On sports and the Christian life: An interview with David Prince, part 2
Ok, here’s a fastball right down the middle for you, but I think it’s a good question. You and I both love baseball deeply. It seems to me that baseball has many lessons to teach us about life. What can we learn about the Christian life from our national pastime?
Baseball means dealing with failure. “There is more Met than Yankee in all of us,” as Roger Angell has poignantly wrote in The Summer Game. Elsewhere Angell explains, “Baseball seems to have been invented solely for the purpose of explaining all other things in life” (Baseball and the American Dream, 8). When I read Paul in Romans 7:19, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing,” I think about baseball. The reality is that baseball is a game of managed failure for every player, even the great ones.
Baseball requires a kind of moral courage that keeps persisting in the face of inevitable repeated personal failures. That is the sober, unalterable reality for Mike Trout and every little leaguer as well. Baseball also demands a rigorous hopefulness. When Paul concludes his struggle with the hope-filled assertion, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1), I also think about baseball. Persistent, daily plodding in the face of chronic managed failure, driven by future hope sounds a lot like my daily Christian walk.
Also, in most cases, the way a love of baseball is transmitted is through dads. No boy will love and pass down the game of baseball simply because someone bought him a glove, ball, and bat. He cannot play catch with himself, hit himself ground balls, or throw himself batting practice. Much less will he ever figure out on his own what in the world a squeeze, sacrifice, infield fly rule, frozen rope, Texas leaguer, or balk means. The mechanics, mystery, nuance, and jargon of baseball demand that one be personally discipled in its craft and patiently taught its excellencies. A baseball scorebook resembles mysterious hieroglyphics until the signs and symbols are enduringly given meaning by a learned tutor (Deut 6). Very little in baseball is seeker-friendly or self-evident, and few people pick up the game on their own.
I could go on, and on, but I will stop there.
Most pastors and laypeople alike have children who are involved in recreation sports, travel teams, high school sports, and the like. How should we help our children balance sports with church and educational commitments? What about playing on the Lord’s Day? Do you see that as a problem? How should pastors counsel their people on these matters?
Sports are never the problem. They are merely exposing the problem. Like all of God’s good gifts, sports can be easily corrupted. Some Christians make the mistake of prioritizing sports over church by reasoning that the youth sports opportunity is only for a limited period of time and the church will always be there. Clearly, teaching children that sports are a valid reason to neglect God is disastrous. Some parents even fashion themselves as victims in dealing with these issues as though they cannot set boundaries on their children’s participation. They reason as if the only options are not participating in sports at all or acting like the team’s practice and game schedule is in charge of their children’s lives.
The solution is simpler than many Christian parents and participants want to believe, but it involves leadership, direction, and conviction. Sports are never the problem; inadequate leadership is the problem. Sports are often made scapegoats for our lack of conviction and failure of leadership. A passionate commitment to excellence in athletic competition must be for the glory of God. Because God’s glory should be our end goal, our Christian conviction will lead us to set appropriate boundaries and gladly endure the consequences. When involved in sports, participants should be committed and diligent participants, but should also draw up front whatever boundaries are needed on participation. Too many embrace Christian sentimentality, which seeks to have convictions for which they never have to suffer. For parents, leading in this was is preparing your children to make Christ-honoring decisions as an adult.
Any guidance on how we should help our sons and daughters or even young people in our churches to select sports heroes? Any warnings?
My answer here is similar—parental involvement. There is a tendency in contemporary culture to consider ours the most sports-obsessed society in human history. Though our culture is clearly saturated with a passion for sports, the obsession with sports was even more pervasive in antiquity. The first ancient Olympic games can be traced back to 776 B.C. and took place on the ancient plains of Olympia, which is on the western part of the Peloponnese. Along with the Olympics, other Greek crown competitions were held at Delphi, Isthmia and Nemea. The competitions were athletic-religious festivals, and the athletes were viewed as demi-gods.
The apostle Paul was undoubtedly a sports fan (he probably attended the Isthmian games), and it seems he could not think about the spiritual battle of Christian living without pointing to the obvious parallels drawn from his interest in athletic competition. He does this even though the sporting competitions were mired in idolatry and other things that were not commiserate with Christian commitment. According to Paul, the negatives did not invalidate the positive lessons to be learned. Parents must point to the lessons to be learned and also point out the aspects that are out of line with the gospel. Both lessons are valuable. It is simply a matter of teaching your children to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).
Sports has become an idol in my heart when _____________________. .
Unthinking rejection or unthinking embrace of sports is a failure of Christian discipleship. I believe that the Christian with a rightly ordered, Christ-centered worldview is uniquely in a position to enjoy athletic competition as a good gift from God and his or her sports loyalties as a demonstration of providential rootedness in time, place, family, and community.
C. S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, “The sin and corruption in the world was the result of people and institutions “trying to run it on the wrong juice” (53-54). Every part of our lives, including our sports lives, must run on “the right juice” or we will inevitably turn gifts into idols. To run on the right juice, we must forsake a self-referential approach to life, embracing a radically Christ-centered life and walking humbly before God with fierce gospel-focused intentionality before man. When sports are not approached with intentional Christ-centeredness, they are corrupted and can easily become a curse rather than a blessing. Sports are not inherently good in a fallen world. Like all things, sports must be redeemed and renewed in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
- Sports has become an idol in my heart and life when I cannot enjoy sports and acknowledge sports as a good gift of God when my favorite team loses.If you cannot delight in God with thanksgiving for a hard fought contest when your team loses, then you are perverting God’s good gift of athletics and teaching those around him to do the same. Christian parent, if you cannot root like crazy with your children for your favorite team—only to see them lose—and afterward laugh and play in the yard with your kids, you have a problem; it’s called idolatry.
- Sports has become an idol in my heart and life when I sever my participation in sports or cheering for my favorite team from my Christian commitment.If your behavior at a game would make it awkward for you to shift the conversation to your faith in Christ, you are making an idol of sports. Sports must never control us or be the source of a Christian’s identity, because Christ alone is the believer’s identity, context, center, and end; so all other desires are subordinate to Christ, and nothing, including athletic failure, can steal the believer’s contentment.
- Sports has become an idol in my heart and life when it does not inspire me to faithfulness in my own vocation and endeavors.How many Christians rigorously critique the job performance, dedication, and work ethic of the coach of their favorite team while simultaneously complaining about their jobs and excusing their own lack of work ethic and dedication? Such is a sad commentary on their lack of commitment to the priority of the kingdom of Christ in their daily lives. Where this kind of Christian hypocrisy is happening, the love of sports has become detached from the Christian life and transformed into a barrier rather than a bridge to glorifying Christ.
David E. Prince is assistant professor of preaching at Southern Seminary and is pastor of Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. This article originally appeared on his blog, Prince on Preaching.