See Part 2 of this two-part series here.

David Simmons grew up as a sports-made boy in the southern suburbs of Sydney. Like so many Australians, some of his earliest memories relate to sport. ‘I remember watching State of Origin rugby league games with his father,’ David reminisces. ‘I’d watch the games and then go out into the backyard with a footie and try to emulate the players I’d been watching.’

It’s the sort of story that could be recounted by hundreds of thousands of Australians. The difference is that, as David got older, he actually found himself playing sport professionally. He debuted with the Cronulla Sharks as an 18 year old and went on to score over 100 first grade tries in the National Rugby League, finishing his career with the Penrith Panthers.

We want our sport to be part of a life lived in relationship with God

And, more significantly, David became a Christian in his late high school years. This meant that he entered the ranks of professional sport as a believer. ‘Looking back to the early part of my career I didn’t always integrate my faith with my rugby as well as I should have,’ he admits. ‘Nothing really horrible, it’s just that I didn’t fully appreciate how sport could and should impact on my sporting life on and off the field. Thankfully, that’s something I learned over time.’

‘David’s experience is far from unusual,’ says David Tyndall, a Sydney Anglican minister, ex-Sydney First Grade rugby union player, and former National Coordinator of Sports Chaplaincy Australia. ‘For many Christians it is hard to make that connection between their sport and their faith, and often they receive little help in their efforts to do so.’

As believers, we don’t want our relationship with God to be one sphere of our life, and for our sporting involvement to be another distinctive and quite separate sphere. We want the two to integrate—we want our sport to be part of a life lived in relationship with God. What Christian players, fans, parents, pastors, coaches and teachers need is God’s wisdom on sport, and God’s strength to apply that wisdom to their lives.

This article will focus on God’s wisdom, the next article on God’s strength. When we have both, our sport can be a real plus—not a minus—for our spiritual lives and for the kingdom of God.

What the Bible says

We find God’s wisdom on sport in the Bible, but locating that wisdom may not be immediately obvious. While there are a number of Scriptures that refer to sport—e.g., running a race (Ps 19:5; 1 Cor 9:24–27; 2 Tim 4:7); training (1 Cor 9:25; 1 Tim 4:8), and winning a prize (1 Cor 9:27; 2 Tim 4:8)—these are passages that are really using sport to illustrate other points. They are not primarily seeking to teach us about whether, why, how and how much we should play sport. To think about these things we will need to take more general biblical teaching and apply it to our topic.

The theological basis for sport can be found in the creation account’s [implied] command to create culture.

The theological basis for sport can be found in the creation account. God places humanity into this ‘very good’ creation and gives them the opportunity to delight in it within various guidelines he lays down. He also calls on humanity to develop creation. God told our ancestors to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ (Gen1:28) and to ‘work it (i.e., creation) and take care of it’ (Gen 2:15). This is essentially a command to create culture. This is sometimes referred to as the cultural mandate. As John Stott has said: ‘‘Nature’ is what God gives; ‘culture’ is what we do with it’.[1] Sport, along with numerous other activities such as music, dance and literature, is just one of the ways in which culture has been developed.

Now, while there is much to enjoy within God’s creation—and it is good to do so—we also live in a fallen world. As such, people, creation and culture are all damaged by sin. God’s Word outlines how God mounted a rescue mission focussing on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The greatest need is for people to have their relationship with God restored. God commands us to seek first the kingdom of God (Matt 6:33) and to love God and others (Mark 12:30–31) in the ways described in the Bible. As such we will want to prioritise things like Bible study and reflection, prayer, Christian fellowship and Christian outreach. If we are involved with sport, as I have been throughout my life, it will need to fit in with these larger priorities.

So, how might the Christian then think about sport? American pastor and theologian, Jeremy Treat, very helpfully summarises biblical teaching applied to the topic of Christianity and sport by saying that sport is a great gift from God that has both intrinsic and instrumental value. However, in a fallen world we need to beware of the dangers of idolatry and immorality.[2]

Sport’s values—intrinsic and instrumental

Sport has intrinsic value—that is, it is good in and of itself. Sport was given to us by God—the ultimate author of all good things—and should be enjoyed with thanksgiving (1 Tim 4:4). Participants will appreciate the physical challenge, the mental test, the thrill of competition, the feeling of performing an athletic movement well, and the satisfaction of contributing to a smoothly functioning team. David Simmons describes the enjoyment he gained from playing rugby league: ‘I loved thrill of playing in the arena; the smell of freshly cut grass and strapping tape on a Saturday night; the dew upon the ground and the stadium lights; the anticipation of the crowd; the nerves in your stomach; and the game plan in your head. It was pure adrenalin.’

Sport has great instrumental value … rest and relaxation, friendships, Christian witness, the encouragement of other believers, improved health, character development, travel and employment.

Sport also has great instrumental value—this is, participating in sport promises many positive outcomes. It provides opportunities for rest and relaxation, friendships, Christian witness, the encouragement of other believers, improved health, character development, travel and employment. To varying levels, I have experienced all of these benefits in my years of playing sport.

Sport is particularly good for spiritual encouragement and discipleship. Jill Ireland was a hockey-mad girl from Yorkshire. Whilst at university she met and spent time with another girl a few years her senior named Lynda. Lynda was a Christian and, like Jill, was in the varsity firsts hockey team. Over time God used Lynda to help lead Jill to the Lord—but it didn’t stop there. The two women became great friends. They read the Bible together, attended Christian groups on campus together, helped run a Christian camp in Northern Ireland and went on a hockey mission trip to Kenya. As time went on Jill helped lead others to the Lord and enjoyed similar fellowship with them.

Sport’s dangers—idolatry and immorality

However, in the real world, sport is played, run and watched by fallen people. There is the danger of idolatry. Christians can be tempted to put sport in the place of God in their lives. Participants can become obsessed with their performance to the detriment of all else, but it is not only players, idolatry can be a danger for supporters, too. I read of one couple who missed their daughter’s wedding because it clashed with a big game. When asked about this they pointed out that they had asked their daughter not to schedule the wedding at a time which conflicted with the match, and that they had managed to make the reception.[3]

The other danger with sport, as with all spheres of life, is immorality. Bad thinking and behaviour can be associated with sport both on and off the field. People can play in a violent and selfish manner. Sportsmen and women can find themselves embroiled in drink, drug and sex scandals. Examples sadly abound.

The key thing for us as believers is to stay close in our relationship with God. Jesus says: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5). We will think about this ‘remaining in Jesus in our next article’ when we consider God’s strength for sport.

In the meantime, whatever our involvement with sport, staying close to God and thinking Christianly about our involvement with the game will better equip us to identify the associated opportunities and dangers. When we do this well truly great things can result.

Stephen’s book on Christianity and sport—The Good Sporting Life—has just been published and is available to buy online at www.matthiasmedia.com.au. See TGCA review here.

[1] John W. Stott, New Issues Facing Christians Today (3rd ed.), London, Marshall Pickering, 1999, p. 193.

[2] Jeremy R Treat, ‘More than a Game: A theology of sport’, Themelios 40/3, 2015, pp. 392–403. I am also indebted to Treat for the concept of delighting in and developing creation.

[3] Shirl James Hoffman, Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports, Baylor University Press, Waco, 2010, p. 1.