The problem is profound. Coaches, parents, and their children are at risk of falling into a trap. That’s because as much as we enjoy our sports, we are always in danger of idolizing them. Instead of celebrating and cultivating character on and off the field, we can become more concerned with our child’s performance and the final score of a game. The trap is one of pride and a missed opportunity.
I confess as a parent and recreational soccer coach it is all too easy for me to lose sight of what is important. This season should represent more than the potential of a winning one. There’s much more at stake than athletic skill and victories. When we practice and play sports with our children we have an opportunity to train them for life. That’s why I am grateful for this little booklet by C.J. Mahaney, Don’t Waste Your Sports.1
[W]e think we have fulfilled our duty by simply attending our children’s games and cheering. Not so! We are called to so much more. Informed by the gospel, we are called to lead our children wisely.
Those who lead their children wisely see something greater in their responsibility as coaches and parents. What we are all doing is much more than practicing and playing sports. We are training little human hearts.
No question about it, evangelism and edification are both lacking in the sports arena. As a believer in Christ, I see families that are hurting, broken, and in need of His heart-healing gospel. But I also see those who identify with Him that seek to be built up. They require instruction, in love, of how to show the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) on and off the field.
A Christian athlete is a grateful one. A person who is learning to be a humble player; one who acknowledges the contributions of others and welcomes correction. The coaches and officials will be honored by this individual. And he or she desires to serve for the good of the team and the glory of God.
In his booklet, Mahaney takes this one gigantic step further for the sports-minded Christian—writing on worship:
Here’s the difference knowing God makes: when I encounter the eternal, almighty, infinite, and merciful God, something changes in my heart. My attention turns away from myself and toward this glorious God. I walk onto the field much less likely to brag, jockey for attention, or try to win others’ admiration.
Every play, every inning, every race becomes an opportunity to draw attention to God. That’s what we call worship. And this is why worshiping God isn’t just something we do in church. It’s something we do in all of life, including our sports.
So 1 Corinthians 10:31 [Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.] tells us something very important about our sports. Here’s what this verse says to us:
To bring glory to God as athletes, we play sports in a way that draws attention to God’s greatness instead of our own.
This involves much more than kneeling in the end zone or pointing to the sky. You see, too often Christian athletes participate in sports without understanding the potential sports have for God’s glory. We let culture, rather than Scripture, define our priorities and passions. We’re all vulnerable to this. Here are some sure signs of misdirected priorities:
We have no higher purpose than winning.
We are more concerned about improving athletic skill than growing in godliness.
We use sports to glorify ourselves, rather than glorifying God through godly actions.
Sadly, it is possible to devote massive amounts of time to sports while failing to grow in humility, perseverance, self-control, diligence, and other qualities appropriate to a follower of Christ. But if you search Scripture for what it says is truly important, you won’t find athletic gifting, personal stats, championship trophies, or even a win-loss column. Scripture’s emphasis is clearly on the glory of God, as revealed in the gospel, and on our imitation of his character. And as Christians, we must adopt Scripture’s priorities.
This is not to say that athletic skill doesn’t matter. It is important. But it’s not most important. Athletic ability and achievements must be secondary; playing sports to the glory of God must be primary. And that means every time we step onto the field, our priority will be to worship God, apply the gospel to our hearts, and become more like Christ.
For me, soccer season is here. We had our first practice on Tuesday, and another one is scheduled for tonight. I’ve decided to re-read this booklet to reset my heart. To keep me from turning sports into something emotionally ugly and overly competitive.
What will keep you from doing the same?
(You can pick up a $5 copy for yourself here.)