Editors’ note: 

This article originally appeared in Southern Seminary’s Towers.

When I hear someone say “War Eagle!” or see someone sporting Auburn gear, I almost reflexively feel obligated to respond, “Roll Tide!” It seems like a duty, even a moral responsibility. To call football in the South a big deal is like saying the Grand Canyon is a big hole in the ground. Any time Alabama and Auburn meet on the field, everything in the state grinds to a halt. As football analyst Beano Cook once quipped, “Alabama-Auburn is not just a rivalry. It’s Gettysburg South.” The thought of a wedding or funeral in Alabama on the day of the Iron Bowl would be met with a “Bless their heart.”

Though I’m an unabashed sports fan, I don’t write this article as a fan but as a pastor and seminary professor. Any consideration of love for sports raises the question: Is this good or bad? My answer is an unequivocal yes.

It all depends on whether sports are summed up in Christ or abstracted from him.

Spoilable Gift

God didn’t create sports; people did. But people created sports in response to the world God created. Sports are capable of providing spectacular glimpses of truth, beauty, and goodness as athletes tune and discipline their bodies to perform amazing feats. Indeed, I consider sports to be a competitive manifestation of the performing arts.

But God’s gifts are always in danger of getting turned into idols. We can so fixate on something good that it subtly morphs into something ultimate. Any time we think we can’t be happy or satisfied without something, we’ve made it a counterfeit god, an object of worship, an idol.

Is your commitment to sports standing in for delight in God? To help you determine whether you’re corrupting this particular gift, I offer three questions as guidelines.

1. Do you enjoy sports as a good gift of God even when your team loses?

It’s not difficult to find, even among professing Christians, idolatrous excesses in devotion to sports either as a player or as a fan. In my home state, the Alabama-Auburn rivalry has been connected to incarceration, divorce, murder, violence, and, recently, the poisoning of majestic trees that were part of one of the grandest traditions in college football. For such people, allegiance to a favorite team is not an enjoyment of God’s good gift of athletics, or a mere cultural identity marker, but an obvious idol.

If you cannot delight in God for a hard-fought contest when your team loses, then you are perverting the gift of athletics and teaching those around you to do the same. Parents, if you cannot cheer like crazy for your favorite team—only to see them lose—and afterward laugh and play in the yard with your kids, you have an idolatry problem. I’ve known children who desperately wanted their dad’s favorite team to win, not because they cared all that much but because they knew he’d be sour the rest of the day if his team lost. Such behavior does not befit one whose identity is in Christ.

2. Do you sever your participation in sports or cheering for your favorite team from your Christian faith?

I once knew a godly man who had season tickets to the local college football team and invited me along one Saturday. During the game I was stunned to hear him blurt out profanities I’d never heard him utter. His demeanor was also rude and aggressive toward those around him. Yet when I saw him the next day at church, he was back to the faithful man I’d always known.

At the stadium, the outcome of the game was functionally his lord, which is a problem for someone who confesses Jesus as Lord.

If your behavior at a game would make it awkward for you to shift the conversation to your faith in Christ, you are making an idol out of sports. I’ve known Christians who prefer to watch games alone because they don’t want others to observe the way they act. Yet Abraham Kuyper’s famous dictum ought to shape our interest in sports too:

No single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: “Mine!”

3. Does your involvement in sports inspire faithfulness in your vocation and endeavors?

Paul seizes the metaphor of sports as a key image to explain Christian living, since athletic success demands purposeful self-sacrifice and self-discipline for a cause greater than oneself (1 Cor. 9:24–27; Phil. 3:13–14; Gal. 2:2; Eph. 6:12; 2 Tim. 2:4–7). A Christian approach to sports, then, involves being inspired to worship the Creator through witnessing (or exercising) the physical gifts and agonizing determination that are evident when image-bearers compete with excellence. And we should offer a similarly purposeful and sacrificial devotion in our own vocations and endeavors.

How many Christians rigorously critique the work ethic and dedication of their favorite team’s coach while complaining about their job and excusing their own lack of work ethic and dedication? Such is a sad commentary on their lack of commitment to the priority of Christ’s kingdom.

Where this is happening, the love of sports has become detached from the Christian life and transformed into a barrier—rather than a bridge—to worshiping Christ. Participants and fans watch and enjoy the beauty, effort, and focus the sporting contest brings out in its participants. And as a Christian you should be challenged to agonize in similar fashion for the glory of Christ in your vocation (Col. 3:17).

Christ-Centered Approach

Throughout church history Christians have struggled with their relationship to sports, which is appropriate since we’re called to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Unthinking rejection or unthinking enjoyment of sports are both failures of Christian discipleship.

The Christian with a rightly ordered, Christ-centered worldview is uniquely positioned to enjoy athletic competition as a good gift from God. Nevertheless, we must be aware of the danger of rendering sports an idol rather than a gift.