Arenas Are Cathedrals: What Sports Reveal About Worship – Mark Jones

“Unceasing praise, songs of passion, a desire for triumph, unity of spirit, an object of worship, lament over wrongdoing, flawless attendance, and all in a beautiful sanctuary.” That may sound like a church service, but it was actually the experience I had years ago at a professional soccer game in England. In spite of the setting, it was encouraging to hear men sing with passion, a passion often lacking in congregational worship.

In this way, professional sports reveal that we were made to worship, celebrate glory, and admire excellence. We are worshiping beings. It is not whether we worship but what or whom we worship. And many today worship sports in some form or another. I have spent enough time in various sporting contexts (as an athlete, fan, and coach) to understand that both men and women, boys and girls, can be very passionate about sports and the teams they support. Yet particularly men and boys seem to be especially given to idolatry in supporting their favorite sports teams.

Worldly Passions

Enjoying sports and supporting one’s favorite team is not necessarily a problem (like I said, I’ve been a player, fan, and coach). Like anything in the Christian life, though, we must learn to manage God’s gifts wisely. However, sometimes we misuse God’s gifts, and we become worldly in our thoughts and deeds. John tells us to “not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15). This doesn’t mean we can’t love a beautiful lake or a nice meal, but it does mean we need to be careful that we don’t love created things in place of the Creator. In the world are “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 John 2:16). Professional sports teams offer ample opportunities for worldly desires to come to full expression.

God created us with good desires, such as the desire to love or give vent to our joy. However, our sinful nature easily corrupts these powerful desires so that we love things we should not love, or we love things in ways or degrees that do not fit their God-given purposes. The Greeks used to speak of four passions, and Augustine and others saw these as helpful tools to analyze and understand human behavior: (1) desire, which is the good wished for; (2) joy, which is the good obtained; (3) fear, which involves an evil to be avoided and the good threatened; and (4) grief, which is when an evil happens and the good is lost. These passions run rampant among many sports fans, and where strong passions roam wild, one must proceed with great care.

Passionate sports fans desire the joy of victory, but in many cases, the fear of defeat and the accompanying grief can reveal how disordered our passions can be. I have heard it said by many players, coaches, and fans that they hate losing more than they love winning. For many, sports is the clearest window into their soul, where they show more joy or grief than in any other realm of life!

Enslaved Fans

In diagnosing whether sports have an unhealthy grip on our lives, we should ask ourselves some questions. For example, is our love for sports drawing us away from corporate worship on the Lord’s Day or consistently distracting us during worship? As in all things, can we enjoy God and give thanks to him in and through our delight in sports (Ephesians 5:20)? Or are we merely indulging self-focused desires? Remember, whatever is not of faith is sin (Romans 14:23). Even in the realm of enjoying sports, we must do so by faith, which also guards our passions as we seek enjoyment as God’s people enjoying his various gifts. We are to do all things to the glory of God, including support sports teams (1 Corinthians 10:31).

When we take pleasure in sports, are we causing damage to anyone — including ourselves? Some men can become so inordinately distressed or angry when their team loses that they take their anger out on others, even their own family members. This is a violation of the sixth commandment.

We could also ask, are we given to the pleasure of supporting a team, or is the pleasure given to us? In other words, we should not allow the failures of a sports team to dominate how we feel days after a loss. When we are given to something, it controls us rather than us controlling it. The art of enjoying sports is to remember that we can learn to be content whatever the circumstances (Philippians 4:11).

I say this as an extremely competitive person (who hates losing more than I enjoy winning), but I need to continually see the success of the teams that I support and coach in both a temporal and eternal perspective. Even temporally, isn’t it amazing how we can get so riled up over sweaty men with whom we have no relationship except that they happen to wear a different color jersey than another group of sweaty men? And none of these sweaty men care in the least about my feelings. Plus, even when your team wins the championship, the joy is short-lived: on to next season where we will worry about the coaching or the quality of newly acquired players.

Greater Glory

The solution to our worldliness and idolatry in relation to sports cannot be found in merely showing the ultimate emptiness of becoming an enslaved fan. As Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847) famously argues in “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” you cannot destroy love for the world merely by showing its emptiness. Love of the world — and specifically an inordinate, enslaving love for sports — can only be expelled by a new love and affection for God from God.

Love for God the Father, as his children (1 John 3:1), is a delight that frees us from slavery to the glory of sports. So, unless we have a love for God based upon all that he has done and will do for us, we will find ourselves increasingly addicted to worldly pursuits like sports.

In addition, John also connects the beatific vision — seeing Jesus face to face — to our love for God. As God’s children, we patiently await what we shall one day become: fully conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). When Jesus appears, “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Both our love for the Father and our hope of being made like Christ when we see him give us a passion to make worship of God, not sports, central to our daily living as God’s people.

And if supporters of sports teams can gather week after week to sit on cold metal, loudly chanting and singing to spur their team to victory, should we not also be able to gather each Lord’s Day with our brothers and sisters to celebrate, all the more enthusiastically, the victories of our King and his eternal glories?

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