“So, according to the Bible, the primary way to define sin is not just the doing of bad things, but the making of good things into ultimate things. It is seeking to establish a sense of self by making something else more central to your significance, purpose, and happiness than your relationship to God.” – Tim Keller, The Reason for God.
We all seek to justify our own existence. We build up our identities in an effort to prove that we belong, that we have value, that we deserve to be breathing. And we do it in lots different ways. Some of us try to justify our existence through relationships, “I’m needed as a mother, therefore I am”. Others do it through rebellion, “I resist, therefore I am”. But I work for a sports ministry, so what I see most often is something along the lines of, “I compete, therefore I am.”
Don’t get me wrong, sports are amazing! The things that people can do with their bodies are absolutely unreal. I love to see the human body perform in peek physical condition. Sports are phenomenal, to be sure! But using sports to justify your existence is one of the most dangerous things you can do. Athletics are fickle, the tide of popular option can shift in just a single play; your identity can be demolished from simply planting your foot the wrong way. POP! And just like that your identity as an athlete is gone.
Sports are a good thing, but making a good thing into a God thing is a bad thing. I quoted Keller’s The Reason for God above, but on the very next page is another quote worth citing, “In the movie Rocky, the title character’s girlfriend asks him why it is so important for him to ‘go the distance’ in the boxing match. ‘Then I’ll know I’m not a bum’, he replies. In the movie Chariots of fie one of the main characters explains why he works so hard at running the hundred-yard dash for the Olympics. He says that when each race begins, ‘I have ten lonely seconds to justify my existence.” Both of the men looked to athletic achievement as the defining force that gave meaning to their lives.” (Pg. 169).
The quickest way to ruin sports is to absolutize them! Defining yourself by your ability and worshiping your sport is not only dishonoring to the God who made you, it takes all the fun out of your sport. There’s a huge difference between playing for the love of God and playing to try and justify your life.
Competition simply cannot fulfill God’s role in your life. You were made for more than being bigger, faster, and stronger. Athletics can be a great means to the end of knowing God and experiencing His love more deeply. But when your sport becomes the end and you try using God as the means by which you become a spectacular athlete, then you’re in for a world of hurt.
When I wrapped up my whole identity in the fact that I was a wrestler I began to hate the sport. Wrestling stopped being an enjoyable aspect of who I was, it wasn’t a sport that I loved, it became the justification for my existence. “I belong here, I’m worth while, I’m significant because I’m a college wrestler.”
It wasn’t until I went to an Athletes In Action summer camp that I was able to get a healthy perspective on my identity. The Ultimate Training Camp taught me to reorient my priorities, to think of God as the reason for competing; whether it’s knowing God more deeply, exercising patience, love, peace, self-control, or in using my sport to tell more people about Jesus. I was reminded that my worth was based in the fact that I’ve been made in the image of God and as a Christian, I’m a redeemed child of God.
If you’re still using your sport to justify your existence then I want to invite you to turn from that. If you haven’t experienced the pain and frustration that comes from worshipping your sport by now, then be sure that it’s coming soon. You have intrinsic value, not because you’d a stud athlete, but because you’ve been fearfully and wonderfully made by the Living God of the Universe, in His very image. You’ve been made to worship Him, that’s why your sport keeps letting you down. Turn to Christ and have your priorities reoriented, experience freedom from your obsession with proving your worth, and begin to enjoy your sport again as you compete to know God more deeply.