Early one morning after a win last season, I sat in my chair during my quiet time with God feeling empty and despondent.
It was odd to be feeling this way because the team was rolling, I was getting good on-the-field experience, and the likelihood of a playoff run was climbing. After some prayer, it became clear that I was unhappy with my individual performance.
My role in the previous game had been mostly the blocking that goes unnoticed and scores you few high-fives from teammates on the sidelines. If only I had scored last night—or at least made a big catch—then I’d be happy, I thought to myself.
In my heart, I had dethroned God and put career success in his place. Achievement on the football field had become my functional idol. I couldn’t point to the moment or day that this became true, but my frustrated mood was clear evidence that God needed to do some heavy lifting in my heart to reorient its affections to orbit around Christ again.
Flame of Worship
The pull of idolatry on our hearts is stronger than we’d like to think. The world stokes the flame of worship for all gods except the one true God.
In my younger days, a teammate shared that the name brand Adidas stood for All Day I Dream About Sports. That turned out to be false—Adidas is named for founder Adi Dassler—but I’m convinced the Adidas acronym actually diagnoses the natural bent of every passionate athlete who loves the game he or she plays. This is a tragedy!
In his book Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller defines idolatry: “What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”
The marketing campaigns in the sports-entertainment industry call me to give more of my heart’s affection and mind’s imagination to sports, sports, and more sports. Whether it’s the 24/7 Watch ESPN app or the Direct TV NFL Sunday Ticket package, I notice a war for my attention and affections. This world disciples—even indoctrinates me—to give my best attention to, place my highest hope in, and lavish my greatest affection on my sport.
Ethic and Excellence
That said, any serious athlete knows that excellence doesn’t come without relentless attention and dedication. Just one look at Kobe Bryant’s journey to historic greatness reveals that a dizzying work ethic likely has as much to do with high achievement as talent.
But often, if we’re honest, an exemplary work ethic can come at the expense of excellent love for Christ. In the pursuit of greatness, our hearts can salivate over the prospect of glory-collecting rather than glory-reflecting. And the alluring possibility of greatness, popularity, riches, or comfort make for fast-and-ready idols waiting to bait our hearts away from the Lord.
Achievement on the football field had become my functional idol.
Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that we ought not go to great lengths to become excellent at our craft. I’m saying that the journey to excellence is rigged with self-constructed booby traps that—when missed, tolerated, or ignored—lead to self-destruction.
This self-destruction upends families, strains friendships, and encourages sinful compromise. These sad outcomes aren’t glamorized on social media, so they rarely serve as effective warnings. Instead, self-destruction begins with but a subtle yet deceptive reorientation of the heart away from God’s glory and goodness.
So, Christian, we must strive to keep the main thing the main thing: Love God above all else. Jesus is clear when he defines the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).
It’s tempting to say this command is easier said than done, but when one pauses to consider the beauty of God’s love shown for us in Christ, it’s easier done than said! How could we not give all our love to a God who rightfully could have condemned us, but instead died in our place to give us eternal life with him? To exchange living in his truth for fame or follows reveals how deep our sin runs and how prone we are to wander.
To exchange living in his truth for fame or follows reveals how deep our sin runs and how prone we are to wander.
So what do you do if you find yourself like I did that fall morning, frustrated and wandering? The answer is simple: turn to the beauties of Christ to be drawn back to him. Or as Thomas Chalmers argued almost 200 years ago, the antidote to spiritual sin is spiritual passion.
In his famous sermon “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” Chalmers contended that the only way to break the hold of a beautiful object on the soul is to show it an object more beautiful—and the most beautiful thing is the good news of salvation in Christ.
So when you find success in your sport—or even the idea of success in your sport—shining as the object most worthy of your love and affection, reintroduce your heart to the gospel truth of Christ in fresh ways such as fasting from social media, praying through a psalm, and cultivating spiritual disciplines. In time, you will watch your idols shrink away.
Center of the Solar System
Consider comparing your life to our solar system. The order and harmony of everything in it depends on the reliability of the object at its center. In the same way that all the planets would go completely haywire were the sun to be replaced by a star half its size, our lives go haywire when Christ isn’t at the center. The “planets” that fill our lives—finances, relationships, energy, interests—all are in their proper place when orbiting Christ. What or whom is at the center of your life’s solar system?
I’ve found that when my biggest dreams, sincerest intentions, and highest affections are orbiting around Jesus, I’m most filled with joy and most effective as a tool for his kingdom. Oh, how worthy the cost of giving up my idols if my heart is to be absorbed with the goodness of God, singing with the psalmist, “Taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Ps. 34:8)
Then it doesn’t matter whether I’m being thrown touchdown passes on the field or not; my satisfaction in him is guaranteed.