Reflections on the grace of sports

My dad’s father was a tough Scottish builder. The story I’ve heard is that when he began to follow Christ, there was a radical change in his life. He gave up drinking, he gave up gambling and he gave up soccer. In his mind, they were all associated together with his previous life. He needed a clean break from all of it. Consequently, when my dad was growing up and wanted to go out for high school football, he was not allowed to. His dad still held all those associations together.

However, when I grew up, it was very different. My dad encouraged me to sign up for sports. So I played baseball and swam competitively. I wasn’t the greatest athlete. But when I played, my dad was often there. When I hit the ball, he cheered. When I struck out, he sighed and gave me a pat on the back, encouraging me to do better next time. All through my growing up years he made sure I knew how to swim. We played catch in the back yard, tossed the football, played volleyball, croquet, horse shoes. He took me and my brothers to professional baseball, football, hockey and basketball games. He was not a sports fanatic, but he understood the grace of sports.

Last week in Colorado we had a great ride. The Broncos are on a roll—so far. The Rockies, even though they have now been eliminated, won the Wild Card spot in the post season playoffs. We have college football in full swing. The World Series is just around the corner. So we are all talking about sports.

Of course, it is easy to go overboard on sports, especially in a sports town like Denver. More than one sermon has been preached about how our culture is so obsessed with games that some practically burn incense to the sports god. Sports can become an idol when it becomes the ultimate thing in our lives taking God’s rightful place, and not, as it was created to be, a second thing.

On the other hand, I don’t believe we say enough about what I call “the grace of sport.” I am not talking about graceful athletes like Michael Jordan (basketball), Joe DiMaggio (baseball), Walter Payton (football), etc.. I am talking about the gift of play. I think we forget God’s tender mercy in giving us games like baseball (I say this as a baseball nut).

God created us so we can play. Sport or play is a grace. It is not a saving grace (which redeems us and is found in Christ alone). It is a minor grace—a common grace. Every good and perfect gift comes from above, James 1.17 tells us, from our heavenly Father. Do we believe that? An old hymn put it this way: “This is my Father’s world, he shines in all that’s fair.”

What common grace comes to us through sports? For one, games like baseball and football relieve the weight of life. They help take our minds off of things like terrorism, turbulent markets, and politics we don’t like.

Sport also satisfies our competitive urges. As my friend Jim Ryan, who played with the championship Broncos says, “sports create contrived dramas or battles. It sets up artificial crises which in turn help us deal with the real crises and the real battles of life.” How true.

Along with all that, sports teaches us lessons that are crucial for life. In the NT, Paul seems to commend the discipline, achievement and rewards of the Greek games as a way of understanding the ultimate crown which Christ gives.

In 1 Corinthians 9.25, he commends the discipline and self control learned in sports when he compares the Christian life to a race. “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” Sports teach the lesson of delayed gratification for the greater reward.

In 2 Timothy 2.5, Paul highlights the importance of learning to play by the rules. “If anyone competes as an athlete,” he writes, “he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules.” Learning to care about the referee’s verdict and playing by the rules is extremely important in every aspect of life.

In 1 Corinthians 9.24, Paul compares the Christian life to a race aiming at our reward. He writes, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” Not only are we to live for the ultimate reward, we are to live it like a runner doing all that we can to get towards finishing well. In Philippians 3:13,14, he writes, “one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

And in Hebrews 12.1-3, the writer of that letter imagines us all in a race surrounded by the a stadium full of people, only this crowd is all those saints who have gone before us. He wants us to learn endurance. With their example in mind he says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.”

As it turns out, the New Testament is full of passages which demonstrate good things which come through sports. As good things, they are a manifestation of God’s common grace. There are good things for the coach who is trying to teach life lessons to kids. There are good things for followers of Jesus who want to know how to finish well. And there are good things for the person who wants to play for the glory of God.

I don’t know if my grandfather, whom I deeply admire, ever understood that. But I am so grateful my father did.

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