Author’s Confession: I play and coach competitive ultimate. During the summer, my own team practices and competes on Saturdays and Sundays. For the team I coach, tournaments also span Saturday-Sundays, albeit less frequently. Yet, I also believe deeply in the importance of the gathered body of the Church, and serve in the youth ministry at my own church. I write as one personally touched by these time conflicts.
Dear Teens (and athletes of all ages),
There’s an exhilarating feeling of doing something you feel made for. My favorite line in Chariots of Fire is when Eric Liddell tells his sister, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
There are so many gifts from God involved with the simple act of playing a sport: our bodies, human creativity that developed the rules of play, community and teamwork.
Yet somehow, whenever we receive a gift from God, we have a habit of turning it into an idol. Augustine (in Confessions, Book II) calls this a “disordered love.” We allow that gift—in this case our sport—to become our focus, our purpose, and eventually our idol.
Our bodies are not built to go and go and go without a day of rest to recover from the training and strain, and so we take a day off from training, guilt-free, to prepare to chase the next milestone or goal next week… In our ability to rest, whether that’s one day a week or taking an off-season away from our sport, we can remember that our identity is not tied exclusively to our sports.
Being an athlete depends on our commitment to the sport: we show up at the gym, we run our workouts, we sweat and freeze in crummy weather, all because we love the game. And in the midst of all this commitment, one day we may realize, this is the most important thing in our lives. And as our sport becomes our god, it promises that if we work hard enough and are good enough, we will be happy, and we will be filled. But many of us know the truth to this, in a devastating way. One day, an injury strikes, we’re sidelined, and that god deserts us, leaving us emptier than before. And even if we do win the championship, the glow wears off after a few weeks or months, and we’re back to the grind of training again, hoping to achieve that taste of glory one more time, to fulfill the demands of this idol.
Yet all the while that we were turning toward this idol of sports, God was calling to us—reminding us that our worth and value is found in God. Who we are in God’s eyes does not depend on our ability to shoot a jumper three, to run a timed race faster than our opponents, or even on whether we have the best sportsmanship on our team.
In the midst of our commitment to workouts, practices, and games, how do we commit ourselves to seeking God’s voice? As we spend hours with our coaches and teammates, when are we in the midst of the community of God’s people seeking to faithfully follow Christ? I believe there is one answer to both of these questions: Sabbath.
Sabbath as personal
Sabbath—the gift of rest given to us by God—is something many athletes are familiar with. It may be called an “active rest” day, or a cross training day. Our bodies are not built to go and go and go without a day of rest to recover from the training and strain, and so we take a day off from training, guilt-free, to prepare to chase the next milestone or goal next week. This cycle—six days of work, one day of rest—mirrors the story of creation, as we see God working the miracle of creation for six days, before spending the seventh day in rest. In our ability to rest, whether that’s one day a week or taking an off-season away from our sport, we can remember that our identity is not tied exclusively to our sports. I also believe that this day, or season, of rest can be a reminder to us of our need to worship, to seek truth in God’s Word, and to re-orient our lives toward God.
Sabbath as communal
The gift of Sabbath reminds us that following Jesus is not a journey that we do on our own. In the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy, the prohibition against work is a chance for the Hebrews to remember that they were once slaves, and that God had brought them out of Egypt to freedom (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). This was not a commandment to a single person, but to a community who could celebrate their freedom together. In the New Testament, the author of Hebrews says, “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses… let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…” (Hebrews 12:1-2, paraphrase). We follow the examples of the believers who have gone before us (such as Eric Liddell, above), those who walk alongside us today, and we cheer for those who will come after us. And we find all of those relationships—those older than us, younger than us, and our peers—in a community of believers who can support us in our walk of faith.
So, should we play sports on Sundays, if we are Christian athletes? That is a question that each athlete has to answer in their understanding of how they worship God.
Should we spend time seeking God outside of sports? Yes.
Should we be in a community of believers who are supporting us in our walk in faith? Yes.
Can that be outside of a Sunday worship service? Possibly. But it may take a bit more discipline to find that community and that personal worship of God outside of the “norm” of Sunday church.
May you be a disciple of Christ first and foremost, and follow him in a way worthy of his calling, in sports and in all of life.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. (1 Corinthians 9:24-25)
Kristin Franke spent 5 years as the youth director at Union Church in Hong Kong. She graduated with her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary in May 2015, and currently works at the seminary. In her free time, she plays and coaches Ultimate Frisbee.