We should be gospel-centered and that referee is a moron: On sports and the Christian’s tendency to take it too far

I want to start by acknowledging that I am one who has over the course of time (and by the grace of God) become increasingly aware of my own guilt regarding the sin about which I write. I’m a Christian and a sports fan, and it’s been that way for practically all of my life. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Sports has been an avenue for my enjoyment of the glory of God, just plain entertaining, and an agent of sanctification.

More agent of sanctification in the past couple of years than before, though, and for that I thank God. Perhaps part of it has to do with being the father of a ten-year-old son, himself a believer and sports fan, and wanting to train him up in the way he should go. In any event, I’ve enjoyed what has become (for the most part) a growing emotional detachment from the results of games. I’ve enjoyed not getting inappropriately excited over my team’s successes, and likewise, I’ve enjoyed not getting angry or sad at the opposite.

Do I still enjoy watching games? Very much. Do I still root hard for my teams? Absolutely. And do I still like it when my teams’ rivals fall flat on their face? Sure. That’s part of enjoying sports. But things are different now than they used to be.

I used to break things and want to throw things when my team didn’t win. I specifically remember the obliteration of a street hockey stick when Carolina lost to Arkansas in the 1995 NCAA National Semifinals. Yeah, it was 18 years ago, but I remember it.  I also remember that wasn’t an isolated incident. A couple of years later I was at a football game I expected my team to win. They didn’t. I decided to respond by yelling inappropriate things about one of the opposing team’s players. Not my finest moment. I thank God for maturity (not that I’ve arrived) and I absolutely praise Him for His sanctifying grace (and I surely haven’t arrived there).

So why am I saying all this? Not because I’m better than anyone else, but because social media has opened my eyes to the reality that sinful tendencies for Christians as it relates to sports is not just a problem I’ve dealt with. And if you struggle with this or know someone who does, I hope God uses this to open eyes.

A few weeks ago, late on a Saturday afternoon, I was doing what I often do that time of day on that particular day of the week… unwinding a bit by catching the end of the best college football game I can find. All the better when it’s one others are watching and tweeting about, because then I can live through the excitement (however it may end) with friends.

Well on this particular Saturday afternoon the game was a barnburner and I happened to know several friends (personally and via social media) who were fans of one or the other team. For the record, I had no significant rooting interest.

Anyway, my eyes were opened to my own weakness when I saw a pastor friend of mine write something to the effect of “It’s so clear the refs want [the team I’m not cheering for] to win!”

refereeNow that’s the kind of comment many sports fans have made, myself included, but what struck me this time is that 1) it was a friend and fellow pastor making the comment, and 2) it was out there for anyone, believer or unbeliever, to see. And you might ask, “But if everyone says that, who cares?” I’ll tell you why we should all care….

Because (and there’s really no disputing this) that tweet ascribed evil motives to real people (the referees of that game). Whether there was conscious malicious intent or not, and I’m reasonably sure there was not, my Twitter follow accused the referees of that game of a lack of integrity, and worse, that they willfully were taking one side when they were supposed to be completely impartial. That tweet was, to be blunt, libel (slander written down) — and slander is something the Christian is commanded not to do, as it not only violates the love we are to have for our neighbor, but it contradicts the very character of Christ.

Let me give you a second example. I follow many other pastors, theologians, seminary professors, and other Christian notables on Twitter and/or Facebook. Well one happens to be a fan of a professional football team with a quarterback who, let’s just say, is a lightning rod for criticism. And it rarely fails that, win or lose, sometime on Sunday I’ll see a post publicly lambasting the player for his failure, which cost the team the game, or saying that the team won in spite of this player’s performance. Now, of course, I have criticized a player’s performance before. Every sports fan has. But there is a difference between being critical of how a player performs and a consistent, public, degrading of that player. And that’s what I’m seeing.

A third example. A few years ago there was a player for a certain team who was, at that time, widely considered the best or at least one of the two or three best players in his sport — one of the best of all time. He was coming to the end of his contract and there was a lot of speculation about whether or not he would re-sign with his team or sign with another team. Well it came to pass that this player, who was quite popular with that team’s fan base, signed with a different team. His old team, meanwhile, has been successful in his absence, while his new team has not achieved the level of success envisioned when they signed him. I bring it up because to this day I still see Christian fans of this player’s first team which post tweets and Facebook posts which can only be described as bitter toward this player.

One more example. Not too long ago someone I know, a Christian, celebrated as his favorite team won a championship. The next year, though, his team’s bitter rival won the championship. And this individual responded by, as soon as the clock ran out on his enemy team’s triumph, going on Facebook and repeatedly posting things which, while not vulgar or anything like that, were meant to denigrate that team’s accomplishment and thus make himself feel better by lessening the joy of the fans of the team that won. By the way the guy who did that last one was me.

Here’s the deal. It’s one thing to be a fan and cheer and enjoy the games and the performances. Sports allow us to see men and women created in the image of God using their bodies and God-given abilities in ways, to degrees, most people cannot. I’ll probably cheer for the Carolina Panthers, North Carolina Tar Heels, Atlanta Braves, and even the Charlotte BobcatHornets until I’m in the presence of the Lord. Likewise, I’ll probably root against Duke, N.C. State, the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, and others until that same day. And you know what? That’s fine. I don’t believe there to be anything wrong with that.

The problem arises when we begin to idolize our teams and our desired result for them above God. The problem arises when our passions for our team’s victory or another team’s defeat rise so high that we are willing to make accusations about referees, castigate certain players, remain bitter toward those no longer playing on our team, or seeking to steal another’s joy because we aren’t happy about the final score. Brothers and sisters, the world is watching. Pastors, your church members are reading your posts. Unbelievers are seeing what it is you care about.

It’s hard for someone to take seriously our posts about the love of God and the necessity of the gospel of Jesus Christ and our making Him the center of everything when with the next tap of the Enter key we are communicating words about a sporting event which are clearly not meant to edify, but to get off our chest what we think about the referee’s call or that player’s last pass.

We have to be, by the grace of God, better than this. We need to watch our mouths, computers, and mobile devices. We need to check ourselves and remember that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, even our sports. And just because it seems to be something meaningless like sports doesn’t give us an excuse for careless, or even intended, sin. I encourage you to be mindful of this. Let our testimony to others be one of the glory of Christ, and not the glory of our favorite team.

May we act in the obedience of faith in Christ what we read in Ephesians 4:29-32:

Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

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