Saturday, 22 March 2008

A theology of endurance sports

The Bible tells us that we can and should aim for God's glory even in such mundane things as eating and drinking (1 Corinthians 10:31). It also tells us to "redeem the time" (Ephesians 5:16). What does the Bible have to say to help us think God's thoughts about endurance sports - those crazy pursuits that can involve months of training just for a single event?

Here is a totally unsystematic list of thoughts:
  • Such things are uniquely human. Birds might migrate thousands of miles, but they don't do it for sport. It's one of the evidences of our being made in God's image. We're not super-evolved plankton, but have many abilities that far, far outstrip what we would possess if we had evolved by natural selection purely for survival.

  • As such, we can glorify God by doing such things. Such things are a testimony to our creation. As we develop and use some of our latent abilities, we testify to the specialness of man, and glorify God by developing the potential that he gave us.

  • Endurance sports are very useful for developing self-discipline and skills of perseverance and determination. A hard goal is set, a long way off - and bit by bit, worked towards and eventually (hopefully) attained. Sounds a bit like life in miniature!

  • Surely such a thing needs far less justification than many other human activities. Is going for an hour long training run really time less well spent than 60 minutes watching the television, playing a computer game or reading a novel? Note: I didn't say those activities couldn't be justified! I just said that if we're going to start justifying our activities (which we should do), we should justify them all!

  • Even totally unconverted people recognise the pursuit of athletic excellence as being a worthwhile pursuit, worth admiring and rewarding.

  • In my personal experience, at the times I have been fittest because of time spent training, I'm able to do more with the rest of my time; I need less sleep and am less lethargic. Surely God didn't make us to be couch potatoes. (On the other hand, after a hard session I could be tired and find being patient much harder!).

  • There is a lawful place in our lives for every non-sinful activity and experience that exists (Ecclesiastes 3:1ff).

  • I think some godly evangelicals feel guilty if they're not using all their free time in Bible reading, prayer or evangelism. I'm all in favour of more of all of those, and am sure that many ought to feel guilty about the lack of them! But:

  • God gave man a dominion mandate (Genesis 1:28), to subdue and fill the earth. This wasn't revoked at the fall; it just became impossible to fulfill properly without God's work of redemption. It is not just right, but commanded that man should develop all the gifts and potential that God has placed in human life.

  • That is, endurance sports are a gift from God, to be received from his hand with thanksgiving. Forbidding such things is explicitly condemned by God as a false astheticism (1 Timothy 4:1ff)

  • First things must come first. Sports are good, but other things are better. The Bible approves of sports, but never of sin. We must use our gifts where possible, but if God's word places a bar on us in a particular situation, to say "I'm using my gift to God's glory!" is actually rather to use God's gifts against him rather than for him.

  • Unless a change in uniform were allowed, no Christian could be a women's beach volleyball player, without flouting the Bible's instructions about modesty if we measure by God's standards. It's possible to make lots of creative excuses, but we ought to love and value the gathering of God's people more than anything in the world and that's all there is to it. "Them that honour me I will honour, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed." - 1 Samuel 2:30.

  • Similarly, on God's day when God's people are gathering, a Christian can never have anything that is more important than being there, or any valid reason not to be there if at all possible. Even if an Olympic Gold medal is at stake, if we measure by God's standard then the gathering of his people is still better. We need to be taught his word, to praise him, to encourage and set a good example to his people, whereas winning gold medals is entirely optional, and the fact that you can only do it once every four years makes not a jot of difference to the relative value of the two. The Bible tells us to "keep the Sabbath day holy" (Exodus 20:8), but even if it didn't then the sheer greatness of the worship of God and Christ's love to us ought to tell us what to do on a Sunday. When triple-jumper Jonathan Edwards had a dream in which someone told him it was OK to compete on Sunday, it was the night-time result of the desires he'd been indulging during the day rather than a result of God changing his mind and deciding that jumping into a sand-pit really was more valuable than the gathering of his people after all.

  • Involvement in endurance sports can become obsessive. When training, the whole life can be geared towards it - bed time, rising time, diet, social activities, etcetera. It can become an idol. Remember: it really is just a game. When there's a conflict, your walk with the Lord, your church, your family and your vocation (assuming you're not a professional athlete!) must all before it.

  • Endurance sports often remind us that it's a fallen world. After months of training, you get injured in the final week, or on the start line. Dreams are shattered. Sometimes life sucks - because we're not in heaven yet, and God had wise reasons for letting us be reminded of it.

  • The Christian life is like an endurance race. Many start, but not all finish. It's one thing to start well, but to get the prize you have to finish well. It's possible to come a long way, and receive absolutely zip for it. You must pace yourself and make it to the end (1 Corinthians 9:24, Hebrews 12:1).

  • The sustained effort which endurance sports require can be a rebuke to us in our spiritual walk. Men go to such impressive lengths of self-denial and exertion in order to get... what? A "corruptible crown" - a medal that will not last forever, and some happy memories. What lengths do we go to in our Christian lives to make progress and extend the kingdom?

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