The Nature of Sport

When I’m feeling playful, I casually introduce my definition of sport into dinner party conversation and wait for the response. As far as I’m concerned, to be classified as a sport, an activity must involve the following four features

  1. it must involve competition
  2. it must involve athletic ability
  3. it must involve technique or skill
  4. it must involve a ball or ball substitute

As you might imagine, it’s a definition that hasn’t met with widespread approval! It’s usually point four that creates the most issues. Especially amongst the rowers. The cyclists. And the runners. But can you think of a better definition?!

Of course, we’ll search the scriptures in vain for a biblical definition of sport. We’ll find a handful sporting metaphors, especially in the New Testament. But the biblical authors are simply using athletic competition, the victor’s rewards and the preparation required to compete as brilliant illustrations of the Christian life. They’re not constructing a theology of sport.

We tend to know what sport is when we see it. But for the sake of completeness, let’s run with the council of Europe’s definition of sport which says,

‘Sport means all forms of physical activity, which, through causal or organised participation, aim at expressing or improving physical fitness and mental well being, forming social relationships or obtaining results in competition at all levels’.

But though the Bible doesn’t define sport precisely, it nevertheless has important things to say about the nature of sport. Here are three.

1. Sport is a gift from God

God did not create sport. People did. Though I’ve always thought there’s something divine about cricket. But God created people with sporting ability and sporting desire. And then using their God given creativity they did the rest. They invented a diverse array of sports; from canoeing to kabbadi. Sports therefore express the creativity that God has given to humanity. There’s actually something artistic about it. As a flyhalf, I often tell my outside backs that the rugby pitch is a blank canvas on which we’ll paint our work of rugby art. You can imagine the response! But how should we respond to this divinely given gift of sport? In 1 Timothy 4, the Apostle Paul says ‘4 For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer’. And so we need to thank God for the gift of sport. It’s one of His undeserved generous acts of kindness to create us with the capacity to enjoy recreational activity. When was the last time you thanked God for your sport? I used to do it before every game I played. But somehow I stopped. I’m going to change that.

2. Sport is a legitimate leisure activity

For a privileged few, sport is work. But not for most of us. They’re part of God’s gift of leisure. And so, in our fallen world, where productive work is frustrated by toil and weariness deprives us of enjoyment of daily life, God has given us sports to refresh us. But sport has not always been viewed in such terms. Christians have sometimes viewed sport and sportspeople with suspicion. There have been periods in the history of the Christian church when sport has been viewed as unspiritual and therefore an unfitting activity for the serious minded disciple. But there’s nothing intrinsically ungodly about sport. Sportsmen may be ungodly. But that’s a different matter. And we’ll get to that. But sport isn’t inherently wrong. In all the New Testament references to sport there’s not a single explicit or implicit condemnation of the activity. If sport were intrinsically evil, we’d expect the New Testament writers to qualify their comments or nuance their illustrations. But they didn’t. And so it’s entirely reasonable to assume that the Bible is not anti-sports. It fits into the ‘whatever you do’ of Colossians 3:23 where Paul says that ‘whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men’. And so, in good conscience, we can wholeheartedly commit ourselves to our sporting endeavours as a valid discipleship activity.

3. Sport is an act of worship

In 1 Corinthians 10:31, Paul writes, ‘31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God’. So sport, like anything else in life, is an opportunity for us to glorify God. God has given us sport, not simply for our own benefit but also as a means by which we can draw attention to His goodness. Properly played and enjoyed therefore, sport is an opportunity to express the greatness of God. To bring glory to God as sportspeople we should play sport in a way that brings attention to God’s greatness. Not our own. This involves more than making the sign of the crucifix before you step onto the field of play or falling to your knees in prayer after scoring a century. It has to do with worshipping God as we play. As Paul writes in Romans 12:1, ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship’. And so there’s a sense in which the sports pitch is the Temple in which we offer our sacrificial act of worship (which may explain why you get slaughtered so much!).

The Matter of Sport

Plato is supposed to have said ‘You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation’. Whether he did or not may be open to debate. But the concept isn’t. At least not in my experience. I’ve had some of my best moments in life on the sports field; achievements of which I’m proud, incidences of sportsmanship and shared experiences of our team triumphing against the odds. I won’t bore you with the details! But it’s fair to say that I’ve also had some of my worst moments in life on the sports field. My wife, will attest to that. I dare not ask, but I’m pretty confident she’ll remember an incident of racket chucking which took place over a decade ago. We’d only just started ‘going out’. So appalled was she by what she witnessed on the tennis courts of Southampton University that it’s a miracle of grace that our relationship ever got further. For the record, I can’t remember the last time I threw my racket. But the temptation simmers just under the surface, ready to engulf me every time I hit my forehand return into the net. Sport has a way of revealing our character as well as developing it.

I’m a better man for having played sport. But it’s also been the arena in which God has revealed some painful truths. I’ve written these series of posts because, if for no one else’s benefit but mine, I’m aware of the need to think about godliness in the context of sporting competition!

In preparing these posts I’ve been helped by material from Stuart Weir who wrote a book called ‘What the Bible says about Sport’ , CJ Mahaney who wrote ‘Don’t Waste Your Sports’, Graham Beynon’s book ‘Jesus@Leisure’ and the article on sport in the Dictionary of Pastoral Ethics. The good stuff probably came from there and they ought to get the credit.

Effort and the Christian Life

I’m not a voracious consumer of blogs. I just don’t have the time. But if someone wanted to but me an i-pad so that it’s easier to read them on the go then I could change! Anyone? You can’t blame me for trying. In a test against India at Trent Bridge a few years ago Alistair Cook mentioned champagne, it was picked up by the stump microphone and someone sent a case to the dressing room. Does lightning strike twice?

But despite not poring over others’ blogs, there are a few that merit a regular visit. Kevin deYoung’s is one of those. The place of work or effort in the Christian life has been a matter of discussion with one or two people at CCB. I remember being helped by the following phrase, ‘we’re not saved by our works, nor are we saved without works but we are saved for works’. But that doesn’t quite nail the issue we’ve been discussing. Kevin’s post goes into a little more depth. He defends the biblical view that the Christian life is one in which we need to exert ourselves. And explains that the exhortation to exertion is not denying that wonderful gospel truth of justification by faith. You can find it here.