Sports are a huge part of our culture. What does it look like to apply the truth of the gospel to how we think about and interact with sports? In this message on 1 Corinthians 10:31, Pastor David Platt considers how we can use sports to glorify God instead of idolizing it. He highlights three biblical foundations to center our interactions with sports.
- Sports are a good gift from a gracious God given to us for the glory of God.
- Repent of idolatry, including any and every hint of it.
- Rest in Christ, who has paid the price for all your sin.
If you have Bible, and I hope you do, turn with me to 1 Corinthians 10. My heart is full this morning after a week in the Middle East. Members of our faith family were actually serving about 100 missionaries and their families who serve in Central Asia on the front lines of some of the most unreached, difficult, dangerous to reach people groups in the world.
In that group was our own church planting team whom the Holy Spirit has sent out from among us. They are doing well. They have been on the ground there for a couple of months, and their most pressing need right now is a visa in order to gain access to the people group they are trying to reach. I want to ask you as a church to be praying, for us as a faith family to really press in and pray. It’s crunch time. They’ve tried seemingly hundreds of ways to get that visa, and they have faced obstacle after obstacle, so I want to call us to pray for them to get that visa.
We had the opportunity to gather around Ryan and Bethany and to pray like this for them. Let’s keep praying until the door is opened for the gospel to go through this team to men and women in this people group who have never, ever heard it.
I got back yesterday, knowing that we were coming today and next Sunday to a couple of particularly important issues as we continue our journey through 1 Corinthians. First Corinthians 8, 9, and 10 specifically revolve around the theme of idolatry and how the Corinthian church was to follow Christ in a culture full of idols. The tendency for us, if we’re not careful, is to feel pretty distant from a text like this. Pastor Matt pointed out a couple of weeks ago that restaurants like Jim ‘N Nicks aren’t sacrificing that food to idols before they serve it at your table, so you’re not having to worry about that. And the meat you buy at the grocery story likely hasn’t been offered up as worship to a wooden statue. So does this text really have any application for us? And the answer is it absolutely does.
Though they may not be wooden statues or golden figurines, our culture is filled with idols, and, to use language from Ezekiel 14, our hearts are drawn to idols. Our plan for the next two weeks is to pause at this point in 1 Corinthians, and I want to apply this text on idolatry specifically to two potential—and pervasive—idols in our culture. One is sports, and the other is work. The more I thought about the application of this text to idols in our day, the more I realized, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon that dealt with sports, a sermon that helped equip God’s people to apply God’s truth in such a huge part of our culture and our lives.” Similarly, I’ve not heard (or preached) much specifically about a theology of work,
which is something we do with so much of our time in this world. So I decided this was worth a pause.
Throughout this series, we have looked at the effect of the cross on every facet of the Christian’s life, and this week we’re going to think together biblically and practically about “The Cross and the Christian’s Sports,” and then next week we’re going to dive into “The Cross and the Christian’s Work.” If the cross of Christ affects, literally, every facet of our lives, then how does the cross affect the way we approach sports? And how does the cross affect the way we approach work? As we look at these questions, for those of you who may not be followers of Christ, my hope is that you will see the unique significance of the cross of Jesus, and that in the process, you will be compelled, even today for the first time, to worship Him as God.
Summarizing 1 Corinthians 8–10…
A Clear Command: Flee Idolatry.
Now, before we dive specifically into sports, I want to summarize what we’ve seen in 1 Corinthians 8–10. These three chapters have been preached over the last three weeks by three different pastors. First, Matt preached 1 Corinthians 8 and combined it together with the last half of 1 Corinthians 10, which, in a sense, bookends this segment in 1 Corinthians. Then I preached 1 Corinthians 9, and last week, Dennis preached the first half of 1 Corinthians 10.
In summary, what are these chapters about? A clear command lies at the heart of the Bible’s instruction here, and we see it in verse 14. Much like Paul said “flee sexual immorality” in 1 Corinthians 6, here he urges the Corinthians to flee idolatry. “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.” (1 Corinthians 10:14) Run from it. Just as you run from any hint of sexual immorality, run from any hint of idolatry.
It is inconsistent with the gospel.
In the verses that follow verse 14, Paul emphasizes the two primary reasons why we must flee from idolatry. One, because it is inconsistent with the gospel. As we read a few weeks ago, Paul talks here about the Lord’s Supper, a poignant illustration because he was addressing the matter of food that had been sacrificed to idols. He basically says that the Lord’s Supper, which we’ll celebrate in a few minutes together, represents our fellowship with Christ as God. We believe in Christ, we know Christ, we worship Christ, and this communion with Christ is clear in this symbol of a meal. Paul says, “It makes no sense for you to have this meal, symbolizing your identification with Christ, and then go into the world, and in your everyday life, identify with idols.” That’s inconsistent.
You’ve been saved by Christ to worship Christ—not to worship idols. The Corinthian Christians were doing what we across this room are tempted to do every week. How many people in this room (and in churches across this culture today) will take the Lord’s Supper, almost as a religious ritual, and then go out in the world and bow at altars of money and sex and sports and power and beauty and the corporate ladder and the applause of men—
whatever it may be? All the while people are assuming, “Well, I’m a Christian. I go to church. I take the Lord’s Supper.” Yet our everyday lives are consumed with all kinds of other idols, and Paul says, “No!” Such idolatry is completely inconsistent with the gospel.
It is an offense against God.
Second, it is an offense against God. The severity of this text really comes to a head in verses 21 and 22, where, just as Matt taught on a few weeks ago, we see that the worship of various idols is actually the worship of demons. “You are turning aside from the worship of God to the worship of demons,” Paul says. Then verse 22 says, “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” (1 Corinthians 10:22) See this, feel this. When we join in the worship of false gods in the culture around us, we are collaborating with demons in the defiance of the one true God. Idolatry is extremely serious. Even as we prepare to talk about sports, we must realize God will have no competition. He alone is holy, He alone is worthy, He alone is glorious, and He alone is God. To live as if anything other than this were true is to live in outright offense to God. Flee all idolatry. Flee it.
An all-encompassing exhortation:
Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
Now this command of what not to do (don’t worship idols) is then followed in this text by a corresponding exhortation of what to do. In verses 23–30, Paul summarizes everything he has said in 1 Corinthians 8 and 9, and then he comes to the conclusion. Verse 31, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31) That is the all-consuming, all-encompassing exhortation in this text: Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
Flee idolatry in all of its forms and glorify God in every single facet of your life. This is what you are to live for. Not to bring demons glory, not to draw attention to anything like it is god. But instead to live, eat, drink, breathe, talk, sleep, work, play, whatever you do, do it all to draw attention to the one and only true God.
1 Corinthians 10:31 and How We glorify God when we live for the good of others.
To connect this with everything else Paul has talked about here, he is helping the Corinthian Christians see how they can glorify God. How do we do this? He says to them: We glorify God when we live for the good of others. The whole point of the discussion about food sacrificed to idols then leading into 1 Corinthians 9 was to say, “Do what is best—what is most beneficial—for the building up of others.”
Listen to what Paul says right after verse 31. “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” (1 Corinthians 10:32–33) Paul is saying, “I lay my life down for the good of others, specifically those in the church.” The very next verse, 1 Corinthians 11:1, expresses Paul’s desire to literally lay down his life to show others how to follow Christ. “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1) He wants to serve those in the church.
Obviously, not just those in the church. Paul wants to live for the good of those without Christ. That was the whole point at the end of 1 Corinthians 9. “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22b) Remember, this is the purpose for which we’re on the planet: To enjoy, to glorify God as we spread His gospel from where we live to the ends of the earth. This is how we glorify God.
We glorify God when we realize living like this is good for ourselves.
The beauty is that by living like this, laying down our lives for the glory of God by serving others in the church and leading others to Christ, we glorify God when we realize living like this is good for ourselves. Paul’s whole point is to show the Corinthians that this is where true life is found, where joy is found and meaning is found and fulfillment is found—in focusing every single thing you do on the glory of God as you lay down your life to serve others in Christ and lead others to Christ. That’s the point of 1 Corinthians 8–10. Flee any and every hint of idolatry, and do everything you do—including what and how you eat and drink—to the glory of God.
Sports and 1 Corinthians 10:31…
So then, how do we watch and play sports to the glory of God? Sports in a culture that idolizes sports in so many ways. Sports in a city like Birmingham that idolizes sports in specific ways.
Imagine for a moment that you live in another country, one completely foreign to this one, and you have an opportunity one fall to spend a week in Birmingham. So you come on a Sunday morning, and you observe many people (maybe even most) slowly rising to make their way to a building they call a church. They groggily approach that building for some
sort of ceremony. Clearly, whatever happens at the beginning of that ceremony isn’t that important, because most of the people don’t come until after it’s started. You watch them file in and begin to mouth the words to songs, many of them almost expressionless, virtually emotionless, after which they sit down and passively listen to someone talk to them for a period of time.
You notice people starting to get a bit fidgety and uneasy as the time for the ceremony to end approaches, and when it’s finally over, they quickly walk out. As you walk with them, you listen to them, and you hear many of them talking with one another about something that had happened the previous day. They smile and they laugh as they recount another ceremony they’d been to that was apparently a bit more interesting than this one, a ceremony that apparently happens on Saturdays. In fact, the rest of the week, that’s almost all you hear people talking about—the coming Saturday ceremony. Even the people who were at the Sunday ceremony are strangely silent about what they heard and sang about there, but very enthusiastic about the Saturday that can’t seem to get here soon enough. As your curiosity is piqued, you begin to eagerly anticipate the coming Saturday.
Saturday comes, and you see people wake up and leave their houses dressed in some sort of outfit that they love to wear for these types of days. Many of them drive out of the city— some an hour west, others a couple of hours south—where they gather together on what they call “hallowed grounds” for the Saturday ceremony. They get there early for this ceremony (way early) where they eat and drink and laugh and play, not just with their family or with their friends, but even with complete strangers. You’ve never seen community like this.
When the time comes, they all, tens of thousands of them, enter a shrine together (you can’t think of another word for it) where they raise their voices with passion to applaud an assembly of children they don’t know playing a game on a field. As that game begins, they shout and chant and sing until they virtually lose their voices—with far more passion than the previous Sunday’s ceremony, for sure. People don’t look at their watches at this ceremony. They’re so engulfed in what they’re seeing and experiencing that they actually get excited when it goes into, what they call “overtime”, because going long like this is a sign of a really exciting game. And the fun doesn’t end after the ceremony is over, anyway. When the boys everyone has been cheering for win the game, the celebration has only begun, and the amazing thing is that it’s not just the people who are at the ceremony who are celebrating. You come to find out that thousands and thousands of others stayed back in Birmingham to watch this game on a TV, though many of them are large enough to be virtual movie screens. They’re actually designed that way to make the most of watching ceremonies like this, and back in Birmingham scores of people have circled up together around their screens to be a part of the ceremony from a distance. They, too, in their homes, are jumping up and down and high-fiving each other, celebrating the ceremony when it’s over. Then, when it’s all over, late in the evening, almost as if there’s nothing to be prepared for the next day, they go to bed.
Let me ask you a question. If you were that visitor from another country, and you came to this city during a week in the fall, I would ask you to honestly answer this question: Which would you identify as the religion that is most important to this people? As the religion that most excites this people? As the religion that most consumes this people?
We live in a land where sports war for our attention and our affections and our devotion, our time, and our money. It’s not just college football. That is the glaring example, particularly as we enter this fall, thus the timing even for this message. It’s professional sports as well, and it’s children’s sports. It’s playing sports and watching sports and running our children all over the city (and the state) for the sake of sports, whether it’s golf or football, basketball or baseball, soccer or Crossfit, running or biking or swimming, gymnastics or cheerleading, or any number of other athletic activities to which we devote much of our lives (and our family’s lives) to.
To this church in Birmingham, we are not too far removed from the church at Corinth. We, in a land covered with church buildings and filled with professing Christians, are tempted every week to commune with Christ on Sunday only to dine with idols every other day (particularly Saturday), and we must consider how to flee idolatry and live every single moment in Birmingham, eating, drinking, and playing to the glory of God.
1 Corinthians 10:31 and Biblical Foundations…
I want to put on the table, based on the Bible, some biblical foundations that affect the way we view and understand God and sports and idols and our lives. Then, from that, I want to challenge you to do a personal examination in your own life, and I want to give you some questions to ask, some areas of your life to examine, to see if you are giving to sports what should only be given to God. Then I want to walk you through some practical applications, based on the whole of Scripture, to help us think through this verse. “Okay, then, whether we eat or drink, or whatever we do, do all to the glory of God. So how do I play sports? How do I watch sports? How do I use sports to the glory of God?” I want to give us some practical application and instruction that I hope will serve us in applying this text in our culture. Then all of that will lead to an invitation that I believe this text gives to every single person in this room.
Sports are a good gift from a gracious God given to us for the glory of God.
So first, biblical foundations. One, sports are a good gift from a gracious God given to us for the glory of God. In 1 Corinthians 8–10 and specifically 1 Corinthians 10 here, Paul talks about how food itself is a good gift from a gracious God given to us for the glory of God. He talks about how everything God has created, to use language from Genesis 1, is good and given to us by God for His glory.
In verse 26 here, quoting from Psalm 24, Paul says: “The earth is the LORD’s, and the fullness thereof.” (1 Corinthians 10:26) This is a prayer that would often be prayed in Judaism before a meal to acknowledge God as the giver of food, and this is key. Food here in 1 Corinthians was not bad in and of itself, but the point was that it could be used for the glory of God or it could be used for the worship of idols.
So sports, similarly, are not bad in and of themselves. On the contrary, sports and rest and recreation have been created by God for our good, for our enjoyment and for God’s glory in our enjoyment, in our good. If we could include it here, whether you eat or drink or play, do it all to the glory of God. Sports are a good gift, a great gift from a gracious God who loves us, a God who gives us good things like sports for His great glory.
We must be careful not to compartmentalize God, as if God only has to do with church or God only has to do with the Bible, and God doesn’t have anything to do with sports, or God doesn’t have anything to do with work (which we’ll talk about next week). No, by nature of the fact that God is God, He is God over everything. Everything that is good is good because He has made it good, and every good thing we enjoy is evidence of His grace. Every good thing given to us by His grace is given for His glory.
Sin includes taking that which is good and turning it into a god.
Sports are a good gift from a gracious God, given to us for the glory of God, but as soon as you introduce the human heart, things get complicated. The human heart has a dangerous tendency to take created things and worship and serve the creation rather than the Creator, and that is sin. Paul gives this fundamental definition of sin in Romans 1.
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images … [they] worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! (Romans 1:21–23, 25)
This is huge. When we think of sin, usually we think of doing bad things. Lying, stealing, cheating, whatever it might be, that’s sin. And that is sin. According to Romans 1, sin is not just doing bad things. Follow this in your notes. According to Romans 1, sin includes taking that which is good and turning it into a god. When you read Romans 1, you realize that this is the fundamental problem in our hearts. We turn good things into gods that we worship and serve instead of the God who gave us the good thing in the first place.
In this sense, any number of good things can become a god, an idol, in the human heart. We take things like love or sex or material possessions or work (a career) or even a family— all of these good things—and our hearts begin to be consumed with them. We begin to center around them, thinking this is where joy or fulfillment or security or safety or identity is found. We slowly, subtly begin to pursue these things more than God and to love these things more than God. To treasure these things more than God. And ultimately, to worship these things instead of God.
This is where we realize that when we think about idols, even idols in our culture, our mind immediately begins to think of bad things, when the reality is that’s almost never the case. The reason things become idols in our lives and the culture is most often because they’re good things in the first place. The more good they are (i.e., the greater they are), the more likely we are to begin to look to them instead of God.
Think about it. Beauty is not a bad thing; it is a good thing. But we turn it into a god, and we become a people, an entire culture, that agonizes over what we look like, spending all kinds of money and all kinds of time working out and eating right and wearing certain clothes, even convincing ourselves that if we look a certain way, we will be happy. None of these things are bad in and of themselves—working out, eating right, wearing clothes, and beauty itself. These are good things, but we take good things and turn them into ultimate things that captivate and consume and almost unknowingly control us. So then, we sin when we take sports, a good thing, and we turn it into a god, an ultimate thing that captivates and consumes and subtly and unknowingly controls us.
Good gifts make lousy gods.
Third biblical foundation: The real danger is good gifts make lousy gods. Created things were never intended to provide meaning or identity or ultimate satisfaction or unending joy. Mark it down: Idols always disappoint. Any honest person who has put energy, time, money, affection, devotion towards sports knows that sports as an idol will let you down.
Hear this sad testimony from a man who has tasted everything that sports has to offer. The winner of three Super Bowl rings, Tom Brady, once was interviewed on 60 Minutes in the middle of an undefeated season with the New England Patriots, and he was having an MVP season as a quarterback. He was in a relationship with a supermodel. All of this while making millions and millions of dollars. This is what he said: “Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, ‘Hey man, this is what it is.’ I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me, I think, ‘God, it’s got to be more than this.’ I mean this isn’t – this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be.” The interviewer asked him, “What’s the answer?” Brady responded, “I wish I knew. I wish I knew.”
Idols always, inevitably disappoint, and far more serious, idols ultimately destroy. First Corinthians 6 has already been clear that idolaters, those who live with a fundamental orientation away from God (even toward the good), will not inherit the kingdom of God. I truly pray that a guy like Tom Brady will come to realize there is more (there is more!), but it’s not to be found in more good gifts. It’s to be found in God Himself, the Giver of all good gifts. I pray that he comes to realize this so that he will not be found standing before God, holding on to all kinds of good gifts yet having turned from the Giver of those gifts. And I pray the same for us in this room.
Hear the words of J.C. Ryle in his classic book on holiness: “Thousands have trodden the path you are pursuing (they have fought hard for wealth, and honor, and office, and promotion, and turned their backs on God, and Christ, and heaven, and the world to come) and have awoke too late to find it end in misery and eternal ruin.”
In light of this, I want to ask you, I want to urge you, today to personally examine your life. Second Corinthians 13:5, Paul’s next letter to the church at Corinth in your Bible, says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.” (2 Corinthians 13:5) I want to invite you to do this today—to examine your life—and to see if there is any hint of idolatry in it, particularly when it comes to sports. Realize that idols are not usually things we like to admit have any sort of reign in our hearts, so if we’re not careful, we can blind ourselves to them. I realize that, even when we talk about sports, some of you could care less about sports (watching, playing, whatever), but I want to invite you, even as we talk about sports, to consider other things (other good things) that might have an unhealthy place in your heart and your life.
So many (if not most) of us in this room profess Jesus as God, but let’s look at our lives and ask the question, “Is there anything else that we’re living for, consumed with, focused on, in a way that should only be reserved for God?” And specifically, “Is there any hint at all of idolatry in your heart when it comes to sports?”
I’m going to give some specific examples of potential indicators of idolatry, but please hear me pastorally from the start. I’m not saying that if you do this, or if you do that, then that is a sure indicator that you’re living in idolatry. There is no legalistic list here to say, “You should do this, or you shouldn’t do that.” The last thing I want to do is to give you that kind of list. Instead, I want to challenge you to probe your life in various ways and to ask the question honestly before God, “Is there any hint of idolatry in my life when it comes to sports?” If there is a hint of idolatry, I want to challenge you to flee from it.
Examine your heart.
So first, examine your heart. Remember, this is the first and fundamental commandment from Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37) Examine your heart. Is your heart set on sports in any way, whether watching or playing, in your life or your children’s lives? Maybe another way to ask this, and maybe a better way to think through this personal examination: If someone else were to look at your life, or if the person who knows you best were to comment on your life, what would they say about these things? Would they say your heart is wholeheartedly devoted to the Lord? Or would they say your heart at least looks like it’s divided?
Examine your mind.
You say, “Well, how do I know?” Keep going here. Examine your thoughts. What occupies your mind when you have nothing else to think about? Are sports-related things where your mind goes when you don’t have anything else to think about? Now, obviously, it’s not wrong to think about sports at all. That’s not the point. But is your mind preoccupied with sports? Does it default to sports in some way? Tim Keller said, “The true god of your heart is what your thoughts effortlessly go to when there is nothing else demanding your attention.” Are sports what you think about and talk about more than just about anything else?
Examine your conversations.
Which leads to the next challenge: Examine your conversations. What is on your mind comes out of your mouth, so what are your most passionate conversations about? Is this or that sport what you love to talk about more than just about anything else? Again, the key here: I’m not saying that it’s wrong to talk about sports. It’s not wrong to talk about a good thing. It’s wrong to talk about something that’s good like it’s a god.
This is where we need to do the hard work of examination and ask the question, “Do I spend an inordinate amount of time talking about sports (whether it’s college football or baseball or working out or your favorite team)? Do I spend an inordinate amount of time talking about sports in some way? So how much time do I talk about sports? And then, in what way do I talk about sports?” We say things like, “I love this team.” “I love Alabama.” Or “I love Auburn.” Or “I love the Braves.” “I love this sport.” “I love college football or college basketball. Or “I love working out.” We say things like, “I sure hope this about this team.” Or even, “I belong to this team.” We use “we” like “we” are actually on the team. I talk about Braves baseball, and I find myself saying, “We won 14 games in a row,” as if I had anything to do with winning any of those games. We say these things casually, but we need to be careful because we’re using language that is at least similar to worship—what we love, what we hope in, where we find our identity and belonging.
Examine your emotions.
Examine your conversations and your words, and then examine your emotions. Do sports incite and ignite your affections in unhealthy ways? Do sports cause your emotions to swing in such a way that you’re sad, grumpy, depressed, even angry when you lose or the team you’re cheering for doesn’t do well? Or on the other side (and maybe more potentially dangerous because it feels good), are you inordinately happy and fun to be around just because you won or just because your team won? When your emotions (happiness and sadness) depend on the outcome of a game, it may be that your heart is at least in some ways consumed and controlled by sports.
Examine your use of money.
Next, examine your use of money. Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) The principle is as clear as can be. Your heart follows your money. So how much money do we spend on playing sports, watching sports, supporting sports teams, buying sports equipment and paraphernalia? Did you know that the combined athletic budgets of the twelve schools in the SEC is over 800 million dollars (close to a billion dollars)? That’s more money than the Gross Domestic Products of 24 of the world’s poorest countries.
Across the south, again a land covered with churches, we need to ask the question, “Where is our heart?” Just imagine what that number is when you then include what we spend on professional sports as well as sports for our own kids (money for leagues and equipment and private lessons) and then sports in our own lives (from golf to gym memberships). Again, it is not bad to spend money on sports. What we need to examine is how much we are spending on sports and what that says about where our hearts lie, particularly in a world of urgent spiritual and physical need.
Examine your use of time.
Examine your use of money, and examine your use of time. In an average week, how much time do you invest in sports—playing real sports, playing fantasy sports, watching others play sports, involving your kids in sports? And then in the same week, how much time do you spend reading Scripture, praying, teaching your children God’s Word, sharing the gospel,
and serving in the community?
Examine your perspective.
These are questions we must ask, and they lead to the last challenge here: Examine your perspective. You put all of this together—where you spend your time and your money, what you think about and what you talk about—and you begin to realize that when your heart is consumed by sports in some way, or in a number of ways, you begin to lose perspective on sports in relation to the world. You begin to forget that in the grand and global purpose of God in redemption, it matters little who wins what game on Saturday or any other day, and it matters little what who’s stats are in which season. I just got back from the Middle East, where I was reminded of people groups, some of them numbering in the millions, where there is no Christian among them. None among millions of people, or only a handful among millions of people. There are real battles, eternal battles, here and around the world, that demand our time and our money and our thought and our attention and our affection. Don’t let artificial battles on ball fields blind you from the real battles waging in this world.
What matters more? Praying and pleading for a visa for our brothers and sisters to engage one of the hardest people groups in the world and working with them to get the gospel to them so that they are reached and saved? What matters more? That or whether or not Alabama or Auburn goes undefeated this season? The sad thing is, if we’re honest, some (many) of us would say, “I really want this [sports].” We think about and we talk about and our emotions are caught up in sports while we give token attention, if any attention at all, to spiritual matters.
God, help us to realize ultimately what matters, and ultimately what doesn’t matter. Examine your perspective in light of God’s perspective. Warren St. John wrote, “I grew up in Alabama—perhaps the worst place on earth to acquire a healthy perspective on the importance of spectator sports.”
Examine yourselves—your heart, your thoughts, your conversations, your emotions, your use of money, your use of time, and your perspective on sports—and honestly ask the question, “Is my attention to sports, my affections in sports, my investment in sports glorifying to God?” If it’s not glorifying God, then we need to ask the follow-up question: Who (or what) are we glorifying instead?
You say, “Well, how can you really glorify God with sports at all, then?”, which leads us to the practical application. We’ve already established that sports are not a bad thing; they’re a good thing in the economy of God. In a world of major battles and much work to be done, sports are a picture of rest and relaxation and recreation given to us by God. So how can we glorify God with this gift? What I’ve done here is I’ve just listed different ways that you and I can treat sports as a good gift that glorifies God. How do we take any time and any money and any thoughts and any conversations about sports and maximize them all to the glory of God? How do we not just eat and drink, but play to the glory of God?
Use sports to draw attention to God’s greatness.
First, use sports to draw attention to God’s greatness. Instead of using sports to draw attention to sports or even to ourselves, use sports to draw attention to God. Think about it. Sports in the hands of sinful men and women are custom-made for self-glorification. Who can assert themselves the most? Who can make the best name for themselves? Sports look radically different whenever you or I step out onto a field or a court or a course or whatever it might be, and our driving motivation is, “How can I best exalt, not my name, but the name of God in what I am about to do, in the way I am about to play?”
All of the sudden, every play carried out, every shot taken, every word spoken, every interaction with my team or the other, in every single detail, I’m playing to draw attention to God. Now this doesn’t just mean bowing in the end zone and pointing up every time you score a touchdown. It’s much deeper than that. It’s maximizing all of sports for their intended purpose (as a way to worship God). So the purpose, the goal – follow this – in sports is not winning; the goal of sports is worship. And not the worship of an athlete, but the worship of God.
It’s the famous quote from Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, the story of how he, a future missionary, medaled as a runner in the Olympic Games. He said, “God made me for a purpose…” Liddell knew that purpose was to glorify God. He said, “God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” In other words, “I run fast to the glory of God.” This is the purpose of sports.
It’s a purpose that can be quickly lost if we’re not careful. So how do we keep that purpose central? One way I’ve found (and it’s next in your notes) to keep this purpose central is to keep sports in their proper place (far behind your family and your church and a host of other things). Where do sports fall upon your priority list?
Families all across this community spend the majority of their time together – if families ever are together – at sporting events. So I want to encourage you to ask the question: “Is that a good thing? Is that the best way to spend focused time with your family?” Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t. Men, ask your wives if sports are in any way a hindrance to your intimacy with her, and wait for her to answer. If they are any hindrance, consider what adjustments need to be made to put them in their proper place in order to better love and serve her. Moms and dads, as you cart your children all across town, are they getting a healthy perspective on the place of sports in their lives, particularly when compared to things like learning God’s Word and participating in things like family worship? Or worship as the church? Which has priority: The church schedule or the sports schedule? When they come in conflict, which wins out?
To go back to Eric Liddell. This is a brother who withdrew from the race he was best at in the Olympics because running that race would meaning running on Sunday, which was the Sabbath, so he refused to run. Talk about making it clear that sports were not his idol. As much as he enjoyed running as good, running was not his god.
How far we have come from this? Quite simply, I’m amazed by how easy it is to pull church members away from a Sunday gathering for the purpose of sports or recreation. I’m not saying that you’re in idolatry any time you miss a worship gathering here or there because of a sports event, but the pattern of traveling sports teams on Sundays and recreational weekends at the lake clearly demonstrates that we can far too easily be pulled away from what God’s Word says is primary in our lives as Christians: Gathering together with the church. Parents, show your children the importance of love for and commitment to the local church for their good, for your good, for others’ good, and for God’s glory. Even on other nights of the week, amidst the busyness of running around from sport to sport, event to event, is there time where you’re gathering with a small group and where your teenagers are gathering with other teenagers to grow in Christ and spur one another on toward Him?
Keeping sports in their proper place in relation to your family and your faith family and a host of other things will go a long way in helping you to glorify God with your sports. This will help you use sports to draw attention to God’s greatness.
Use sports to express appreciation for God’s grace.
Second, use sports to express appreciation for God’s grace. Anything good in sports (which as we’ve said there’s a lot of good there) all comes from God. So sports provide all kinds of opportunity to express gratitude to God. In all you do in relation to sports, intentionally and continually offer thanks to God. What did Romans 1 say? In their idolatry, “they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him…” (Romans 1:21) We see that ingratitude is a sin.
Before you begin to play any sport, before you begin to watch a sport, before you begin to do anything sports-related, pause for a moment, either in your heart, or better yet, out loud and thank God for this gift that He’s given. This kind of thanksgiving brings glory to God, and when I’m thanking God intentionally and continually like this, I’m much less likely to turn sports into an avenue for self-centeredness or self-glorification.
And in the process of thanking God, let the enjoyment of sports lead to ever-increasing affection for God. When I give a gift to someone, I give it to them for their enjoyment, and as the giver of that gift, I am honored when I see that person that I’ve given the gift to enjoying it. When I give my kids a gift – right now it’s Legos for my five and seven-year old boys – on a birthday or as a reward for meeting some reading goals or whatever – whenever Heather and I give them a gift, we are honored, not when they take the Legos and put them to the side and just kind of say, “Thanks”, but when they light up and they dig into the box and they spend time enjoying that gift.
In the same way, when I receive a gift – for my birthday a few weeks ago, my kids got me a rain jacket because the jacket I had before just didn’t work anymore. Whenever it would rain, I would put it on, I’d walk through the rain, take the jacket off, and it was like I wasn’t wearing a jacket at all. Now when it rains, and I put this jacket on, it keeps me dry! And do you know what? I walk into the house and thank my kids all over again for that rain jacket. My enjoyment of the gift they gave leads to ever-increasing affection for the giver.
So here’s the deal. When you play sports and you enjoy it, when you watch sports and you enjoy it, when you enjoy watching that touchdown scored or that home run hit or that three-point shot drained, let your enjoyment of this lead to ever-increasing affection for the God who gave this gift to you, to us. This is how we watch and play sports to the glory of God, with gratitude in our hearts to God. Use sports to express appreciation for God’s grace.
Use sports to grow in sanctification.
Third, use sports to grow in sanctification. We glorify God by becoming more like Christ as a result of our sports. Sports are intended by God for our sanctification, for our growth in godliness. This is particularly true when playing and/or coaching sports – though there are ways this can be applied even to watching sports – but we must be intentional here.
Think of the many ways sports can be used to help us become more like Christ. Sports are good tools in God’s hands to help us cultivate humility. Sports is an arena where we come face-to-face with our limitations and our weaknesses, which we all have. I think about basketball for me. I used to be all right at basketball, but now every time I get out on the court, I feel like that guy who thinks he still has what he had in high school, but he clearly doesn’t have it anymore. This is a good exercise in humility. And this is where sports could go either way. If we’re not careful, sports in many of our lives, particularly if you’re good at a sport, can lead to pride and you thinking that you’re “all that” and you playing so that other people think that you’re “all that.” But don’t do it.
Play with humility, recognizing your limitations and welcoming others’ critique. It is a sure sign of pride when a player won’t listen to a coach or a child won’t listen to a parent when it comes to how to get better at a sport, so cultivate humility. Let that humility be evident. When you win, be modest in victory. Do not gloat over your performance—that does not glorify God. When you lose, be gracious in defeat. Do not sulk over your performance—that, too, does not glorify God. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6) God is opposed to those who play sports to glorify themselves, but He esteems those who are humble and contrite in spirit.
So cultivate humility as you play to the glory of God, and demonstrate honor for the people you play with and for. It glorifies God to honor authority (like your coach). It does not glorify God for a player to dishonor the authority over him. Honor the coach. Honor officials, even when they make a bad call. It does not glorify God to dishonor them. You move on. Honor your teammates. Team sports are not intended to be monuments to individual achievement. So look for ways to build up and affirm and encourage and honor the people around you, for this honors God. And honor the other team.
I read the story of Sara Tucholsky, a softball player at Western Oregon University, who had never hit a home run before. With two runners on base and a strike against her, she hit a home run, knocking it over the fence against Central Washington University in a 2008 playoff game. When she began to run the bases, she got past first base, realized she missed it, and turned to go back to it, and when she planted her right leg to turn around, she collapsed with a knee injury. She couldn’t walk, much less run, the bases. If her teammates helped her around the bases, the home run would be called off. If a pinch runner was called in, the home run would only count as a single.
So what happened? The Central Washington first baseman, who just happened to be the career home run leader in that softball conference, asked the umpire if she could help Tucholsky. The umpire said there was no rule against it, so she and a teammate from Central Washington carried Tucholsky around the field, helping her to touch each bag with her good leg. The home run thus counted, and Western Oregon advanced to the playoffs. Afterward, that first baseman from Central Washington said, “In the end, it is not about winning and losing so much. It was about this girl. She hit it over the fence and was in pain, and she deserved a home run.” Honor that glorifies God. Look for opportunities to cultivate humility and demonstrate honor in all kinds of a ways in sports.
Develop self-discipline. We saw a couple of weeks ago in 1 Corinthians 9 that part of the point of sports is to teach us to discipline our bodies, and this is a good thing. It is a good thing for sports to teach us what it means to practice and work hard to achieve a goal, which in turn sets up many parallels between sports and the Christian life. Develop self
Maintain self-control. When your emotions get out of hand in a game as a player or as a coach or as a parent or as a spectator, and those emotions lead to yelling this or that or arguing, this does not bring honor to God. The fruit of the Spirit is self-control, so let sports be a sanctifying experience for you. When something doesn’t go the way you had hoped or would have liked, glorify God by maintaining self-control.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:3–8)
Think of ways to apply this text to sports. We are Christlike when we put the team’s interests above our own, when we stoop to serve others in our sports. Children and students, it will shock your coach, but go up to him (or her) and say, “Coach, how can I best serve this team this season—not just with what I do on the field, but with what I do off the field, not just with the stats, but with my serving?” This approach to sports glorifies God,
which is the purpose, right?
That leads to the next thing in your notes. Value growth in godliness over athletic achievement. Now I’m not saying athletic achievement is bad or unimportant. Neither is competition. Competing for a prize is good, and winning is good as well. If we’re not careful, winning and achieving this or that athletic achievement will rise to become the ultimate goal when it’s not. Glory to God through growth in godliness is the ultimate goal.
We live in a culture that misses this at every turn. Whether it’s baseball players taking steroids or football recruits who commit to one school and then turn around and go to another school, or football coaches who lie and say whatever they need to say in order to get that recruit on their team. We live in a sports culture where we’ll do anything to win, and we as fans are willing to overlook all kinds of sin as long as our team wins. That is a dangerous way to look at things.
Far more important, eternally more important than athletic achievement is growth in godliness. You read through God’s Word, and you will never see athletic gifting or personal statistics or championship trophies or undefeated seasons exalted as success. Instead, you’ll see humility and honor and self-discipline and self-control and self-sacrifice. You’ll see the imitation of Christ held up as success.
This is where we as parents must be particularly intentional with our children. C.J. Mahaney, a pastor and friend of mine, wrote a great little booklet called “Don’t Waste Your Sports” that I would highly recommend. It has helped me significantly even in preparing for this week. He wrote a short section to parents that is so helpful, where he says: “Our children will pursue what we applaud. They will emulate what we celebrate. If we celebrate scoring and winning, then our children will define success in these terms. But if we celebrate evidences of godly character in our children, we will help them define success [far] more biblically.”
He encourages parents to maximize sports for their children’s growth in godliness. Listen to what he writes:
Every practice and every game is an opportunity to lead our children. Often, as parents, we think we have fulfilled our duty by simply attending our children’s games and cheering. Not so! We are called to so much more. Informed by the gospel, we are called to lead our children wisely. [Hear this! How does the gospel – the cross – change the Christian’s sports?] Before the game, this [means] preparing them to keep biblical priorities in mind while they play. After the game, this [means] celebrating their expressions of godly character more than we celebrate their skill for the final score. Every moment our children spend in sports is a teaching moment.
This is where C.J. has so helped me. He and his son actually have a podcast, that I’d also recommend, where he and his son talk about sports and how to bring the gospel to bear on sports, and C.J. will share ways he’s tried to do this in his son’s life. (The podcast is Mahaney Sports, and it comes out once a week.) It’s been so helpful, not to mention entertaining, but C.J. has helped me to become so much more intentional in teaching my children through playing sports. What am I saying to them before the game about growth in godliness, during the game if I’m coaching them, and then after the game?
This has even helped me in watching sports. When my boys and I sit down to watch a Braves baseball game (I am an active watcher with them), I don’t want to just celebrate home runs with them. Instead, when I see some evidence of good character in a game (the things we’ve talked about here: Humility, honor, self-discipline, self-control, self-sacrifice), I’ll point that out to them and we’ll talk about it. When I see evidence of ungodly character in a game (and there are plenty of opportunities in any game for this!), I’ll point that out to them, as well. I want them to (and I want to) grow in godliness as a result of playing and watching sports.
In the process, I want to prioritize what really matters in eternity over what seems to matter on earth. This is huge for all of us. Going back to what we talked about with perspective, and especially parents here, – parents, be warned. In a way, I warn myself, but I want to speak directly to you. If you are not careful, you are going to cart your kids all over town, taking them to practice for this and lessons for that, teaching them to play this or that sport well, or teaching them to be consumed with this or that team, and in the end, you are going to lead them to build their life and their schedule and their passions on what won’t last. If you’re not careful, they’re going to stand before God with all their athletic achievements and all their team’s pride, and it’s all going to burn up, and they’re going to be left with nothing in their hands, and it will be because of you. So in your own life and in your children’s lives, prioritize what really matters in eternity over what seems to matter on earth.
Use sports to lead others to salvation.
Which leads right into this last exhortation: Use sports to lead others to salvation. Sports are one of the most common and enjoyable means for bringing people together from all walks of life. I love how members of our church who lead Vapor Sports are using soccer around the world to lead people to Christ and fuel disciple-making in the church. They intentionally use soccer in all the ways we’ve just talked about to glorify God and to introduce others to the gospel.
Why then should we not do the exact same thing here through sports in our city? We play sports, our children play sports, we watch sports, and as we do, we find ourselves surrounded by a host of people that we might not encounter otherwise. This is a great thing, but we will waste this great thing if we don’t do it with the good news of God’s love—not just the good gift of sports, but the great gift of His Son who has died on the cross for our sin. Is there anything more important to share with the people you rub shoulders with in sports?
To go back to 1 Corinthians 9, are you looking at those you play sports with, the people and the families represented on your team or your children’s team or the people who unite with you to cheer for this or that team – are you looking to rearrange your life to share the gospel with them? Wouldn’t it be a tragedy to spend all season with someone else, with another family in the bleachers and spend hours cheering on a team that, a week after that season is over, will completely fade away but to never share the truth and love that has forever changed your life and will never, ever, ever fade away? Wouldn’t it be a tragedy to work out with someone or some group of people and spend hours focusing on bodily health that will only last on earth, only to never intentionally share the truth and love that will ultimately last for eternity?
Repent of idolatry (including any and every hint of it).
Which leads to the final invitation. For a people across this room who are surrounded by potential idols wherever you look, even (or especially) in a good thing like sports, I invite you – better yet, the Word of God invites you this morning – to repent of idolatry (including any and every hint of it). Examine your heart this morning. Do you love God with all of it? Is He the center of your affections? Is He the object of your devotion? Is He the only One to whom you are looking for joy and meaning and identity and satisfaction?
Or is there evidence that sports has an unhealthy place in your thoughts and your conversations and your emotions and your use of time and your use of money? If there is any hint of idolatry in your heart at this point, I urge you to flee it, to repent of it, to turn from it, to run from it. And to keep running from it. As you live in a culture that beckons you at every turn to run back to it, I urge you to live counter to this culture on this point.
Rest in Christ (who has paid the price for all your sin).
As you do, I invite you to rest in Christ (who has paid the price for all your sin). This is the good news. For every sinner in this room who has succumbed to the temptation to take something that is good and turn it into a god, and to every sinner in this room that has then been disappointed to find that that god does not ultimately provide all that you hoped for, I give you hope this morning.
The one true God who is offended by our devotion to all kinds of false gods, the one true God who will judge us one day, that God has sent His Son to pay the price for all of idolatry against Him. Jesus, the Son of God, has paid the price for every time we have lived or played for self-glorification. He has paid the price for all the countless times we have enjoyed this good gift but not paused to thank the Giver. He has paid the price for every way we have ever given our heart over to sports or anything else as an idol. Jesus, the Son of God, is our only hope. I invite you to rest in Him today.
Rejoice in God.
Rest in Christ, and as you do, rejoice in God. Think about it. We’ve seen how good things can become gods in our lives when we inordinately look to those things for our joy and meaning and satisfaction and identity. So how do we keep from doing that? Here’s how: By finding greater joy and deeper meaning and sweeter satisfaction and more perfect identity in God as the only God who can provide all these things.
If you are tempted to make sports an idol, then how can you fight that temptation? You fight that temptation by setting your heart and your mind and your affection and your devotion on a daily basis upon God, the only One who is worthy of your worship. He is the only One who deserves your affection. He is the only One who deserves your devotion. He is the only One who is worthy of your worship, and He is the only One who can satisfy your soul. Every other idol in this world will let you down. I assure you of this. The gods of this world cannot give what they promise. But the God over this world is guaranteed to give you everything you need and everything you want in Himself.
Non-Christian, let this be the day. As you come to a church gathering where they’re talking about sports, let this be the day where you realize that, whether it’s sports or anything else in this world, nothing and no one else is able to save and satisfy you. Today, turn from yourself, put your faith in what Jesus has done to forgive you of your sin and to reconcile you to God and find in Him—your Creator—the salvation and satisfaction that only He can give. And Christian, live like you’ve got it. Live like your soul is satisfied in God. Worship Him, walk with Him, and rejoice in Him. In the process, find yourself focused not ultimately on gifts, but on the Giver of those gifts, and find yourself glorifying God with the gifts He has given.
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Summarizing 1 Corinthians 8 –10…
- A clear command: Flee idolatry.
- It is inconsistent with the gospel.
- It is an offense against God.
- An all-encompassing exhortation: Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
- We glorify God when we live for the good of others.
- Those in the church.
- Those without Christ.
- We glorify God when we realize this is good for ourselves.
Sports and 1 Corinthians 10:31…
- Biblical Foundations…
- Sports are a good gift from a gracious God given to us for the glory of God.
- Sin includes taking that which is good and turning it into a god. Good gifts make lousy gods.
- Idols always disappoint.
- Idols ultimately destroy.
- Personal Examination…
- Examine your heart.
- Examine your mind.
- Examine your emotions.
- Examine your conversations.
- Examine your use of money.
- Examine your use of time.
- Examine your perspective.
- Practical Application…
- Use sports to draw attention to God’s greatness.
- Maximize sports for their intended purpose (as a way to worship God).
- Keep sports in their proper place (far behind your family and your church…and a host of other things).
- Use sports to express appreciation for God’s grace.
- Intentionally and continually offer thanks to God.
- Let the enjoyment of sports lead to ever-increasing affection for God.
- Use sports to grow in sanctification.
- Cultivate humility.
- Demonstrate honor.
- Develop self-discipline.
- Maintain self-control.
- Model self-sacrifice.
- Value growth in godliness over athletic achievement. Prioritize what really matters in eternity over what seems to matter on earth.
- Use sports to lead others to salvation.
- Use sports to draw attention to God’s greatness.
- Final Invitation…
- Repent of idolatry (including any and every hint of it).
- Rest in Christ (who has paid the price for all your sin).
- Rejoice in God…
- He is the only One who is worthy of your worship.
He is the only One who can satisfy your soul.