Biblical Responses to Sports Culture

The Greatest Threat and Opportunity For Athletes During Covid-19

By March 28, 2020 No Comments

We used to live right next to the train tracks. Every night, right around 11pm, we would hear the inevitable rumble of the train, followed by the loudest horn you’ve ever heard in your life. We tried putting sound-reducing glass in our windows. It didn’t help. We tried setting the baby’s sound machine to the white noise setting and cranked up the volume. The train still won. 

Finally, we decided to stop trying to defeat the train and find a way to use the noise towards something productive. The horn became a reminder to pray. Instead of thinking through new ways to kill this minor annoyance, we turned it on its head, making it serve us. 

In light of the Covid-19 crisis and the loss of sports, I think there’s a broader lesson here for athletes to consider. 

One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Romans 8:37. Paul says:

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

We are more than conquerors. I know what a conqueror does. But what makes someone more than a conqueror? How is that possible?

John Piper offers his wisdom: “a conqueror defeats his enemy, but one who is more than a conqueror subjugates his enemy. A conqueror nullifies the purpose of his enemy; one who is more than a conqueror makes the enemy serve his own purposes. A conqueror strikes down his foe; one who is more than a conqueror makes his foe his slave.”

Did you catch that? One who is more than a conqueror makes the enemy serve his own purpose. Conquerors destroy. More than conquerors repurpose the threat.

It reminds me of the situation with the train. And it’s also what Christian athletes should do with their sport.

Within the context of sports—and considering the threat of idolatry that exists in sports, we can say something like this: a conqueror does not allow sport to become an idol in their life. A “more than conqueror” uses sport as a conduit to glorify God. How much greater of a message is that than: don’t let sports become an idol? 

Good gifts used rightly can help us glorify God. Good gifts used wrongly can numb us towards God. If you’re like most athletes, I’m guessing the thing competing for your ultimate affection before sports were taken away was your sport. 

Athlete, now that sports are temporarily on hold, there is another good gift that can threaten our relationship with God or strengthen it: your phone.

What follows are three ways your phone threatens your relationship with God and three ways you can more than conquer it in a way that draws you closer to him.

3 ways your phone threatens to destroy you

1. Netflix

No, Netflix is not bad. Yes, I watch it (a lot) too. But it is addictive. It’s why you don’t have the option to scroll through options before a show starts playing. If you haven’t made up your mind in less than three seconds, Netflix invites you into watching. 

Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, points out that their greatest competition is not HBO or amazon or YouTube. It’s sleep. Netflix is competing against our sleeping habits. And they’re winning. 

A recent survey showed 70% of Americans watch an average of five episodes per sitting. I believe the term we’ve come to embrace—and celebrate, is “binge-watching.” 

Again, Netflix is not bad. We just need to be careful that it doesn’t turn into a god in our life. It becomes bad when it turns our affections away from God or numbs them altogether. Here are a few diagnostic questions to consider:

  • Is what I am watching honoring God?
  • Am I avoiding something by watching Netflix?
  • Has my Netflix viewing increased in the absence of my sport?

2. Mindless Scrolling

We fall into the never-ending trap of scrolling on social media. With the changing algorithms, we never really “catch up” to the last post. We’re always seeing new content from someone, somewhere. 

On average, Gen Z-ers spend around 3 hours per day scrolling through social media. That’s 21 hours a week. One can only imagine those numbers skyrocketing now that we’ve been isolated. 

Athlete, what does social media offer you that you can’t get from God? When was the last time you ended a social media scroll fest and thought “I’m fully satisfied”? 

Again, here are a few questions to wrestle with surrounding our social media usage in this unprecedented time:

  • Are the people I follow on social media drawing my attention towards God or themselves?
  • Am I avoiding something mindlessly scrolling?
  • Has my social media usage increased in the absence of my sport?
  • Do my social media posts draw my followers to God—or to me?

3. Porn

Yes, we need to talk about this. The numbers are staggering. If you struggle in this area, know this: you are not alone. In all reality, you are in the vast majority. But porn is harmful, degrading, and sinful. 

It’s a retreat from real intimacy

It’s one of the reasons the Bible calls us to purity.

The timeless wisdom in the book of Proverbs plainly states: “Do not lust in your heart after her beauty or let her captivate you with her eyes.” Jesus, of course, takes the moral ethic to a higher level. In Matthew 5:28, he delivers a drop the microphone statement: Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Here’s the thing, I don’t think anyone wakes up in the morning thinking “I can’t wait to watch porn today.” Porn is usually the medicine of choice after a day of boredom, negativity, or loss. 

In the midst of your sport being gone, are you experiencing boredom, negativity, or loss? Are you turning to God in those dark times or to the dark world of porn? Porn will always offer temporary satisfaction through false intimacy. God’s offer is eternal satisfaction through true intimacy. 

3 ways to more than conquer your phone

1. Connection with God

The answer to the three threats above (and the many others our phones offer) could be to use it less. But I want us to consider using it to get more of God. Athlete, what if your phone became a conduit for you to experience God at a greater, more intimate level during this unique season of life? 

I don’t have all of the answers to how this can look in your life, only some examples from how I try to use my phone in this manner. Keep in mind, I don’t do this perfectly and most days I suck at these things—but here is the checklist I strive towards:

  • Music. I connect with God through music. In my opinion, most music that has Christian themes is bad. It’s part of the reason everyone went nuts when Kayne produced his latest album. Many of us were shocked into the reality that music from a Christian could be edgy and catchy. But I digress. What music draws you into deeper connection with God? What turns your heart to worship? If you know what that is, why wouldn’t you have that playing in the background?
  • Social media. I follow people on social media who challenge and encourage my view of God. I don’t want the people I follow to all think and look like me. As I scroll through my social media feeds, I’m seeing diverse views about who God is and it challenges me to think more about who he is and how I interact with him. Who are you following? Are they their social media platforms causing you to worship God or to direct your attention away from him?
  • Sermons/podcasts. I connected with God through really good communicators. I have a list of pastors who stir my heart for the things of God and I make it a point to listen to them during my free time. Who are you looking towards to speak truth and challenge you during this season?
  • Bible. Shocking, right? I don’t like to read the Bible on my phone. I get too distracted. I find myself scrolling and wanting to jump off the YouVersion Bible app and into Twitter. I use the Bible on my phone to listen to the Word. When I am driving, I’ll find a passage of scripture and listen to the audio version of it. YouVersion has this option, but I’ve come to really enjoy an app called Dwell. They have daily listening already prepared and a variety of voices to choose from. 
  • Apps. If you haven’t yet, download the Ao1 Life app. It’s purpose is pretty simple. It’s a resource for athletes and coaches to grow closer to God and help their teammates do likewise. The app is loaded with chapel talks, daily devotionals, Bible studies and other resources to help you—and help you help your teammates grow spiritually. 

2. Connection with people

This is going to sound crazy but trust me, it’s true: phones were originally created as a way to talk to people who were not standing in front of us. The original purpose of the phone was communicating and connection. 

God created us as relational beings who thrive in the context of relationships and die without it. Your phone is the medium to connect relationally during this time. You can encourage, challenge, pray for, laugh with, and cry with someone by using your phone. Your phone is a relational tool to love and serve people better. 

Do you want to know a secret? People feel bolder behind a screen than they do in real life. Athlete, use that to your advantage in this season. Text your teammates and coaches scripture you are praying for them. Reach out and say something like “Hey, I’m praying that God would bless you today, is there anything specific I can pray to God for on your behalf?” 

A simple text like that could open up relational and spiritual doors that you may not have tried to open within the context of a locker room setting. 

3. Scheduled rhythms

Your daily rhythms are dead. You’re probably realizing how dependent you were on your schedule (which was largely determined for you, not by you). 

Dr. Ed Uszynski explains the challenge: “There is a certain comfort that accompanies the boundaries to an athletic lifestyle. This can be replaced but it’s not easy to find or come up with on one’s own. Retirement represents the death of an entire scheduling, relational, and subcultural lifestyle.”

Matt Perman, the author of What’s Best Next, helps us understand why we thrive under structure. “Systems trump intentions. You can have great intentions, but if your life is set up in a way that is not in alignment with them, you will be frustrated. The structure of your life will win out every time.”

Did you catch that last sentence? Structure matters. You will be tempted to binge watch Netflix and sleep until it’s time to eat lunch. Don’t. Your athletic career may be over or on hold, but God’s calling on your life to be productive with your day still demands a response. Ephesians 5:15-16 says, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” The intense demands and structure of your sport may be done, but don’t use that as an excuse to become lazy. Glorify God by moving your disciplined structure of living into a new passion or hobby that serves others and makes much of Jesus.

Your phone can help with this by actually using your calendar and planning out your days. You can also use the alarm/timer settings. Schedule time to pray or get into the Bible. Set the alarm so you have an audio reminder. Before you hop on social media, set the timer and put some boundaries around the amount of time you spend on it. 

Use your phone to build structure, rhythms, reminders, and accountability. 

Athlete, sports can be a virtue leading us to experience more of God or a vice keeping us from him. That holds true for every good gift—including our phones.

P.S. If you want me to send you some free resources (including the first chapter of my book The Assist: A Gospel-Centered Guide to Glorifying God Through Sports, subscribe below and I will send you some great stuff! I promise not to spam you either:)

    Brian Smith

    Author Brian Smith

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