Self-described “pastor-athlete” C.J. Mahaney exhorts athletes not to waste their sports. This booklet looks to Scripture for principles that speak to the role of sports in our lives.
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About the Author
C. J. Mahaney is the senior pastor of Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville. He has written, edited and contributed to numerous books, including Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology; Don't Waste Your Sports; and Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God. C. J. and his wife, Carolyn, are the parents of three married daughters and one son, and the happy grandparents to twelve grandchildren.
Read an Excerpt
SPORTS AT THEIR BEST — AND WORST
I can see it clearly. My feet are firmly planted on the starting block, knees bent, arms hanging loosely at my sides. The water is still. I take a final deep breath, waiting for the gun to go off, anticipating my lunge into the pool.
It takes little imagination to relive this moment. I can't count the number of times I dove into the pool, absolutely intent on winning.
What led me to compete as a swimmer? Well, at first my parents made me do it. They put me on the swim team when I was six. And let's be clear — I despised every moment of it, because swimming is pure and monotonous discipline. And I wasn't disciplined. I was a born loafer.
Here's the strange thing: I continued to swim until college, and in spite of my hatred for early morning practices and frigid pools, at every meet I was driven to win. I was elated when I won and depressed when I lost (which was, sadly, much more frequent). I despised swimming. So what explanation is there for my passion to win?
At the time I would have said I was competitive.
What I didn't perceive then was my own passion to be admired. Swimming was merely my stage, my opportunity to impress others with my athleticism. Each event was a platform for drawing attention to myself. And it was no different in the other sports I played (and liked better): baseball, basketball, football. Now, as I reflect on those years, I see more clearly what was in my heart as a young man. I can see how proud I was.
The problem wasn't swimming, or baseball, basketball, or football. These and other sports are gifts from God, and competing in them can and should be a joy. I love playing a variety of sports in the backyard with my son and grandsons. I play golf (which, for me, is a means of cultivating humility). I keep two gloves and a ball in my office, and I play catch in the parking lot so often the UPS guy probably wonders whether I actually work. My family's holiday traditions include a football game the day after Thanksgiving. Everyone plays. Even the ladies. My wife and three daughters play, regardless of cold weather, muddy fields, even pregnancy. (Although I'll admit the game gets shorter every year.)
Sports are a gift from God. But as soon as you introduce the human heart, things get complicated.
Why is it that sports seem to bring out the best and the worst in us? Sports can provide hours of happiness, but they can also ignite impatience, anger, even rage. What gives?
If you've ever asked yourself this question, you're not alone. Erik Thoennes, a professor and former college football player, puts it this way:
I had the delightful experience this week of watching a dozen five-year-old children get a tennis lesson. They were asked by their instructor to simply run forward and then backward over a ten foot span. They did far more than run. Skipping, leaping, bounding, hopping, spinning, laughing, animal imitations, running with closed eyes, dramatically falling, jumping up again, and purposely crashing into one another, all became part of the lesson. When the instructor armed the children with racquets, the fun really began. The racquets quickly became guitars, swords, canes, horses, trombones, rifles, and fishing poles. The lesson continually bordered on becoming "unproductive" and utter chaos because playing was as instinctual to the children as breathing. The teacher was successful because he appreciated the children's insatiable need to play, and allowed for copious amounts of it within his instruction.
But it's not always like that. Dr. Thoennes points out the dark side of sports:
This week I also read of a father who went to jail for eight years for unintentionally killing one of his son's tennis opponents after drugging the opponent with medication that causes drowsiness. The father, who was doing all he could to ensure the athletic "success" of his son and daughter, had similarly spiked the water bottles of twenty-seven other rivals over a three year period. The difference between the fun loving instructor and the winning obsessed father could not be more pronounced. And their differences highlight drastically different ways of viewing sport in Western culture. ... One appreciates the actual process of playing a sport; the other has sadly turned sport into an ugly expression of human pride, ... envy, and malice. What will keep us from turning sport into something ugly rather than beautiful?
Sports, at their best, are beautiful. In a 2008 game, Western Oregon University soft ball player Sara Tucholsky hit a three-run home run to give her team the lead, but while trying to touch first base she tore her ACL and collapsed. The rules prohibited her teammates from helping her round the bases. That's when two of her opponents — including Mallory Holtman, the conference's all-time leading home run hitter — lifted Tucholsky and carried her around the base path all the way to home plate.
But we've all seen sports turn ugly, too. Maybe you don't know anyone who drugged his opponents' water bottles. But turn on ESPN, and on any given night you'll hear about steroids, suspensions, and scandals.
So how do we keep sports beautiful? Does God care either way? What are sports all about anyway?
This booklet exists to answer these important questions. My prayer is that by the time we're done, we'll discover answers from the wisdom of God's Word. We'll find real guidance for athletes in the pages of Scripture. We'll see that sports, although they bring us great joy, are not actually about us at all. Something — and Someone — much more important is in view.CHAPTER 2
WHAT ARE SPORTS REALLY FOR?
You won't find track meets or golf tournaments in the pages of Scripture. But we're about to look at a passage that applies to all of life, including sports. These few words, if by the grace of God we understand and obey them, will transform our lives.
Are you ready for this? It's a familiar passage, but perhaps you haven't applied it to the playing field:
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:31)
This simple sentence is loaded with divine wisdom for every part of our sports, from practices to playoffs. So few words, so much wisdom.
We'll grasp it more easily if we know who it was written to and why. So we're taking a short detour from the world of sports to the world of first-century Greece. (Trust me, we'll be back to sports in a minute.)
First Corinthians 10:31 is part of a letter from the apostle Paul to Christians in the city of Corinth. They had asked whether it was okay for Christians to eat food that had been sacrificed to idols and then sold in the market (1 Cor. 8:1–10:33). In other words, were they allowed to enjoy a steak dinner if the beef had been offered as a religious sacrifice to an idol?
This may not sound like a big deal to us, but for Christians in Corinth it was a very big deal. Their culture was full of idol worship. So the question of whether you could eat food that had been offered to idols was starting serious arguments in the church.
In response to their question, Paul explained that the food itself wasn't damaged by the idolatrous sacrifice, and Christians weren't harmed if they ate it. However, Paul does tell them not to attend pagan banquets. Why? Because for Christians to attend these popular events was to associate with the worship of demons. Attending these banquets was out of the question.
Here's Paul's point: the important thing for the Corinthians was not the origin of their food, but the nature of their worship. "Therefore," he tells them, "flee from idolatry" (1 Cor. 10:14). Then he says, "Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31).
With this background, we can understand that 1 Corinthians 10:31 is calling us to do two things:
examine our hearts and lives for the presence of idolatry, and
devote ourselves to the glory of God in all of life, including sports.
These two principles have a lot to say about our participation in sports. They also make a surprising promise: sports, like anything else in life, is an opportunity for us to glorify God.
That's right. Sports, just like those Corinthian steak dinners, are a gift from God. From swimming to softball, wrestling to rugby, baseball to basketball, cross-country running, gymnastics, hockey, decathlons, karate, track, golf, football, tennis, lacrosse — the list could go on. Each of them is a gift from a gracious God. Each, when enjoyed properly, can glorify God.
We have to be careful, though, because this promise carries a warning label, too. If it's possible to use sports for God's glory, then there is also a way to misuse sports for our own glory. And that is exactly what the sinful heart — mine and yours included — is often all too eager to do.
We'll talk about examining our lives for the presence of idolatry a little later in this booklet. But first let's consider an important question: how do we glorify God — and not ourselves — in our sports?
To answer that, we need to know who God is and what brings him glory.CHAPTER 3
MEETING GOD BEFORE THE OPENING TIP
Using sports to glorify someone is not a new idea.
You may already know that the athletic brand Nike is named after the ancient Greek goddess of victory. But perhaps you didn't know that the original Olympic Games — which occurred hundreds of years before Christ was born — was an athletic festival held in honor of the Greek god Zeus. On the central day of the festival, one hundred oxen were sacrificed to him. (This rivals modern Super Bowls for the most absurd halftime show in the history of sports.)
Whether we use sports to glorify a pagan god named Zeus, a gifted professional like LeBron James, or ourselves, we distort and misuse sports.
If we don't know who God really is, we'll seek our own glory instead of his. We'll give glory to the created instead of the Creator. We'll rob God of the glory that only he deserves. We'll waste our sports.
So we must first get to know the true God of all creation — including sports. Who is he? What do we mean by his "glory"?
Now, if you're wondering what all this has to do with your jump shot, we're getting there soon. Hang with me. It's like with any sport — you've got to know how to run the plays before you go out and run the plays. You've got to understand the West Coast offense before you can run it. You've got to understand the full-court press before you can execute it. In the same way, we've got to study God's character before we move on to the practical stuff. This isn't just for scholars (who normally don't have game). If you're a Christian athlete, you must study theology and not just the playbook.
When we think about who God is, we need help. We have small brains and an infinite God. We're jumping into the deep end of the theological pool. So I've enlisted a smart guy to help us out, a theologian named J. I. Packer. Here's how he describes the God who gave us sports:
Our personal life is a finite thing: it is limited in every direction, in space, in time, in knowledge, in power. But God is not so limited. He is eternal, infinite and almighty. He has us in his hands; we never have him in ours. Like us, he is personal; but unlike us, he is great. ... The Bible never lets us lose sight of [God's] majesty and his unlimited dominion over all his creatures.
Let's look at J. I. Packer's statement again in slo-mo:
God is eternal: When it comes to his age, God has no beginning and he has no end. He cannot be outlived (Ps. 90:2; 102:25– 27).
God is infinite: When it comes to physical limitations, God has, well, none. He is equally present everywhere. We can never go to a place where he is not (Jer. 23:23– 24; Ps. 139:7–12).
God is almighty: When it comes to his strength, God defeats all obstacles and all enemies. He accomplishes whatever he pleases (Gen. 18:14; Ps. 115:3; Matt. 19:26).
Amazingly, though, God doesn't just list these jaw-dropping stats about himself. He shows us his glory most clearly in the person of his Son. In another letter to the Corinthians, Paul puts it this way:
God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:6)
This is incredible. The God who spoke light and time into existence shows us his glory first and foremost in one person: Jesus Christ.
Why? Because in his death on the cross for our sins, Jesus bore the penalty for every time we have exalted ourselves instead of him, every angry word we've muttered at a referee, every complaint when our coach didn't put us in the game. He is our best glimpse of our eternal, infinite, and almighty God. And he is our only hope for the forgiveness of sins — forgiveness we need so desperately. As sinners, you and I have only one hope: Jesus Christ.
This is the eternal, almighty, infinite, and merciful God whose glory should be our passion and priority every time we step onto the field.
What does this have to do with my jump shot? Good question. We'll look at the answer on the next few pages.CHAPTER 4
PLAY TO THE GLORY OF GOD
Here's the difference knowing God makes: when I encounter the eternal, almighty, infinite, and merciful God, something changes in my heart. My attention turns away from myself and toward this glorious God. I walk onto the field much less likely to brag, jockey for attention, or try to win others' admiration. Every play, every inning, every race becomes an opportunity to draw attention to God.
That's what we call worship. And this is why worshiping God isn't just something we do in church. It's something we do in all of life, including our sports.
So 1 Corinthians 10:31 tells us something very important about our sports. Here's what this verse says to us:
To bring glory to God as athletes, we play sports in a way that draws attention to God's greatness instead of our own.
This involves much more than kneeling in the end zone or pointing to the sky. You see, too often Christian athletes participate in sports without understanding the potential sports have for God's glory. We let culture, rather than Scripture, define our priorities and passions. We're all vulnerable to this. Here are some sure signs of misdirected priorities:
We have no higher purpose than winning.
We are more concerned about improving athletic skill than growing in godliness.
We use sports to glorify ourselves, rather than glorifying God through godly actions.
Sadly, it is possible to devote massive amounts of time to sports while failing to grow in humility, perseverance, self-control, diligence, and other qualities appropriate to a follower of Christ. But if you search Scripture for what it says is truly important, you won't find athletic gifting, personal stats, championship trophies, or even a win-loss column. Scripture's emphasis is clearly on the glory of God, as revealed in the gospel, and on our imitation of his character. As Christians, we must adopt Scripture's priorities.
This is not to say that athletic skill doesn't matter. It is important. But it's not most important. Playing sports to the glory of God must be primary; athletic ability and achievements must be secondary. And that means every time we step onto the field, our priority will be to worship God, apply the gospel to our hearts, and become more like Christ.
What does this actually look like? What does it mean to worship God and imitate Christ at tip-off, at halftime, in the fourth inning or the fourth quarter? What does it look like when my team is way ahead — or way behind?
This is where things get very practical. We've studied the plays; now we're going to run them. We're moving from the locker room to the playing field. Ready?
THE GRATEFUL ATHLETE
First, we play to the glory of God by thanking him for his gifts.
Sports, and the ability to play them, are gifts from a merciful God. They are part of God's kind design for humanity. In addition to being just plain fun, sports bring us many benefits, none of which we deserve. And we should thank God for all of them. Here are just a few:
Rest and Refreshment
In a fallen world, in the work and weariness of daily life, God has kindly given us sports and recreation to refresh us. He has built a wonderful rhythm into this world: work, rest; work, rest; work, rest. For some, sports are work; but for most of us, sports are part of God's gift of rest. And if we are paying attention, sports remind us of the eternal rest in God's presence that awaits all who trust in Christ and his death on the cross for forgiveness of sins.
The physical and mental benefits of physical exercise are undeniable — and if we're going to exercise, sports are way more fun than the gym. Even a non-sport (in my opinion) like ultimate Frisbee is more enjoyable than just working out. Look at it this way: you could run on the treadmill, like I do, and despise every second of it, like I do. Or you could play an intense game of pick-up basketball.
Another obvious benefit of playing any sport is the sheer enjoyment of it. There's the perfectly executed soccer pass. In baseball, the line drive single into center field. The nasty junk ball that defies physics, freezes the batter, and plummets into the catcher's mitt for a strike. The volleyball spike. The golf drive down the middle of the fairway. The flawless twenty-foot putt for birdie. We are talking serious fun.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Don't Waste Your Sports"
Copyright © 2011 C.J. Mahaney.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
How to Use This Booklet, 7,
1 Sports at Their Best — and Worst, 9,
2 What Are Sports Really For?, 15,
3 Meeting God before the Opening Tip, 19,
4 Play to the Glory of God, 25,
5 Sports Idols, 39,
6 Your Next Game, 43,
Application Questions for Athletes, 47,
A Word to Parents, 49,
Application Questions for Parents, 55,
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