A basketball player buries a three-point shot, pats his heart, and points to the rafters. A baseball player hits a grand slam, crosses home plate, and kisses two fingers before raising them up in the air, as if to test the wind of some higher power. A high-school running back kneels in the end zone for prayer after scoring a touchdown. Such acts of religiosity are commonplace in contemporary sports, yet they raise a number of questions concerning our understanding of the divine—how can a God who loves everyone help certain athletes to the exclusion of others? And if God roots for or divinely aids certain athletes who unashamedly profess their faith, doesn’t that contradict his love for everyone?
These kinds of questions can cause conflict and create confusion for people seeking to live in accordance with faith principles while simultaneously enjoying the benefits of sport participation. Often, certain faith values, such as sacrifice and serving, seem to be in conflict with the values often espoused in sport, such as the desire to outperform teammates and opponents, which in turn stimulates questions about our motives, effort, and desired outcomes in sport competition. Only by establishing an appropriate theological framework for sport competition can any such questions be adequately answered. Thus, we advocate viewing sport competition through the trifocal theological lens of creation, fall, and redemption.
The first chapter of Genesis details God’s “very good” creation (Gen. 1:31) and the magnum opus of his handiwork, Adam and Eve. Later, in Colossians 1:16, the Apostle Paul reiterates this creation account: “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him” (NKJV). Paul suggests that the human ability to move freely and think creatively reflects the glory and image of the Creator.
Adam and Eve were created with the ability to walk, run, jump, and play. They were also given the role of naming the animals, an expectation that required use of their creative instincts to foster both life and order. Such a process is reflected in the synthetic competitive parameters of sport: specified boundaries, artificial obstacles, formalized rules, specialized equipment, and rigid time constraints. Thus, sport competition provides an avenue for holistic personal development that reflects the glory of a creative God.
Beyond the creative aspects of play outlined in the biblical creation account, multiple accounts in the Old Testament reveal the human propensity for leisure, recreation, and pastime, particularly as demonstrated through festivals and celebrations. These references are not explicitly related to the physical tests of will and strength within synthetic parameters that we might think of as sport, but they provide support for the foundation of sport, which includes play and relationships. More specifically, the prophet Zechariah gives a word from the Lord, stating: “The streets of the city, Shall be full of boys and girls, Playing in its streets” (Zech. 8:5, emphasis added). Our theological discussion of sport competition begins here, with kids playing in the streets, with acknowledging our divinely-inspired spirit of play and humankind’s subsequent institution of rules, skill, higher order games, and specialized equipment and facilities to produce the cultural phenomena we call “sport.”
In the shadow of the fall (i.e., when sin entered the world after Adam and Eve disobeyed God in Genesis 3), all of existence was darkened by corruption, including fellowship through play. Evil motives, self-serving behavior, and decaying physical bodies are all symptoms of sin. These symptoms are manifested in the (broken) relationships that human beings experience with God, self, and other people. Sport competition artificially intensifies each of these relationships because it offers exceptional opportunities to pursue either the edification of character or, alternatively, the escalation of corruption. Sport participants continually face character-shaping decisions about a plethora of issues, such as winning, losing, bad calls, gloating opponents, fallible coaches, obnoxious fans, cheering crowds, hostile environments, performance errors, and injuries. Each of these scenarios provides a platform to display either sincere faith or spiritual flaws. Whatever one chooses—fury or friendliness, grandstanding or gentleness, pride or patience, rage or restraint—reflects the content of one’s character.
The American news media is saturated with unfortunate stories of athletes, coaches, and spectators whose actions reflect the fallen nature of humanity—cheating, violence, physical and verbal abuse, emotional outbursts, substance abuse, and even murder. Scandals have become so common among professional athletes that the absence of impropriety makes national news. When no NFL players were arrested in September 2015—the first time in six years that all players avoided legal trouble for an entire month—the unusual feat became a major headline. Yet sin affects the hearts and lives of athletes, coaches, and spectators like it affects all people, drawing us apart from God, ourselves, and one another. Humanity’s broken relationship with God distorts each person’s relationship with self and others.
Sport competition can further damage an already broken relationship between a participant and God. Consider the athletes who enjoy attention from being touted as five-star college recruits, the national acclaim of appearing on ESPN broadcasts, and the wealth of seven- and eight-figure salaries. Such alluring external rewards tempt athletes to see themselves as the sources of their blessings rather than God. The corrupt human heart is easily fixated on such glitz and glamour rather than God, and sport can artificially intensify these fixations, pressuring many athletes toward self-seeking behaviors.
This overemphasis of the self also means that athletes can fall prey to the fickleness of their athletic performance and to the perceptions of their fan bases. A kicker who misses a game-winning field goal, a basketball player who commits a dozen turnovers, or a soccer goalie who blunders by scoring on his own goal can become an object of national ridicule. The resulting embarrassment can cause deep feelings of depression and worthlessness. Humanity’s tendencies toward pride and self-glorification are exacerbated in a culture that mistakenly determines self-worth on the basis of athletic performance. Sport participants who fail to produce specific results (e.g., statistical output and/or wins) are at risk of experiencing profound guilt and shame, further damaging their relationship with self. Because athletic results are not guaranteed, athletes and coaches who underachieve are susceptible to disappointment, frustration, insecurity, and low self-esteem.
When a damaged view of self is combined with the pursuit of self-preservation and/or self-glorification, one’s relationships with others will also suffer. Given that the nature of sport competition involves fallen human beings, sporting events in effect become idolatrous and inhumane, luring large numbers of individuals to seek sinful self-glorification at the expense of others. Broken relationships occur when we dehumanize, objectify, and exploit the sport participants as a way of asserting dominance. Individuals who are perceived as weak links are then alienated and isolated from those participants who are perceived as possessing superior personal characteristics or athletic talent. Co-competitors are viewed as opponents, adversaries, and enemies who must be dominated and conquered in order for victory to be secured. Viewing co-competitors as enemies is a symptom of a broken relationships with others.
The resolution to these broken relationships with God, self, and others is cosmic redemption, that is, the process of returning the whole universe to its uncorrupted state. A redeemed relationship with God thus allows for a redeemed relationship with self and others. Redemptive sport competition, therefore, places God above both the participants and the sport. A redeemed heart acknowledges and values being made in the image of God and recognizes sport competition as a gift from God that affords participants the opportunity to exercise their God-given skills, abilities, movement, and creativity. Consider the difference in perspective that God’s heart creates in the midst of competition. Victory shifts from being the ultimate goal and is replaced by the pursuit of deeper intimacy with him through the parameters of discipline and struggle.
Individuals who abide in Christ are liberated from the highs and lows of a performance-based identity as well as from the guilt and shame of a sinful existence. A redeemed relationship with God translates into an appropriate view of self. Rather than seeing oneself as superior to others, deserving of fame, or bigger than life itself, a redeemed individual possesses a humility that stems from dependence on God. This healthy view of self recognizes and finds fulfillment in faith while also acknowledging the ever-present struggle with sin. A redeemed relationship with self liberates Christians to honestly confess their recurrent struggles while still resting in the finished work of Jesus Christ. A Christian’s self-worth is found in God’s unconditional love.
But how should this love play out in the context of sport competition? Christians are instructed to “let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3–4). Having concern for the interests and welfare of others is a nonnegotiable dynamic for redeemed sport competitors. Thus, biblical instruction regarding Christian unity fosters a game-changing perspective for redeemed sport participants: competition refers to striving together.
When competition is viewed through the lens of striving together, whether in recreational soccer or Olympic track and field, competitors are regarded as comrades who embody and reflect God-given abilities rather than adversarial enemies who must be dominated and destroyed. Sport competition can therefore be enjoyed in the spirit of Proverbs 27:17, which states, “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” Adopting a striving-together mentality of sport competition enhances relationships among all participants—teammates, opponents, coaches, and spectators—who can appreciate playful antagonism, diversity of skills within the body of Christ, and the beauty of God’s creation through human movement, relationships, and fellowship. Redemptive sport competition seeks God’s transcendent purpose for, and displays God’s glory through, participation in sport that emphasizes striving together.
Personal & Cultural Implications
Culture has celebrated sport competition as a noble environment to assert one’s dominance physically and psychologically and to prevail as a victor over an enemy opponent who wills to do the same, yet the Bible reframes sport competition as a mutual striving for excellence:
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown (1 Cor. 9:24–25).
Here, the Apostle Paul explicitly draws upon the metaphor of a race to illustrate the importance for Christians regarding discipline, excellence, and faithfulness to Christ’s commandments. He suggests that Christ-honoring sport competition demands disciplined stewardship of one’s God-given abilities, skills, and talents. Just as the discipline of physical training can cause physical pain, spiritual training may also require the endurance of pain and persecution (see Heb. 12:11). Similarly, while excellence in sport competition requires the need to endure present struggle for a future reward, Christian living demands spiritual perseverance that yields an eternal reward. Consistent excellence in redemptive sport competition is achieved primarily through Christlike characteristics such as a positive attitude and respectfulness, but it is also reflected in physical dynamics like effort and discipline in training. Christians should endeavor to think and act in a manner that exudes excellence both internally and externally.
Sport programs in church, parachurch, and school ministries often struggle with this balancing act of love, excellence, and competition. One school of thought suggests that keeping score is unnecessary and emphasizes outcome rather than process. However, we assert that the pursuit of winning, when framed within the redemptive competition paradigm, refines all participants. The goal of personal refinement is better achieved when keeping score because the participants’ roles, purpose, and mission are more fully clarified when something is at stake. As David Prince observes,
A child who doesn’t care if they win in a sporting contest and one who cannot lose without throwing a fit both have troubling character problems that ought to be addressed by Christian parents. Self-centered rage is not a spiritual virtue, but neither is weak-willed apathy. Christian parents must defy the spirit of the age by teaching children cruciform ambition—“whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
When sport is stripped of competition (e.g., by not keeping score), the value of the Apostle Paul’s metaphor for the Christian life is removed. Eliminating competition also removes the artificially intensified opportunities that sport provides for struggle as well as redeemed relationships with God, self, and others. Competitors build character by learning to win and lose with grace, gratitude, and grit. Striving for victory illustrates much more heart than a blasé attitude toward competition.
The mercurial environment of sport places participants in a position to experience both wins and losses, mirroring the high and lows of life. Paul spoke about a similar duality when he instructed the church at Rome to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15). Edification is relatively easy when your shots are falling and your team is winning, but encouraging one another in the midst of errors and subpar performance is the epitome of Christian character. Through sport, Christians who profess redemption by God’s unmerited favor (i.e., grace) have the privilege of extending grace to fellow participants who fail to perform at desired levels of excellence. The challenges faced in sport are best navigated by balancing the pursuit of excellence and the desire to win with expressions of humility, encouragement, and Christlike character. This balance serves as the bullseye for redemptive sport competition.
Consider the back-and-forth exchange between two prominent NFL quarterbacks. The dialogue began when Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks defeated Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers during the 2014 playoffs in an improbable last-minute comeback that sent the Seahawks to the Super Bowl and ended the Packers’ season. When interviewed minutes after the game Wilson, a professing Christian, alluded to the win as attributable to God’s providence. Rodgers, also a professing Christian, was asked if he shared Wilson’s sentiments. Surely these like-minded brothers would come to the same conclusion. However, Rodgers said, “I don’t think God cares a whole lot about the outcome. He cares about the people involved, but I don’t think he’s a big football fan.”
These nationally televised remarks caught the attention of the media and in the days following the win (at the Super Bowl media days), Wilson was asked to clarify if he thought God cares about football. His answer? “Yeah. I think God cares about football. I think God cares about everything he created.” The following season, Wilson and Rodgers met again during a rematch between the Seahawks and Packers in which Rodgers and the Packers won the game. Rodgers quipped, “God was a Packers’ fan tonight.”
This scenario illustrates the fact that athletes of like faith are at a minimum unclear or at worst confrontational regarding the theological role of sport in their spiritual lives—and they are likely not alone! So which professing Christian athlete’s comments better reflects that of redemptive sport competition? Actually, there is truth in both perspectives and it is our hope that the consciences of readers have been provoked to examine the role of sport in their own lives.
God desires each person’s spiritual development above statistical dominance and personal refinement above public recognition. The Bible illustrates God’s redeemed purpose for many of life’s greatest joys. A feast should be more than nutrition for the body (Lev. 23); music, more than noise to the ears (1 Sam. 16:23; 1 Sam. 18:10; 1 Chron. 13:8; and Ps. 33:2–3); art, more than beauty to the eyes (Exod. 35:4–35); and sport, more than strategic physical exertion (1 Cor. 9:24–27). Redemptive sport competition exudes joy, prayer, and thankfulness (1 Thess. 5:16–18); spiritual refinement through disciplined training in pursuit of excellence (1 Cor. 9:24–27); edification and celebration of all participants (Rom. 14:19); and the expression of Christlike character (1 John 2:6). As Christians, we are to demonstrate God’s glory (1 Cor. 10:31) by bringing meaning, hope, and redemption to every aspect of sport. True victory comes into focus when sport competition is viewed through the lens of redemption.