Note: This is a follow-up to “The Christian and Sports” which I posted on James Faris’ page before I got my own!
Our love for sports as both participants and spectators can swerve into idolatry in many ways. Perhaps none is more obvious than the effect that sports can have on the Christian observance of the Lord’s Day. I suppose I should not have been surprised when I received an email through the Christian-based basketball league one of my daughters was participating in this winter inviting her to come to a basketball clinic hosted by the Indiana University women’s team at 9:30 AM on a Sunday morning. After all, college athletics misuse the Lord’s Day nearly as much as the professional leagues do today. Still, I found it hard to believe that the good folks at I.U. would send an invitation to an explicitly Christian basketball league for a Sunday morning clinic. But, of course, the reason the marketing people at I.U. thought that was a good idea is doubtless because it has worked in the past. Christians, by and large, show little commitment in honoring the fourth commandment which requires us to cease from our regular work in order to rest and worship for an entire day every week.
My thoughts on this issue have evolved over the last several years, but I have come to the conclusion that participating in or even watching organized athletics is not a good way to honor God on the Lord’s Day. There is a real danger that efforts to “honor the Sabbath Day” will degenerate into man-made lists of approved and unapproved activities. This was one of the besetting sins of the Pharisees, and Jesus was not shy about condemning this approach to the fourth commandment. On the other hand, this does not mean that we are all left to “do our own thing” on the Lord’s Day. One of the key principles regarding our approach to the Lord’s Day comes from God’s words through the prophet Isaiah: “If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable, and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words, then you shall delight yourself in the LORD; and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. The mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 58:13-14, NKJ). These words challenged me to seriously question the source of my delight on the Lord’s Day. Is it in the Lord or is it in my own pleasures, words, and soccer games?
Every Christian needs to answer these questions for him or herself. Personally, I find taking a walk, throwing a baseball or shooting baskets casually during the Lord’s Day a good way to unwind and talk to my family between worship services on a Sabbath afternoon. If I am honest with myself, I have to admit that I have never in my life watched an NFL football game or a college basketball game and found myself delighting more in God as I did so. I simply do not think watching or participating in competitive sports on the Lord’s Day enhances our experience of the blessings promised to us or helps us fulfill the responsibilities we have been given as believers.
There is another serious problem that arises when Christians embrace athletics as part of their Lord’s Day observance. The church loses one of the most obvious and powerful witnesses it has to our culture. The Lord’s Day was meant to mark God’s people off as unique in the world. This is why God says, “…Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you” (Exodus 31:13, NKJ). The Sabbath was to be a perpetual sign between God and His people that God is the One who makes them holy. New Testament believers rest on the first day of the week and then work six days because through Jesus Christ, God has saved us and set us apart. We can work because we first rest in Him. Our observance of the Lord’s Day as a day of delight in Him is one way we show the world that we are His. When we act like the world, we give up a powerful means of communicating the gospel to those around us.
This fact was brought home to me in a powerful way during my third year as the head coach of the Indiana University Hockey team. That season our team exceeded my expectations and earned its first-ever berth in the national tournament. I was thrilled to be in the tournament but at the same time saddened to learn that the championship game was going to be played on a Sunday. When I had taken the coaching job, it was with the agreement that I would not coach on Sundays. By God’s grace, I had a lot of control over our schedule and we always played on Fridays and Saturdays, got on our bus, and were back in Bloomington by Sunday morning. When I shared my predicament with a trusted Christian friend, his response surprised me. “What a great opportunity you have to show those young men that Christians are people, who live by absolute principles. There are not many people like that in our world today.” I confess that my first response to the situation was not enthusiastic at all, but I resigned myself to try to honor Jesus regardless of what happened. In the end our team did make it to the championship game. I did not coach despite a lot of pressure to do so. Our team lost. But in the process of going through that experience I was able to explain to my team exactly why I did what I did. I not only had the opportunity to witness to my players, I was able to do so to their parents, the university community, and our national hockey association, which changed its policy two years later so that no national tournament games were held on Sundays. Of all the interactions I had with my players over the 13 seasons I coached, the simple issue of trying to honor God on the Lord’s Day ended up being the most overt witnessing opportunity I had.
If you are committed to finding your delight in your Savior on the Lord’s Day, you will bump up against our culture in any number of ways. Do not throw away this opportunity to tell the world that your Savior is the One who sanctifies you. The Lord’s Day is a blessed gift from God. We can rest in Him and be free from all the things that bind our schedules during the regular week. If we find that we are bound by sports on His Day, we need to again consider the question of whether or not we have allowed something that is good (sports) to become something that is ultimate, and therefore, an idol.