Game 6 of the World Series is tomorrow, and millions of Americans will be watching. Nearly everyone in America (or, at least, nearly every male) spends a significant amount of time watching sports of some kind year-round, whether it is baseball or one of the seemingly endless variety of other athletic competitions that are televised today. But did you know that the early church was opposed to sports? (Read Tertullian’s On the Games/De Spectaculis, for example.) Sports were also rejected by observant Jews before the time of Christ’s first advent, in part because training in sports and participation in the games was one of the major emphases of Antiochus IV’s attempt to Hellenize the Jewish people.
What does the Bible have to say about sports? First, the Bible is clear that God is not impressed by athletic ability, but only by godly character. Psalm 147:10-11 says, He does not delight in the strength of the horse; He takes no pleasure in the legs of a man. The LORD takes pleasure in those who fear Him, in those who hope in His lovingkindness. When the prophet Samuel was initially very impressed by the physical appearance of David’s oldest brother Eliab, and assumed that Eliab should be anointed king on this basis, God told Samuel, Do not look at his appearance, or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For [the LORD sees] not as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart. (1 Sam 16:7).
I have a very hard time believing that God is impressed by how hard a pitcher can throw a baseball, or by how far a batter can hit it.
The apostle Paul once participated in an athletic competition, though not by choice: he evidently was thrown into a ring with wild beasts at the Ephesus amphitheater and was forced to fight them in a life-or-death match as a public spectacle, as a punishment for preaching the gospel (1 Cor 15:32; cf. 2 Cor 1:8-11). But in describing this event in 1 Cor 15:32, Paul says that if he fought with wild beasts “after the manner of men” it would have been of no profit for him. That is, had Paul fought with the motive of the gladiators—worldly fame and fortune, or a love of sport—it would not have been of ultimate value for him, because the world’s glory is passing away. However, Paul fought with wild beasts with the motive of serving the risen Christ, which has an eternal reward. He was fighting by compulsion, not by choice, and he glorified God by demonstrating that God could deliver a man who was in his fifties and not trained as a gladiator from the mouth of the lion (cf. 2 Tim 4:17). The inspired view of sports which Paul gives in 1 Cor 15:32 is that if sports are played for any of the usual motives for which sports are played—to win fame, glory, money, and so forth—they are unprofitable for the players. They are, in a word, worthless.
Even non-competitive bodily exercise, which clearly has health benefits, is said by Paul to be merely of “a little” profit in comparison to the more important exercise of one’s faith unto godliness, since godliness has value both for the present life and for the life to come in eternity (1 Tim 4:7-8).
In the grand scheme of things, it is stupid to be awed by someone’s ability to whack a golf ball or to toss a basketball. It is stupid for coaches, fans, and players to treat the games they play with great seriousness and passion, as if they are a very significant thing. Sports competitions accomplish nothing of any value, since they are worthless insofar as eternity is concerned, and they cannot even be considered productive work vis-à-vis the present world. (Yes, everyone needs a break from work, but do we “need” professional sports?) In fact, sports glorify man, rather than God, and they set up a conflict between rival players and fans for no good reason. Even from the standpoint of fitness, sports create frequent injuries and long-term wear and tear as players push their bodies to the limit and do things that the body was not designed to do. It is better to follow a simpler exercise regimen, and to do so only to maintain one’s health for service to God.
Whether the subject is sports or something else, the things we really care about should be the things that really matter.