doubt when competing too) is being in the presence of decadence, such as drunkenness or swearing. This might well inhibit some forms of involvement. By the same token, it could motivate Christians to organise themselves according to the principles outlined here.
The way forward
All this implies several important things for a Christian philosophy on sport. Here are five basic elements in such a perspective:
The application of the Word of God – taking the moral teachings of Scripture seriously in every aspect of our lives.
The recognition of sin. Sin spoils. Satan spoils. They spoil even the most honourable things. Through sin people get their earthly exploits out of perspective.
The healthy enjoyment of simple human pleasures. Some things exclude themselves – boxing with its intent of hurt; horse racing involving gambling; Sunday sports as a denial of Sabbath rest. But there are legitimate pleasures. There is richness in social life. Sport can be one of these things.
There is opportunity in sport to bear witness to Christian ethical behaviour. The Christian is to be salt and light and to do all as to Christ. Thus the ‘good works’ of the believer will be seen of men and give glory to God. An eminent example is 1924 Olympian Eric Liddell, one of the subjects of the award-winning film Chariots of fire.
There must be discernment and avoidance of sin. Thus aggression and covetousness will be avoided. Professionalism in sport needs to be seriously examined. Can the true essence of sport be wholly maintained by a professional – motivated by gain rather than just the ‘play-element’ in sport?
A healthy Christian approach
This is a difficult area to evaluate from a Christian perspective – partly because modern sports have developed in a secular manner and during a period of moral decline. Sport is not unlawful, but its place must be weighed up in terms of our use of time and our association with the world.
It may be that Christians will increasingly need to organise sports and games among themselves to ensure good principles, righteous conduct, and fair play in both competitive and non-competitive activities.
Eric Liddell exemplified a healthy Christian approach. When asked whether he would pray that he might win a race, he said that he would not, but that he would pray that in these events also God might be glorified.
One is reminded of another instructive incident in Liddell’s life. After he left Scotland for China, a journalist asked, ‘Are you glad you gave your life to missionary work? Don’t you miss the limelight, the rush, the frenzy, the cheers, the rich red wine of victory?’
Came the astute reply, ‘Oh well, of course it’s natural for a chap to think over all that sometimes, but I’m glad I’m in the work I’m engaged in now. A fellow’s life counts for more at this than the other. Not a corruptible crown, but an incorruptible, you know’.