The screaming, jumping, whooshing, waving, and excitement of the Olympics is here. And as we click on T.V. screens to see which flips, spins and twists were medal worthy, we also are treated to fascinating personal interest stories. Whether they are covering a petite figure skater or a rough snowboarder, all of the interviews reveal that a spot on the medal podium requires a lifetime of personal and familial sacrifice. As Christians, we are often awed by these athletes’ devotion and wowed by their success. Naturally wanting our children to succeed, we start to wonder if we should send our five-year-old girl off to Michigan to practice figure skating or sign up our ten-year-old son for college football camps in Alabama. What should Christian parents do?
Go Sports Go
Before we zing off to the slopes, the beach, or the practice field, we first need to ask, “Do Christians belong in sports?” I believe the answer is a resounding yes! God has made us physical creatures. He has given us the ability to run, jump, and create fun competitions. As Exodus 28:3, Exodus 35:35, and I Kings 7:14 make clear, all human skills are gifts from God. Even the ability to ski down a mountain or to dribble a soccer ball is a present from our creator. Moreover, sports provide us with the opportunity to relax, fellowship, and responsibly care for our bodies. Employing several sporting analogies, the apostle Paul confirmed that “bodily training is of some value (I Timothy 4:8).” We can and should encourage our children to participate in sports. We and our children belong in sports’ nation.
The True Value of Sports
Yet as C.J. Mahaneny noted, “as soon as you introduce the human heart, things get complicated” (Mahaney 2010, 9). We can’t blindly encourage our kids to just “do it” every time the practice field opens. We need to realize that sports are only valuable when done to the glory of God. When we and our children use sports as an opportunity to encourage others, to accept correction, to serve our friends, to praise God, and to share the story of salvation, sports’ nation is a good thing (I Cor. 10:13).
But, we cannot value sports’ nation simply for the sake of sports. If we do, sports’ nation become more dangerous than facing Barry Bonds in the bottom of the ninth inning with the base loaded and no outs. Nothing created, not even the cute, little guy wearing a T-ball jersey two sizes too big, should take the place of Christ. If we covet success and fame for our children, we transform sports into an Idol. And, covetousness is idolatry (Col. 3:5). If we inflate the value of sports, “Worship is happening – on ESPN and in our hearts” (Mahaney 2010, 40).
Admittedly, we cannot keep little, prideful hearts from boasting in thirty mile-per hour fastballs and three inch verticals. We cannot redeem our miniature superstars (Ez. 18:20). But we can point our children to Christ through our actions! Sports played for the glory of god are immensely valuable.
Breaking God’s Rules
Now, it’s time for the practical side of things. If we fail to follow God’s rules and place our children’s sports’ career above the things of God, our lives will show it. As Paul David Tripp notes, “You are always attaching your inner hope and contentment to something, and when you do, those things take on life-shaping value” (Tripp 2012, 103). Family devotions will be replaced with never ending practices. Church attendance will be regularly bumped off the calendar by weekend tournaments. And, our bank accounts will see giving withdraws redirected to season tickets, uniforms, and that all important swag. Words of gracious love spoken to our children will be replaced with criticism, rants against officials, and complaints about coaches. By virtue of our actions, we will teach our children that the gods of sports’ nation will give them, “what the God the Bible cannot give – success by worldly standards” (Baucham 2007, 38). We will prepare our children to gain their lives only to lose them. And at the end of the day, we cannot be surprised to see our children mature into adults who place the world before Christ. As Voddie Baucham warns, “We cannot expect our children to rise above our example” (Baucham 2007, 40).
Playing God’s Way
For our children’s sports’ activities to glorify God, we must place them comfortably behind Christ, our marriage, and our family. We are children of the king, designed to worship Christ. The prize we should most value and most want for our children is the one consisting of eternal glory (I Tim. 4:8). It is the prize that requires one to lose his life to gain it (John 12:25). It’s the prize that our children can get only through hearing the word of God preached and the seeing the word of God lived out faithfully by their parents and other believers (Deut. 6). Such instruction is far better than any scholarship, trophy, or medal.
Below, I’ve list a few practically ways we can use sports to point are children to Christ. The following is taken mostly from C.J. Mahaney’s book Don’t Waste Your Sports:
- Celebrate godliness. We should praise our children for making it to the podium and for hitting a homerun, but we should praise their humility, diligence, and self-control even more.
- Prize your family. If your children’s gymnastics event or if watching the Olympic snowboard competitions dominate your family life, cut back on your sports. Skip a practice, turn off the T.V. and spend time studying the word and/or praying together as a family or take your wife on a date.
- Guide Your Speech. Speak truth in love. Strive to only say things that support, encourage, and build up your children, the coaches, and the officials. God is sovereign even over peewee football. Are words should reflect our faith in his control.
- Love your local church. Missing a Sunday morning or two “doesn’t make you guilty of idolatry” as C.J. points out (Mahaney 2010, 41). But, we can still help our children understand that God comes first. When events fall on Sunday, we can miss practice, arrive late, or visit other Bible believing churches.
- Train for life. Use your children’s sporting failures and successes as opportunities to teach them about their hearts and about the character of the one true God.
Sports are a blessing. For the sake of for disclosure, I must confess that I am sports’ enthusiast. I played baseball until my sophomore year of college. My office is decorated with mini football helmets. I celebrated the coming of my first son by purchasing Chicago Cubs onesie. I even find aspects of Olympic curling to be interesting. As my wife can attest, I am a sports’ junky.
But for all of its benefits and life lessons, sports’ nation will never save. Red Sox Nation, Wrigley Field, and Sochi will all burn. If you start place sports’ nation behind your marriage, family, and church, your child may slide from starter to sub. But isn’t eternal life worth the earthly cost? Is there anything that we or our children sacrifice on earth that will not be returned a thousand times over in heaven? Let’s encourage our children to use their athletic ability to glorify their creator. Let’s point them to salvation!