Today I’d like to reflect theologically on sport. Sometimes I look around me at our Western culture and wonder if we overemphasize sports. Let’s face it, we honor and sometimes even idolize athletes more than most in our society. Part of me can understand why, as some athletes can do some pretty amazing things with their bodies. Through their sport they can delight and even amaze us. But then I think of the salary that some of our professional athletes are making, and I wonder what that says about the value of sports in our culture. Now, I’m not saying high paid athletes aren’t gifted, nor am I saying they don’t work hard. But how do we make sense of our dominant sports culture? . . . At any rate, I’d like to think about some of the benefits of sports—especially spiritual benefits. Can we grow spiritually through sport? Two ways come to mind. Through sports we can learn discipline, which can help us to deny ourselves as we’re often called to do as Christians. In order to be an athlete, you must do certain things (i.e., train hard, sleep lots, eat well, etc.), but there also certain things you must refrain from (i.e., eating certain foods, staying up too late, over-training, etc.). As Jesus says in Mark 8:34: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Seems to me that the discipline you learn in sport could help you deny yourself as a disciple of Christ. But I’m also thinking of another spiritual benefit of sport: play. We may not often associate play with the Christian life, but humans are not just made to work and worship. We’re also made to play and rest. And I think sport can help us do that too. Mind you, that may not happen if you take your sport too seriously, as some seem to do these days. How do you respond to the loss of a game? That will help you discern how important sport is to you. . . . What do you think? Can we grow spiritually through sport? I’d like to hear from you.
Over the last few weeks in our preaching we’ve reflected on how we grow spiritually through various New Testament (NT) passages that refer to athletic metaphors. Sports are important to many modern people. But apparently they were also important to many ancient people too. Hence Paul’s athletic references. So, as we think about sports, we know that athletes must train hard to be excellent at their sport. In other words, they need to perform certain exercises and drills to help them grow stronger, faster and more able to do what is required to perform. We understand and accept this sort of training for sports, and also in other areas like music or perhaps even for our work. But sometimes we forget that training is also required for the Christian life. In order to grow spiritually, we must perform certain spiritual exercises, like worship, Bible study, solitude and silence, fasting and service. These are traditionally called the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life. So, what exactly are these spiritual disciplines and why are they important? As Dallas Willard writes in his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines: “The disciplines for the spiritual life, rightly understood, are time-tested activities consciously undertaken by us as new men or women to allow our spirit ever-increasing sway over our embodied selves. They help by assisting the ways of God’s Kingdom to take the place of the habits of sin embedded in our bodies.” (p. 86) In other words, they are activities that help us gain control over our bodies and minds, so that our souls will grow spiritually as we receive more and more of God’s grace. The result is increased godliness. Sometimes we think that the Christian life is just about being saved by God’s grace and then waiting for heaven. But being saved is only the first part. What am I saved for? To become more and more like Jesus, and to help others become like Jesus. And that requires the application of basic spiritual exercises. Please let me know if you’d like to talk further about the nature and purpose of spiritual exercises. Meanwhile, enjoy the training!