But this can be difficult to do in the kinds of play that look like battle. It is difficult to do in the kinds of play that involve competition at any level. But this is not because “battle play” and competition are inherently bad. They can actually echo God’s story, if we think of them the right way and keep his purposes at the forefront.
Competition in play, for instance, can serve lots of helpful ends. It drives people to work hard to refine the gifts and talents God has given them. It can remind us how fearfully and wonderfully made we are. Reflecting on athletic achievement and competition, Matt Reagan writes:
God could have created us to be just a pair of eyes, beholding his glory and being perfectly content—but he didn’t. He gave us bodies.
The body is a staggering gift, and it enables us to be creators, achievers and accomplishers of remarkable things. In Genesis 1:27–28, God gives humanity the mandate to exercise dominion over the creation, to multiply, and to cultivate the land and its resources. The value of reflecting his beauty through our God-imaging abilities to accomplish is further demonstrated in his call to build the tabernacle with precise and ornate detail, in his later call to build the temple, and in his call to Nehemiah to build the wall, among others. God created us to be creators, and thus reflect him. Building, creating, achieving and accomplishing are good. . . .
Our enjoyment of God in the midst of athletic achievement is a critical component of his glorification.
So if we run fast and enjoy it, which we should, we should enjoy it the way the first frog did. According to Chesterton, the riddle goes like this: “What did the first frog say?” “Lord, how you made me jump!” Jumping and running are enjoyable because they give us the capacity to participate in the beauty and power of God, and they are always gifts from him. As Eric Liddell memorably said in Chariots of Fire, “God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” Perhaps this would be the only legitimate reason for it to be more enjoyable for me to make a jump shot, or run fast, than to watch my friend or teammate do it—just as the Apostle Paul gloried more, it seems, in his experiential participation in the lives of new believers in the early churches than in just hearing about it.
Games of battle play like football and basketball and wrestling, and I would even argue like boxing or mixed martial arts, can glorify God if the hearts of the competitors are in the right place. Battle play, whether its kids playing war in the neighborhood woods or two pugilists sizing each other up in a title bout, can remind us of lots of noble things: human strength and ability, the war between good and evil, self-discipline and training, and even platform-building for the gospel. (Athletes like A. C. Green, Kurt Warner, and Tim Tebow are good examples of that.)
When used in their proper proportion, sports played hard are a very noble thing. Ray Ortlund writes:
There is only one way to play football—110% effort every play, all the way to the end of the fourth quarter. You lay it all down on that field. Then you crawl off the field after the final gun with nothing left to give. Football must be played with wholehearted abandon. It’s the nature of the game. It prepares us for life.
If I could change the Bible, all I would do is add “play high school football” to the qualifications for elders. Men who have experienced such intense effort, hurling themselves into every play, especially as a team sport—such men understand what ministry demands and how good it feels to give their all for a cause greater than self.
Of course, there are other ways God provides for men to punch through to the experience of total abandon. Football is not the only way. But every man needs some kind of experience like this, to become the warrior God wants him to be.
There is only one way to serve Christ—all-out passion. Passive men don’t understand, men who are afraid they might get knocked down or hurt. Christianity must be lived with wholehearted abandon. It’s the nature of the faith. It prepares us for eternity.
Men with a whole heart — joy awaits them!
Of course, there are cautions to remember in competitive play, especially in battle play competitions like football or boxing. In relation to the former, Owen Strachan urges sober-mindedness:
Football . . . is physically brutal, and therefore raises concerns for Christians, who of all people have the most stake in human flourishing based on the imago dei, the likeness of man to God (Gen. 1:26–27). The game asks a great deal of those who play it, not just in the pros. In terms of concussions alone, taking a shot to the head can leave athletes dazed for days, even weeks. Concussions are the scariest part of the game, and researchers freely confess that they have much to learn about them. It is quite clear that concussions are under-reported and under-diagnosed in youth sports, and despite the millions of small children in football leagues across the country, there are almost no studies of the effects of youth football on the human brain. . . . Football, more than any other mainstream American sport, depends on violence—the cultivation of violent instincts, the use of violence in the moment, and the game yields positive reinforcement after successful acts of violence. Some training in violence is necessary—soldiers defending their country, for example. But the culture of football should concern Christians. The number of football-related arrests, assaults on women and tiny children, murders, drug charges, and more should not glance off the evangelical conscience. The physical brutality of the game likely factors in here. Many of the athletes who have gone off the rails and killed themselves and others suffered from CTE. This is not conjecture. It is fact. We kid ourselves if we don’t acknowledge the deleterious effect of continuously traumatic contact.
The cautions should be well taken. But should they cause us to reject the thing entirely? Some may argue yes. Some in fact do argue yes as it pertains to competitions like mixed martial arts, and the like. And of course, Christians are free to differ on the moral questions about these certain sports. As Strachan goes on to say, “Football is not impervious to the effects of the curse of Genesis 3. This game is subject to fallenness as all of life is.”
So like any good gift God gives, recreation can be misused. Play goes awry when it becomes totally flesh-driven, appetite-driven, and used for our own personal glory and self-satisfaction.
In 2014, the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl. In his postgame celebratory remarks, Seahawk defensive back Richard Sherman, largely considered the best cornerback in the NFL, went on a bit of a rant, saying in part:
I’m the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re going to get. Don’t you ever talk about me. . . . Don’t you open your mouth about the best, or I’ll shut it for you real quick.
Crabtree was referring to San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree, whom Sherman guarded most of the game. Later, Sherman called his losing opponent a “mediocre receiver.”
When I was a kid, we would call such outbursts “poor sportsmanship.” But I was astounded to see many Christians defending Sherman’s remarks, referring to the heat of the celebration, the adrenaline, and so on. Some even argued that the position of cornerback requires such an attitude. But what people interested in the dignity and nobility of sports, what people interested in grace, can easily see is that Sherman, in this instance, was engaging in an honest moment of self-exaltation. His rant was a great example of how not to win.
See, when we use sports poorly, for our own glory and our own sake, we not only lose sorely but win poorly. And athletes, whether they’re Christians or not, reflect more the heart of God when they accept responsibility when losing and deflect credit when winning, when they seek the good of their team and the dignity of their opponents, when they do things like give up achievable salaries in order to provide financial advantage for their team in employing more highly skilled players who can benefit the organization. But when an athlete plays only for himself, he loses even if he wins. Many athletes love Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” but would that they’d also take Philippians 2:3 to heart: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”
Pride affects all of us, and it affects all the ways we play. This is why a lot of us competitive folks need to see the great value in lightening up.
When sports go awry, when pride rears its ugly head in our heated moments, as in the stress of competition, the problem is not with the sport. It is with the sportsman.
Paul occasionally used athletic illustrations. A sampling:
An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. (2 Tim. 2:5)
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:24–27)
For while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. (1 Tim. 4:8)
Of course, Paul is not directly promoting running and boxing and working out. But by using these things as illustrative examples in promoting spiritual endeavors, he must not find them objectionable in and of themselves. He is drawing out what is good in athletics to point us to the ultimate good of pursuing God’s glory. I think most would agree that self-discipline is a good thing and can honor God very much. This is what Paul seems to be aiming at mostly in his references to running, boxing, and training.
Paul probably knows that sports, games, and competition resonate with us because they tap into a profound sense of accomplishment, of reward, and of victory that is found both in God’s law and in God’s gospel. Just the discipline, the training, and even the pain endured in sports, for instance, can be surprisingly pleasurable. Ray Ortlund writes elsewhere:
It is possible for two psychologies to coexist in our hearts at once—pain and praise. It’s like a football player who plays hurt. He feels bad. But he also feels good. Both at the same time. It is so meaningful to be on the team and not in the stands, on the field and not on the bench. A man doesn’t mind the two-a-day practices and the wind sprints and the drills and the work and the sweat. He’s glad to be playing the game, and not an easy game. That is the very thing that satisfies a man’s heart.
Ray is using the pain-enduring football player as an analogy for Christians turning their suffering into praise. But the illustration works for the example of sports and play in general themselves. We were made to work and to rest and to worship, and somehow, in the good gift of however it is you enjoy playing, when thanks is given in it to God, all three of these can exist at once. And the result is deeply satisfying to the God-tuned heart.
— Adapted from Jared C. Wilson, The Story of Everything: How You, Your Pets, and The Swiss Alps Fit Into God’s Plan for the World