THE SPIRIT OF SPORTS
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Back in the days of depression the mighty Babe Ruth was asked to take a salary cut for the first time in his career. He didn't go for it, but insisted on his customary $80,000 contract. "But Babe," protested an official of the Yankee Ball Club, "These are trying times. That's more money than Hoover got last year for being president of the United States." "I know," persisted Babe, "But I had a better year than Hoover." And indeed he did, and many sportsmen have better years than the president. We have come to the age of the affluent athlete. The ancient Greeks and Romans loved sports, but they could never imagine an athlete who was wealthier than the Emperor.
The reason this is the case today is because people are wild about sports, and they are willing to pay to be involved. The American people spend more on sports each year than is spent for national defense. Anything this big is bound to come under criticism. Many feel that we are over doing it, and we are giving sports to big a role in our culture. Too much time and energy are being given to sports, and this keeps people from doing more important things.
Before we look at the positive side we must admit that sports can become an idol, and many outstanding Christian athletes have given testimony to this fact in their own experience. Millions are more enamored of the sermon on the mound than by the Sermon on the Mount. One of the great empires in the history of baseball was Bill Klem. He said, "Baseball is more to me than the greatest game in the world! It is a religion." He was not alone, for one writer said he was amazed that the sick were not being brought to home plate to be healed during the World Series.
Sports and religion have this in common-they both spawn fanatics. In 1969 the referee awarded a late penalty to El Salvador in their World Cup football match against their neighbor Honduras. El Salvador won the match. When news of the results spread riots broke out in both capitals as fans refought the match in the streets by beating up the opposition supporters. As a direct result war broke out between the two neighbors, and before it ended 2,000 soldiers were killed. Both nations suffered serious food shortages. This was a case of idolatry, for "idolatry is investing undue significance, even reverence and adoration, in temporal objects and pursuits." When a sport becomes a matter of life and death it is idolatry and not merely a game.
Sydney Harris says, Karl Marx made a mistake in his famous saying that, "Religion is the opium of the people," for the fact is, sports are the opium of the people. Sportianity has captured the hearts and zeal that Christianity once had. Sports draw the biggest crowds, and players are the best known, highest paid personalities in our culture. Sydney Harris wrote, "Sport is as necessary, as useful, as nourishing to humans as any other natural activity-but it is no longer a natural activity; in its cancerous form, it has displaced religion, dislodged citizenship and even further dislocated communication between the sexes."
People can become fanatics about sports. They are like the Yankee fan who complained, "What a day. I lost my job, my wife ran away with a salesman, and the Yankees lost to the Senators. Imagine that-leading by 3 in the 8th and they blew it." The negatives are real, and no doubt many a wife lives in frustration because her husband appears to have more interest in one kind of game or another than in her. On the other hand, there are those Christians who see sports as a golden opportunity. The Fellowship Of Christian Athletes is making a tremendous impact on the whole world of sports. Best selling books are available with their Christian testimonies by famous sportsmen. Several films have been produced sharing the fruits of being a Christian athlete.
One high school youth in North Carolina went to a conference where some of the great athletes were speaking, and when he came back he gave this testimony-"I went to this conference to see my gods in the athletic world. When I got there I heard my gods talking about their God, and before the week was over, their God became my God." Hero worship of sportsmen has been going on ever since Heracles started the Olympics in 776 B.C. Modern Christians have discovered that hero worship can lead to worship of the hero's Hero and Savior if the hero points the way. And the only way he can get to be a hero is to do his best until he is a great athlete and a winner. Men with this conviction loves sports, and they feel it worth all the time and energy they give to it.
Sports have even been used for missions, and Ken Anderson, founder of Ken Anderson Films traveled with the Venture For Victory basketball team all through Asia drawing great crowds. At every half time they gave their testimony and saw numerous decisions. Rev. A. D. Obot, head of the youth movement in Nigeria said, "In my country we find preaching and athletics, when combined, provide a wonderful way to turn people to Christ."
Because sports are a major part of life for many people, Christians have sought for ways to have an impact in this world of sports. Campus crusade has its Athletes In Action. Baseball Chapel Inc. sponsors Sunday services for major league teams. The Institute for Athletic Perfection seeks to get athlete's into a stable local church setting with their family. Pro-Athlete's Outreach seeks to use the pro's to influence young people. These are just a few of the outstanding ministries through sports. There are numerous men and women in the sports world who are dedicated Christians, and who use their time, money, and talent to teach the Word of God, and spread the good news. But what does the Bible have to say about sports?
In the Old Testament there is almost nothing said about athletic events and skills. It was an honor for a Jew to be a swift runner, and to be skillful with the bow, spear, and sling, but not for athletics, but for war. The Jews always preferred the arts and the wisdom of the mind rather than the feats performed by the body. The Jews were disgusted with the Greek Greeks and their gymnasiums, and all their emphasis on the body. The Saducees like the gymnasium, but the Pharisees did not. Jews were divided concerning the value of sports, and the result was Jews did not begin to excel in sports until the late 18th century.
It all began with the great Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza who was called the father of the art of boxing. He opened up a school to teach Jewish youth how to box. In the 1920's the all Jewish soccer team were unchallenged world champions. Then in the 70's the most famous sportsman in the world was the Jew Mark Spitz with 7 gold medals from the Olympics in Munich. Jews have worked hard to overcome the image that they are too intellectual. The fact remains, however, that there is little in the Old Testament that refers to sports.
When we come to the New Testament it is a different story. Much of the New Testament was written to Greek Christians who had grown up in the Greek culture where sports and the gym had been a part of their way of life. Paul was a Roman citizen, and he must have enjoyed the athletic games of his day, for he uses them often to illustrate the Christian life. He refers to racing, boxing, and wrestling, and applies them to the Christian experience. Paul's favorite sport was obviously racing, for he uses this to illustrate most often. Racing was the most common of the ancient events, and would capture the attention of the most people.
Paul's own personal testimony was put into athletic terms in Phil 3:13-14. "...forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." The Christian life is a race, and like a disappointed coach he wrote to the Galatians and asked in Gal. 5:7, "You were running well, who hindered you from obeying the truth?" Paul knew a winning athlete had to obey rules or he would run in vain. He wrote to his young son in the faith, and said in II Tim. 2:5, "An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules."
If you break a rule in the Olympics you can lose your gold medal, or miss your chance to get one. Babe Ruth made some of the most spectacular plays in baseball. One of them goes down in history as a first, and probably the last. The bases were loaded and Babe came to bat. He hit a high drive into deep right field. The Dodgers on first and second hesitated to see if it would be caught. Meanwhile Babe came charging right past the man on first with his head down. His illegal passing electrified his friend on first, and paralyzed the one on second. All three players reached third base at the same time. Two of them, of course, were put out to retire the side. No matter how good you are, you have to play by the rules or lose.
Paul was a spiritual coach who wanted his team to stop being sinners, and start being winners. He knew they had to give to the Christian life all an athlete gives to be a winner. Listen to his pep talk to his team in Corinth. In I Cor. 9:24-27 we read, "Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, 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. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pummel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified." Paul was a great spiritual sportsman, and when his life draws toward the end he makes this judgment on his own efforts in II Tim. 4:7. "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."
The fact that Paul could use sports to illustrate the Christian life means that the spirit of sports is a positive spirit. The virtues of the athlete are of value for all of life, and that includes the spiritual life. If we could develop the spirit of the good sportsman, we would be better Christians. Our purpose, therefore, will be to look at the spirit of sports, and show how it applies to the Christian experience. Heb. 12:1-2 is one of the great sports text of the Bible. The reference here is to the great Olympic games so familiar to the ancient world. They were held every 5 years, and the ambition of every youth was to get a chance to compete in the Olympic.
The author of Hebrews is telling us that every Christian is in the greatest Olympic contest of all. The greatest event of life is the Christian race. The audience is spectacular beyond anything that can be imagined. In the Olympic stadium the veterans of by gone days were given a place of honor from which to view the achievements of the younger generation. This stimulated the runners to do their best. The author of Hebrews says that we also have a great cloud of witnesses watching as we run the Christian race. They are not mere spectators, but are those men and women of faith who have gone before, and have set great records for God. They behold us and cheer us on as we run the race of faith. Whether you like sports or not, as a Christian you are obligated to learn and apply the spirit of sports in your Christian life. At the very foundation we see-
I. THE SPIRIT OF COOPERATION.
The spirit of cooperation is even more fundamental than the spirit of competition. In sports even your opponent must agree to cooperate and play by the same rules, or the game can have no meaning. The competitive spirit says, I want to win, but the spirit of cooperation teaches us to discipline our lives so we win according to the rules which all must obey. A poor sport is one who cannot tolerate the discipline of the rules. The good sport is one who must learn to accept defeat or penalty when he violates the rules. When all submit to the authority of the rules, then all is fair, and the spirit of cooperation can lead to exciting competition.
People in sports are still sinners, and they are narrow and have prejudice. They have their convictions on politics and religion, and are just like people everywhere. But if they are good sportsmen, and show the true spirit of sports, they suppress their differences for the sake of the common cause, and strive for teamwork. No team ever gets good which lacks teamwork or the spirit of cooperation. In sports the Christian cooperates with the non-Christian, for they have a common cause. Can you imagine one of the Dallas Cowboys who is a Christian deliberately throwing a bad pass to his teammate who is not a Christian? Can you imagine a coach telling some of his Christian linemen to let some opponents be free to sack the quarterback because he is not a Christian?
A house divided cannot stand Jesus said. The reality is that a Christian will stop another Christian on the other team from getting to his quarterback who may be an atheist. Unity and the spirit of cooperation is at the very heart of sports, and if Christians are going to do an effective job for Christ, this spirit must be at the heart of their labors.
Unfortunately, many Christians have not learned from sports the power of cooperation. Christians often magnify their differences rather than their common cause. The result is that the church is often as ineffective as a relay team that is divided as to which hand they should use in the transfer of the baton. Tom Landry was a great Christian and a great sportsman, and he said that just being a Christian does not help you win. He said you have got to play according to the rules, and you have got to work and discipline yourself. Atheistic athletes can win just the same as Christian athletes. God doesn't take sides in sports. He is the author of the laws that govern sports, however, and if a atheist team learns to develop the spirit of cooperation better than the Christian team, than the atheist team is more likely to win. God is no respecter of persons, and that is why the church sometimes loses to the world. We could never be winners and gain the prize of God's best if we fail to develop the spirit of cooperation. Next we consider-
II. THE SPIRIT OF CONFIDENCE.
The spirit of cooperation has to do with your relationship to others, but the spirit of confidence has to do with how you feel inside about yourself. Sportsman are often accused of being proud, and this can be a vice, but on the other hand, you cannot become a winner if you lack the confidence that you can win. Sports develops in a person the values of the power of positive thinking. The mind plays a major role in sports. It is far from being a thing of the body only. How you think is vital to victory. Everything the New Testament says about sports is positive. The values of discipline and persistence are stressed, and we are encouraged to press on with confidence that we can win.
Paul did not say, I have fought a poor fight, and have failed to finish the race. Instead, he spoke with confidence that he had done well, and was pressing on to do even better. That is the spirit we need to be good sportsmen and good Christians. You cannot be either without it. I've read the testimony of many Christian athletes, and everyone of them is a person with confidence that they can win. If a Christian lacks confidence, he will be a loser before he even begins.
Bill Krisher played with the Pittsburgh Steelers. One day his opponent across the line said, "I've heard you're a Sunday School guy," he snarled, cursed, and then added, "I'm going to hit you so hard you'll lose your religion." Bill smiled back and said nothing. The ball was snapped and the guard picked himself up off the grass. After the game he came to Bill and said, "Lemme shake your hand Krisher. Your religion is as tough as your body block." Had Krisher lacked confidence as an lineman, or as a Christian, he could have lost out all around in that conflict, but he had the confidence to stand fast and win.
When a Christian is attacked, mocked, and offended, and he begins to go to pieces, it is due to a lack of confidence. Many a new Christian says they cannot live up to the Christian life. The pressures are too great, and they feel they cannot learn all they need to know. People razz them and they feel they just can't take it. That is the thought process that produces a loss. No great sportsman can go into an event saying, "I'll never make it. I'm not good enough. I'll never hold up. I can't take the pressure." Undermine the spirit of confidence, and you are almost a sure loser. But if you develop this spirit you will be a winner, for even if you lose a game, you know you can do better the next time, and you will keep pressing on to get better.
The author of Hebrews says we must lay aside every weight and sin which clings to us to win the race . We let so many things rob us of victory in the Christian life. We think wrong and have the wrong attitudes, and these hold us back. Glenn Clark, who was a coach, wrote the book, Power of the Spirit on the Athletic Field. He tells of Bob in the book, who was only a mediocre runner. They were holding him back he thought. He even prayed hard to win, but he never did. One day Dr. Clark, who saw his potential told him to change his attitude toward the other runners. Pat them on the back and wish them luck sincerely. Do not fear them, but enjoy their competition for the sheer joy of running. The next day on the 220 Bob came around the bend 20 yards ahead of his nearest competitor, and he broke all local records. He was holding himself back with the weight of wrong and negative attitudes toward his fellow runners.
Many Christians never gain victory in the Christian life because they wear the weight of wrong attitudes toward fellow believers. You cannot wear combat boots and expect to win the speed race. God will not reward folly, and answer the prayer for victory when you do the very thing that makes victory so unlikely. We must take off the weights and develop the spirit of cooperation and confidence is we hope to be winners. The third spirit we want to consider is-
III. THE SPIRIT OF CONSTANCY
Other words to describe this are grit, pluck, tenacity, persistence, and perseverance. It is the pressing on spirit of Paul. It is the never say die spirit. Sports writers have a saying that expresses it, "Quitters never win, and winners never quit." Mark Twain once interviewed a man over 100 years old, and he asked him how he accounted for his longevity. He gave the reply that he avoided the bad habits of life and cultivated the good ones. But Twain protested that he knew a man who followed the same pattern and he only lived to 80, and he asked him how he accounted for that. The old man just replied, "He didn't keep it up long enough."
Many a runner starts off well and takes the lead, but they never take the prize because they do not keep it up long enough. Our text tells us to run the race with patience. Pace yourself and learn how to run so as to always have the stamina to keep going no matter how many obstacles you encounter. It is not enough just to do your best, for you must keep going and get even better than your present best. Nobody is ever satisfied with a world record in sports. Nobody ever says that is good enough, and so lets stop trying for anything better. No, they say we must train and get so good we can break that record.
Paul says we are to forget what lies behind and press on to what is a better goal ahead. Forget the record of yesterday and aim for a better record tomorrow. You lived a great Christian life last year, but do not rest on that record. You need to press on and do even better this year. Rafer Johnson was one of the great Olympic record holders, and he said, "It is sometimes said that winning is not important, that the important thing is competing. But when we go to the hospital for an operation we expect more from the surgeon than a good try. We expect him to win." Johnson loved Jesus and knew that Jesus did not want him to be second rate in anything he did. Jesus will not come in second in the competition with Satan, and He does not want us to be anything less than winners. Johnson says, "Championships will soon be forgotten. Trophies grow tarnished and old. But the Christian team will go on to greater and greater victories in Christ."
He learned the truth that Paul wrote of in I Tim. 4:8, "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." We cannot all become great athletes of the body, but we can become sports persons, and run the Christian race with the spirit of cooperation, confidence, and constancy, that will win the prize.