The Idolatry Of Sports

This is not an anti-sports article, although some may perceive it to be, but is designed to expose the idolatry of sports. There are those who eat, sleep and breathe sports, and who see their own identity as coming from the game itself. This can be observed both from the standpoint of fans and certain players who bask in the glorification of the game. I see the game as offering a great insight into human behavior under the extreme pressures of winning and losing. To many it is not just a game but a total way of life. In comparison, the way of Jesus Christ is boring and without appeal to those who worship at the shrine of sports.

I write as an insider, one who has played at the highest levels of baseball for 21 years, and has a deep appreciation for the game. I continue to follow closely baseball, basketball and football and understand many of the finer points of these game in terms of technique, strategy, and competition. In writing this article, I am not expecting sports to conform to the standard of the teachings of Jesus Christ. I am quite sure that not one word about Jesus Christ is found in the rule books of the game. I always understood that playing baseball was not like attending a Bible class. I am especially writing to those who, like myself, might enjoy sports but who are also interested in following Jesus Christ. In fact, this is the main thrust of Pitching For The Master.

Baseball’s Greatest Day?

On Wednesday evening, September 28, 2011, after teaching a Bible class, I watched on T.V. what was perhaps the most amazing single day in Major League Baseball history. I watched all of this unfold before my very eyes. This day exhibited in bold letters all the drama of agonizing defeat and the joys of winning. The fate of several teams and individuals was determined suddenly in a few minutes and the raw drama was played out in different cities at the same time. Teams that were supposed to win, lost, and teams that were given almost no change of winning , won. It was the most amazing combination of improbabilities that I had ever seen and left a lot of people shocked and stunned. Unless you watched the Boston Red Sox play in Baltimore, or the New York Yankees play the Tampa Bay Rays, or the Philadelphia Phillies play the Atlanta Braves, you cannot even understand what I am writing about in this paragraph. The chief beneficiaries of this were the St. Louis Cardinals and the Tampa Bay Rays. I feel a bit sorry for the fans in Tampa who left the game after their team trailed the Yankees 7 to 0 in the eighth inning and failed to see their team win. The Red Sox and the Braves, teams who were expected to easily win their division going into September, totally fell apart. The bitter results of these collapses were not known until the very end of the final game of the regular season. In spite of their collapse, Boston came close to salvaging their season. They were leading by one run in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and two strikes on the batter with the bases empty. All they needed was one more out. It never happened. It is hard not to identify on some level with certain individual players who will receive extra blame or credit for all of this. Historically, certain players are known for what they did in certain critical moments in those “bigger than life” games. To explain the drama of all of this would take hours of commentary, and so I will not even attempt to do so.

As to those tragic players and managers who will be blamed for the failures of their teams, I must say to them that there is life beyond baseball. In the whole scheme of things, and in the light of what is truly important, this is not significant. And for those who are enjoying the great euphoria of the moment, this too is not significant in the overall scheme of things unless we foolishly make it so. This is why I am writing this article. All of the things that we experience in the game are momentary and do not last, no matter how great or awful. We need to get our heads on straight and understand what is really important in life.

Some Amazing Insights

I have a good Christian friend, Curt Hart, who is a student of the game of baseball and is a collector of baseball artifacts. He even teaches the history of baseball in a university. He is quite passionate about the importance of knowing the history of the game which is second only to understanding the history of America, which in his mind go hand in hand. We often discuss baseball from the standpoint of black history, Curt Flood and the reserve clause, whether or not Pete Rose should be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the steroid scandal, etc. He knows baseball minutia like no one else I know. We do have some very interesting conversations. But recently I asked him one simple question, since he has rubbed shoulders with many famous baseball players and has had lengthy interviews with top stars. He is also a professional photographer. Here was my question, “In all of your years of being involved in the game of baseball, have you ever known any player who was totally wrapped up in the game, that is, where it had become his whole life and identity, who at the same time was a faithful husband and dedicated Christian?” His answer was “no”. I followed up that question with this, “Do you know any one in the field of sports who plays on Sunday, who worships God on a regular basis during the season according to the teaching of the Bible?” Again, he said, “No.” I ask these questions because this man is a deacon of the church where he attends and is a faithful Christian. Now these answers are from his own experience, and there may be exceptions to this unknown to him. I personally played baseball on Sunday, so I am not objecting to playing baseball or working a secular job on Sunday. What I am opposing is being obsessed with the game to the degree that God becomes secondary.

Now I do not believe that it is wrong to be a fan and do acknowledge that there is recreational and entertainment value in sports. Also participation in amateur sports does promote physical fitness and build good character depending on proper coaching and leadership. Neither do I view it as wrong to participate in sports as an honest profession. However from the viewpoint of a Christian, under no circumstances should sports, any hobby or activity come before God or things of greater importance like family or country.

Defining Idolatry

We do not need to form a graven image and fall down before it in order to be guilty of idolatry. Idolatry has to do with how we esteem things or people in our hearts and the passions that flow from these perceptions. The apostle Paul explained the general concept of idolatry and the actions it prompts in Romans 1:18-32. There are countless examples that I could give of the idolatry of sports. Nor is sports the only form of idolatry in our country. We can just as easily idolize rock or movie stars, politicians, or other such people. People can act in some very weird or crazy ways, even rioting or engaging in extreme behavior just because they have allowed some idol to take over or control their lives. Even the love of the world (specifically involving the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life) is a form of idolatry (see 1 John 2:15-17). To put this in very practical terms, if you were given a choice between worshipping God in His appointed way or going to the World Series, which would you choose? Would you be willing to put the kingdom of God first in your life even if it causes you to give up something that you treasure? The rich young ruler was not willing to give up his riches even though from all accounts he was a very religious man (see Luke 18:18-24). He fell short of discipleship at a most critical level.

Some Personal Examples

Years ago I had a very sad experience. A mother came to me all excited and told me that her 26 year old son wanted to turn his life around and would definitely be at service on Sunday morning. She was expecting him to come forward and be baptized. I thought it strange that he did not want to be baptized immediately, since the only time we are guaranteed is now. All of the baptisms we read about in the New Testament involved urgency and there was no delay (see Acts 2:38; Acts 8:35-38; Acts 22:16, etc.). In the meantime, he was offered a ticket to go to the Kansas City Chiefs football game. He chose to go to the game rather than come to the service. The following Monday he suddenly died of a heart attack. His mother was heartbroken and blamed God. I preached the funeral, but the mother was wrong to blame God. Unfortunately the son chose his first love which was sports.

I have known of families who have allowed the love of recreation and family outings to take their hearts away from God. One family bought a boat, and when school was out in the summer time, they spent all of the weekends on the lake. They told me that they were having their own personal devotionals and that being outdoors brought them closer to God. In time, they quit assembling with God’s people altogether and lost faith in God. They were not paying attention to God’s plan for growth and development which is a whole other subject.

I have sadly experienced the loss of church members to football. We had a man, who attended along with his family, who was an outstanding high school football coach. But when football season approached, he and his family just disappeared. This was, as he explained to me, because football demanded his full-time, Sunday mornings, and all. Obviously, football came first in his life. It was costly to both him and his family. In Texas, football is indeed king. Since then I have had conversations with other coaches, and they expressed the same thoughts. But, as one successful coach explained, God is still number one in our lives because I have special devotionals with the coaches on Sunday and the players pray before all the games. How convenient! At least I’m glad that the ACLU hasn’t stopped this practice. This sounds a bit like Major League Baseball who has their own “Devotional Programs” on Sunday so that the spiritual needs of the players can be satisfied. I am grateful that baseball considers the spiritual life of the players to be important, but I am personally obligated to worship God according my own understanding and conscience and not through some program provided by baseball. Many in sports are attempting to provide for both the physical and spiritual needs of their coaches and players through devotionals and prayers, but is this a proper role of sports and can this be done without forced compliance or a violation of individual conscience? There are several “Quasi religious organizations” designed to do this very thing such as “The Fellowship Of Christian Athletes -- FCA.” Some churches are doing the same thing in the opposite direction by providing physical exercise, recreation and entertainment for their members. In such cases, churches understand their mission as providing social needs rather than spiritual – a strange confusion of values. They concede to the sports mania by attempting to use it to attract members. Have you heard of the gospel of “weight loss?” -- a truly transforming message!

Christians Should Work To Resolve Conflicts

A better approach seems to be working out special arrangements for those who feel a special need to worship God according to their own understanding and conscience. I am happy to work for a boss who has high ethical standards, but I am not looking to him to provide my spiritual needs. The work place is not my church family. Likewise, I do not look to sports to set the boundaries of my worship. If baseball had told me, “Lindy, we want to sign you to a professional contract, but we cannot allow you to worship on Sunday morning and come to the ballpark late.” Then my response would have been, “O.K., that is your right. I will seek another profession.” Under normal circumstances, secular bosses will accommodate your religious beliefs. They want workers who are trustworthy, dependable and honest, and a true Christian certainly fits that description. But they do not want you to play games with them just to get special privileges.

I know that some football players are religious for some have been open in expressing their personal faith in Christ, etc. But for the life of me, I cannot understand how one can play professional football on Sunday and still have time and opportunity to worship God. This appears to be a classic example of conflict of interest. Perhaps I am wrong, but I would like for someone to explain to me how that is compatible. As I see images of the stadiums filling up with people on Sunday, I wonder how many of those people worship God and have totally dedicated their lives to the service of Jesus Christ. I admit using a broad brush here, and so I must allow for special arrangements being made that would satisfy God and keep intact the concept of putting God first in everything. I am well aware of the whole concept of making special arrangements to accommodate faith (Read Daniel Chapter One). The bottom line is that our faith cannot be compromised in order to serve any god regardless of its nature.

Baseball was good to me in that it allowed me to worship God on the first day of every week. In fact, that was the only condition under which I would be willing to play. After I retired, I made no attempt to hang on as a coach or a manager. I knew that as a manager or coach, I would be expected to come to the ballpark early on Sunday and would not have the freedom to worship God according to the dictates of my own conscience and the word of God. I served under a Yankee pitching coach, and after four years with the club, I learned by accident that he was a Christian. After my discovering this, he was somewhat embarrassed because he never attended worship services of any kind during the season. He knew he would need to explain why he did not need to follow Hebrews 10:25 which teaches that Christians should not be guilty of forsaking the assembling together, etc. He explained to me, “My wife attends for me during the season.” Nevertheless, I understood his dilemma, for it is more difficult to be granted special treatment as a pitching coach than as a player whose services were more in demand. My impression was that he never made any attempt to resolve this problem.

We Are Blessed In America

Christians today are exceedingly blessed in our country to have the freedom of religion in the first amendment. Many of the early disciples of Jesus Christ had no such freedom and were subject to severe persecution. The early Christians refused to join many of the work guilds because these were associated with the worship of pagan gods. Thus, they chose poverty over idolatry. How many today would be willing to make that choice?

One way to determine what idols occupy your heart is to be honest in how you invest your time, money, sacrifice, passion, interests, etc. What are you really passionate about? What gives you inward joy? How do you use your spare time? There are indeed some spiritually indifferent things that can become an obsession and actually take the place of God. I could make a long list of such things that might involve family, marriage, children, nature, various hobbies and even love for country. This may sound strange to many of you who are totally involved in sports or in other matters and seldom think about the meaning of life and God. If so, I would pray that you might discover those things that are truly meaningful and worth selling all that you have in order to obtain. Jesus said, “Whosoever will lose his life will save it.”

As an athlete experiences the agony of defeat and the euphoria of winning, he should consider these facts: There is no agony that surpasses the agony Jesus went through on the cross and there is no joy that surpasses the joy of salvation made possible through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Everything else pales in comparison.

This article is unusually long and if you have read to this point, I am a bit surprised and pleased. If you have questions I would be happy to answer them. My purpose is always to exalt Jesus Christ. If you think that in some particular I have failed to do this, you would be my friend to point this out. This article comes from a lot of experience in living as a Christian in the real world of sports and having to weigh a lot of choices over the years. Although not without sin, I always strive to keep my eye on the goal of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

Below are a few Biblical passages for your consideration.

Exo. 20:3-4; 3 "You shall have no other gods before Me. 4 "You shall not
make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or
on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. 5 "You shall not
worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me. (This passage condemns all forms of pagan idolatry)

Psa. 73:25-26: 25 Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I
desire nothing on earth. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, But God is
the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (This passage is speaking of God as the greatest reality in our lives)

Eccles. 12:13-14: 13 The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.
14 For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. (Ecclessiastes has a very pessimistic outlook, but it is written from the viewpoint of life on earth apart from God. These last two verses state the true purpose of life which will bring happiness and true meaning).

Matt. 6:33: 33 "But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and
all these things will be added to you. (This passage teaches that the
kingdom and righteousness of Christ is to hold first place in our lives)

Matt. 16:24-26: 24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. 25 "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. 26 "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? (Does it really matter if we have championship rings but miss the main prize?)

Lindy McDaniel,
Pitching For The Master, October, 2011

The photo at the beginning of this article is of me pitching in Yankee Stadium in 1969

If you would like to have monthly articles of Pitching For The Master E-mailed to you, let me know by contacting me at: Your comments are always welcome.


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