The Christians at Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen, Scotland, know how to pray. Every Saturday night sixty or seventy of them gather in the church hall to spend two hours praying for the work of the gospel around the world. One Saturday night I heard a church leader pray against the rulers and dominions of spiritual darkness in the city of Aberdeen. He prayed against the principalities of corruption, and drinking, and gambling, and materialism, and prostitution. “And especially,” he continued, “that demon, sport.”
“Wait a second,” I thought. “Was it my imagination, or did that man just pray against ‘that demon, sport’? I’m not sure I’m familiar with that demon.” I do not know if Satan has assigned one or more demons to rule over the wide world of sports. But I do know that sports have spiritual power. Sports, like every other good thing, can become idols.
One week from tonight millions of Americans will gather for our nation’s most important religious exercise: the Super Bowl. When I speak of the Super Bowl as a religious event I am not trying to be humorous. Super Bowl Sunday receives the kind of analysis and attention that only a god can command. The worshiping community that gathers around a television set at a Super Bowl party is a sort of house church. Which is why this is a good time to think about how to prevent sport from becoming an idol.
The trouble with sports, like other idols, is that they always disappoint their worshipers. In the middle of the fall Philadelphians were basking in the afterglow of an Eagles’ victory in Dallas. The following Friday I taught a Bible study at the Union League on the subject of idolatry. “Almost anything can become an idol,” I said at a certain point, “even the Philadelphia Eagles.” I heard a groan beside me as one of the young lawyers in the study said, “I was hoping you wouldn’t say that.”
I returned to the Union League a month later. When the lawyer greeted me he said, “You know, Phil, the Eagles haven’t won a game since you told us they could become an idol.” “Hey, it’s not my fault,” I protested. “That’s the way idols are: they always let you down.” The problem with false gods is that they always leave you hungry for more. They cannot satisfy you.
Nor can they save you. At the beginning of the football season something tragic happened before a game at Veteran’s Stadium. The Philadelphia Eagles’ most loyal fan—a man who had attended every home game for decades—was to be interviewed on the radio. Just minutes before he was scheduled to go on the air the man had a massive heart attack and died. Although his friends and family were sad, they said over and over again how appropriate it was for him to die at the stadium. “He was in his glory!” one of his friends said. Those words haunted me for weeks. Some glory! He was the kind of man described in Romans 1:23, a man who exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like… birds (Rom. 1:23).
There are at least two good ways to tell if sport is becoming one of your idols. One is to notice how tense you get when you are watching a big game, or how upset you get when your team loses. Your emotions reveal where your heart has placed its ultimate loyalties.
Another way to tell if sports are becoming an idol is to keep track of the time and money you spend playing or watching sports. Are sports distracting you from more important activities like Bible reading or talking with your children? If so, there is something idolatrous about your sporting activities.
Roger Angell, who is among the best of the baseball writers, has this to say about the place sports have come to occupy in American culture:
Sports are too much with us. Late and soon, sitting and watching—mostly watching on television—we lay waste our powers of identification and enthusiasm… as more and more closing rallies and crucial putts and late field goals and final playoffs and sudden deaths and world records and world championships unreel themselves ceaselessly before our half-lidded eyes. Professional leagues expand like bubble gum, ever larger and thinner, and the extended sporting seasons, now bunching and overlapping at the ends, conclude in exhuastion and the wrong weather… The American obsession with sports is not a new phenomenon, of course, except in its… excessive excessiveness. What is new… is a curious sense of loss. In the midst of all these successive spectacles and instant replays and endless reportings and recapitulations, we seem to have forgotten what we came for” [Roger Angell, The Summer Game, New York: Penguin, 1972, pp. 291-92].
It is worth noting that Angell wrote those words in 1972. In the last 25 years everything he laments has gotten worse. There are more sports, more leagues, more teams, more games and more replays.
At the same time, there is much less of what sports are for in the first place: play. Sports do not have to become idols. What keeps them from becoming idols is playing them to the glory of God. There is space for sports in the Christian life, the same space God gives us for other forms of play.
In the kingdom of God sports are to be playfully played. One of the most beautiful promises about the New Jerusalem is found in Zechariah 8, where the Lord promises that the city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there (Zech. 8:5). Some of the children are playing sports, of course. I have always imagined that they are playing stickball, but it might be jacks, or hopskotch, or roller hockey, or basketball. Who knows? But whatever they are playing, God’s children are not under the spell of that demon, sport. They are playing to the glory of God.
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