The Bowl Championship Series of college football wrapped up a few weeks ago. In almost two weeks millions of people around the world will watch the Super Bowl and be absolutely fanatical about it to the point of worship. With all of this activity looming I have been really considering the priority of athletic events in my life and in the life of a Christian.
I began a series this past week on the book of Judges. In this book, there is a theme of gross idolatry found inside the covenant community. In other words, Christians, the people of God have a heritage of turning from the One True God and following after other lesser, manufactured gods. There isn’t much difference in our culture today when you think about it.
Derek Webb describes this played out in his life by saying, “I all too often am convinced or wooed by, what some theologians have called Lovers Less Wild than Jesus-the great lover of our souls. Other lovers, as scripture calls them as well. That would seek to convince that they can satisfy us; That we’ll be safe and secure. That they can satisfy us in ways that in fact only our Savior can.”
A lover-less-wild would be anything or anyone that we give the opportunity to satisfy us instead of Christ satisfying us. We may call it what we want; being wooed by lovers-less-wild, or pursuing our heart’s desires or being a fanatical sports fan, but when we are honest this activity can be just outright idolatry.
John Calvin has penned, “From this we may gather that man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols…Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God.” (John Calvin, Institutes, 1.11.8)
Man’s mind may not be an idol “factory” in the sense that we manufacture the idols ourselves, yet we see the truth in Calvin’s statement in the fact that we allow ourselves to set up idols and worship them in our minds. Sometimes this is an activity that we perform knowingly and other times it is done unknowingly.
Why is this?
The Israelites in Judges experienced an acceptance of the world around them and it began their journey into idolatry. It may have begun slow and subtle like the proverbial frog in the water scenario. The heat is turned up little by little, and before he realizes it he is being boiled to death. We allow the world’s idols into our hearts and minds little by little until not only are we indistinguishable from the world, but we are being killed by the sin Christ has freed us from and been victorious over.
Yet why is this idolatry so tough for us to recognize? I think it is because it is in our very nature to try to satisfy ourselves with anything other than the Lord.
Matt Chandler writes in The Explicit Gospel, “It is easy to see that you and I have been created to worship. We’re flat-out desperate for it. From sports fanaticism to celebrity tabloids to all the other strange sorts of voyeurisms now normative in our culture, we evidence that we were created to look at something beyond ourselves and marvel at it, desire it, like it with zeal, and love it with affection. Our thoughts, our desires, and our behaviors are always oriented around something, which means we are always worshiping — ascribing worth to — something. If it’s not God, we are engaging in idolatry. But either way, there is no way to turn the worship switch in our hearts off.” (103)
Merriam-Webster defines idolatry as the worship of a physical object as a god and secondly, immoderate attachment or devotion to something (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/idolatry). Essentially, this could be stated as going beyond the reasonable with devotion toward something. It could also be simply defined as loving something more than God.
I heard a sermon years ago by Louie Giglio that illustrated the connection between the praise given during an athletic contest with that of praise due to God. He used the passage that is the key verse for his Passion ministry, Isaiah 26:8. It reads, “Yes, LORD, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; your name and renown are the desire of our hearts.” (NIV) He took a moment to talk about renown and what that word entails. He proceeded to use an Auburn football game to illustrate the activity of ascribing renown. He painted a vivid word picture that would make any one feel as if they had actually entered Jordan Hare stadium. He described the roar of the crowd, yelling from one side of the stadium, “Orange!” Then the reply from thousands of people on the other side, “White!”
Wait! One might say, “Yelling orange and white doesn’t make you a worshipper! That is not unreasonable devotion!” I realize that, but is that all there is to the practice of just yelling out colors and “supporting” your school or team?
This earthly illustration of renown is not one without a heavenly equivalent. Isaiah illustrates this similar activity taking place before the throne of God every moment of every day for all eternity. Isaiah 6:1-3, “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
What a cheer!
Years after hearing Giglio’s illustration I experienced it first hand. My seminary roommate, an Auburn graduate, invited me to an Auburn game. Yet that wasn’t the first time I had truly experienced the worship that took place during a sporting event. I had experienced that unknowingly countless times growing up while attending them.
If you were to ask any Christian who is a sports fan if they love their team more than they do God they will be offended by the question. You will likely receive a disgusted and frustrated, “No!”
Justifications for sports can come through many comments. “I just like it, not love it,” or “It’s just a hobby.” “It’s only one day a week” (That is a risible statement. That is what the worship of God for many people looks like, just for a shorter amount of time than a sporting event.). If the simple definition of idolatry, loving something more than God is considered, what is a manifestation of love? We can”t deny that one of the main ways we manifest love is in time and money.
I know what it means to be a fan. I may live in Canada, but I’m not under a rock. I watch athletics from time to time.
My question is this, Christian, How is your fanaticism any different from the non-Christian?
You don’t cuss in the cheers? You don”t spend as much time watching or attending the games? You don”t spend the money that Joe Non-believer does on the team paraphernalia?
God has given us all things to enjoy even sports. However, when the enjoyment of that gift overwhelms the online pokies enjoyment of the giver something goes awry.
The enjoyment quotient can be seen in the activity surrounding each activity. People oftentimes get to a stadium a day in advance to tailgate before the game. You don’t see that anticipation for church. Many often mosey in after the 2nd song.
If the game goes into over time we are ecstatic, but when the pastor preaches past 12 we leave or we stay and complain about it. We leave the games jacked up talking about what took place all the way home and countless times during the week. We leave church and we talk about the game.
Look, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones! I know that because I have a lot to repair. When I think of the idolatry I have seen in my life, one idol rises above the rest – sports.
Hi, I’m Ben and I was a sports addict. I know my history with sports. I lived for them. I have to be careful. Countless times I will watch a game and tell my wife jokingly, “Don’t let me do that again.” I get too emotionally involved and the outcome lingers in my mind. As if I had something to do with it?
When I was in high school I absolutely loved the Ole Miss Rebels. I would put my whole heart into cheering them on. If they lost (which was frequently), I would be affected for days after the game. It was silly. I didn’t realize how silly until I didn’t go to college there. All the “supporting” I did for men I didn’t even know and for a school I didn’t attend. But others might say, “Well, I attended the school and I knew the men!” Okay, so what?
What if we supported the spread of the gospel with the tenacity with which we cheered on “our” teams?
David Platt calls athletic contests “fake battles.” That is a great definition. There are so many more important things to give of our time and money to than to be amused by these “fake battles”. Listen to this sermon on The Cross and Christian Sports and start at the 9:45 mark and listen through 16:50. In this audio segment, Dr. Platt gives a great outsider’s assessment to the southern obsession with college football worship. (It may be college football for the southern U.S. but it could be hockey for Canada or soccer for the U.K the assessment could be the same.) The entire sermon is worthy of your time, but for the sake of what I have been considering the aforementioned time frame is sufficient.
The Skit Guys have also made similar references that Platt does in an illustration through another video. I don’t think every connection the skit guys make is correctly made, but the overarching view is correct.
I stopped really keeping up with sports and you know, not once did it ever hinder my ministry. Not once was I told I was out of touch with the culture. It was freeing. I no longer had my emotions wrapped up in boys fighting over a ball. I could wholly trust a sovereign God that wouldn’t let me down week after week. Instead I found myself day after day fulfilled by His trustworthy word.
So, how do we flee this idolatry? The first step is to admit you have a problem with idolatry.
You may say, “I don’t react the way you do when my team loses.” That may be true, but you must be introspective about your reactions. What does your support of a team look like to a watching world? That is the point. Are you helping to justify the worship of a god or the One True God by the way you live your life?
I had never lived in a place that took something so seriously as Alabama and their football until a few years ago. It is something that, as I write it, one from that area of the world may think, “Yeah! You got that right!” Too which I would respond that it’s not something to be proud of, but to repent over.
I can remember something disturbing happening once when I was leading a Disciple Now during the time I lived in Huntsville, AL. The preacher for the weekend made his way to the front. He was wearing a Crimson shirt with an A logo on the front. He was a stranger to all of the kids present. A couple of middle school girls began screaming in his direction, “WAR EAGLE!” They continued to do this to the point that he wasn’t able to even begin his sermon without acknowledging their heckling. He furthermore went on to explain he served as a pastor in Tuscaloosa, AL and the A on his shirt had small lettering around it. The lettering asked, “Are you A part of my youth group?” These girls hindered the preaching of the Word over what they thought was a team rivalry, when in reality it was just a similar looking logo to their favorite team’s rival.
I don’t write this to call out any of my friends from Alabama who are fans of either team. I don’t want to paint them in a bad light. That is not my goal. I write this to ask of anyone who calls any team “their” team to seriously consider the implications of taking their fan-hood to the excess. I read a story recently where a woman, after Alabama lost a game, went to her vehicle, got a gun, shot and killed someone because that person didn’t take it seriously enough. I realize this is crazy. Most people are not going to do this. But, I have seen sports fanaticism to the excess. You have seen it as well. There is video footage of riots breaking out in celebration of a win or anger over defeat.
This makes me think of the impact the gospel made on the city of Ephesus in Acts 19. Except here, it was the impact of the gospel to cause a riotous response, not a sporting event.
I am reading through a Bible that I will one day give to my daughter and it has been amazing. I have read about men who were called by God to either be a judge or king. Those men would hear the word of God and respond. They would repent of their idolatry which was most often manifested by not only tearing their clothes, but tearing down idols. They fervently began to kick the idols out of their lives. They went to the high places (places of occult worship) and they tore down the idols and sometimes used the idols as the wood on which they made sacrifices to the God of Heaven. That’s the kind of response we should have with any idols we have set up in our lives.
(Note to the reader: Unless you have some sort of burning bush revelatory experience that is witnessed by others and the best lawyer ever, DO NOT DO THE FOLLOWING!) In my mind I sometimes wonder what it would look like for a pastor to stroll onto a college campus and rip down a statue. To go to Tuscaloosa and pull down the Saban or Bear Bryant outside Bryant Denny Stadium where almost 102,000 worshippers assemble on weekends in the fall. Pretty sure I know the fate that awaits that pastor. Death. I feel like people would rip him apart before he could be arrested for vandalism.
God has assured us He will not share his glory with another.
The 1st article of the Westminster Catechism should be the ultimate goal for the life of any believer. “Man’s Chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” There is no room for any other! There is none other!
Deuteronomy 4:39, “know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.”
There are no gods of the gridiron. They are just men subject to a sovereign God like the rest of mankind. Let us treat them as such. Let us worship God with much more passion and love than anything else, especially more than sports!