Read Part 1 here
If we are going to diagnose the reality of idols in our hearts, we must:
1) Assume sports or a sport is an idol.
If we go back to the situation I first mentioned (in Part 1), this coach seemed to assume otherwise by the quickness of his response. Keller further says, “I am not asking whether or not you have rival gods. I assume that we all do; they are hidden in every one of us…. In Romans 1:21-25, Paul shows that idolatry is not only one sin among many, but what is fundamentally wrong with the human heart.”
Since the fall, our hearts have been idol factories, seeking something, many things, other than God to fulfill its longings for meaning, love, significance, security, and, what is often left off this list, glory.
Sports today demonstrate one of the most often used and clearest methods for establishing this lost glory. We strive to become champions, winners, first place, the best, the highest – whether it is in world class arenas for Olympians and Super Bowls or in neighborhood courts for a community league or a pick up game.
However, rather than looking in sports for the reflection of this idolatry, what is “fundamentally wrong with the human heart”, we say things like, “I am just competitive”, or “I am just playing hard” and deny the reality of our idolatry.
When we won’t even consider the possibility that our sports are an idol, we live out what God says of idolaters in Isaiah 44. In verse 13-20, God uses a carpenter as an example. The carpenter takes what God has provided (wood) and uses part of it for his job, part of it as fuel to warm himself, and part of it to cook his food, all within the purposes of God.
Yet, rather than stopping there, the carpenter then takes the rest and makes “a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, “Save me; you are my god.” (verse 17)
Now, the carpenter doesn’t really understand that he is doing something wrong, nor does he contemplate the possibility. “Their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand. No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say….’Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?’” (verse 18-20)
In the sports world, we don’t see, we don’t stop to think and ask, we won’t even ask, “Is this thing I play an idol?”
So will you ask this question, with the assumption that it probably is an idol? Will you allow God to show you how you have taken his provision, sports, and not stopped with the design that God had in mind, but have fashioned it into a place for your glory, not his? Will you ask God to open your eyes, to give you understanding, to give you the courage to ponder and be honest and ask the question, “Is this thing I play an idol?”
If you will, then the next thing we need to do to diagnose our idolatry and sports is
2) Examine our deep emotions around sports – especially our anger.
Anyone who is around sports for very long knows this reality – you can’t hide your heart on the field. What is in your heart comes spilling out at the referees, the players on both the opposing and your team, the coaches, even at yourself.
However, I don’t find a lot of people who probe into what is underneath those emotions.
Emotions are never independent. They are always generated by beliefs.
Let’s take anger. It was Larry Crabb, Christian psychologist, who first alerted me to the fact that anger is the result of a blocked goal. (A goal is something I believe I want or need to have and pursue.) When we don’t get what we want, when our efforts to achieve our goal are stymied, we get angry. The deeper the desire, the deeper the goal, and the deeper the resulting anger when it is blocked.
Now take that understanding to the athletic field. A coach gets really angry at an official’s call. Why? The official blocked the goal of the coach. What is the goal? While I am not sure, what I do know by the emotion is that, whatever the goal, it is important to the coach.
The depth of the emotion, whether expressed or not, determines the depth of the goal. When I see deep anger, the presence of a deep goal – something I want to have, something I need to have, something I have to have.
Remember back to our definition of an idol – “If I have that, then I will be happy, valued, significant, etc.” I think I have to have “that” and “that” becomes an idol.
For most of us who play, watch or coach sports,“that” is winning. (This is not the exclusive “that”, for even “having a good time” can be a that. Winning is just the “that” I will address now.) When someone gets in the way of our winning (including ourselves), we have lots of reactions – anger, discouragement, shame. The emotions themselves don’t say that sports are an idol. But the emotions can reveal the idols, the have-tos, that drive those emotions.
Next time you are watching, playing, coaching and you feel deep emotion, ask yourself, “Why am I feeling this?” If it is anger, ask yourself, “What is the goal that is being blocked?” “Why is that goal so important that I feel so deeply this anger?”
Then ask God to show you – “Is this game I play an idol?” “Is my drive to win out of control?”
This is critical because if we are going to diagnose the idols in our lives around sports, we must also
3) Own the passions of our heart – especially for our own glory.
When I examine my own drive to play and to excel or win and am really honest, this is not very much about God and is so often very much about me. I want what winning and sports’ achievements bring from our culture – the respect, the honor, the admiration, the trophies – in other words the glory.
And I want it without much concern for the rightness of the depth of that desire.
Sports reveal the passion that is inherent in our hearts. Our hearts want something to be passionate about. In the original design, the object of that passion was God and his glory. The fall distorted that design and now our hearts seek something to be passionate about other than God.
Even when God gives us new hearts as Christians, we still have deep tendencies to look to other things for this passion. Sports are one such object, especially when our glory is directly involved. Even when it is not, such as when we are spectators, we will settle for the small taste of glory given for the loyal fan or spectator, but all with great passion.
Once again, revealing the significant reality of the idolatry of sports.
This is not the way it is supposed to be. To change that reality, we again need to ask ourselves these questions from C.J. Mahaney’s Don’t Waste Your Sports
- Am I preoccupied with sports? Are they what I think about and talk about more than anything else?
- Are sports where my mind goes when I don’t have anything else to think about?
- Are my most passionate conversations about sports? (my addition – rather than God, his kingdom and glory)
- Do I have an excessive passion for a particular team? Am I euphoric when they win and depressed when they lose?
- Is my passion for a team, or for playing a particular sport, greater than my passion for Jesus Christ?
- Do I think more about and am I more concerned with winning, improving as an athlete or coach, and bringing honor to me than I am with growing in godliness in my playing or coaching and bringing honor to God through the way I play or coach?
In honesty we admit yes, yes, and yes to these questions, and we cry out for Jesus Christ to heal our broken hearts and give us a passion for his glory that would drive away the idolatry of sports.
The disease of sports idolatry is never overcome in this life. We can, however, make progress in stemming the spread and actually reducing the impact. We do that by relentlessly going through these steps: assume sports are an idol, examine our deep emotions, and own our hearts’ passions. Repent of the false goals, the lies that drive them, and turn to the One who says “remember these things, O Jacob, for you are my servant, O Israel. I have made you, you are my servant…I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.” Isaiah 44:21,22