Running is a painful thing for me. My chest hurts. My feet ache. The muscles in my legs tighten up. By the end of the run I usually have two main concerns: Either my heart is beating with such intensity that I’m concerned it might burst and I will die, or I cannot fill my lungs with enough oxygen to keep me from passing out and/or dying.
But there is also something very pleasurable about running. Running brings a sense of freedom, as if I’m throwing off restraints. As I feel the wind blowing against me and see the pavement gliding beneath me, I begin to experience pleasure along with the pain.
Eric Liddell would have understood. Eric was a runner, a blazing fast runner, and he knew that it was God who made him fast. For Eric, running wasn’t about getting in shape or losing weight. It was all about pleasure. In the classic movie Chariots of Fire, Eric makes the following profound statement:
I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.Chariots of Fire, Warner Brothers Pictures, 1981; Warner Home Video, 1992.
When Eric ran, he sensed God’s pleasure! Speed was God’s gift to Eric, and Eric took immense pleasure in that gift. He viewed his speed as a gift from God to be thoroughly enjoyed.
Have you ever experienced that wonderful sense of pleasure of which Eric spoke? Have you ever had that feeling of glory, of being incredibly alive, that comes from playing sports? When all your muscles are working together and your heart is pounding like a hot rod engine and every sense is sharpened? It’s a glorious thing. Sports are clearly gifts from God to us.
But why is it that we feel such joy in sports? What is it that brings us to our feet when we see a basketball player soar through the air for a rim-rocking dunk? What is it that makes us smile when we smash a golf ball down the fairway? Why is there such pleasure in playing touch football in a muddy backyard with our friends? Throughout this chapter we’ll consider these questions so that we might enjoy the gift of sports in ways that please and honor God.
The Joy of Excellence
There is something in us that is irresistibly drawn toward excellence. We can’t help but gaze in wonder at a masterful piece of artwork. Our hearts are captivated by the glorious strains of music created by a symphony. A thanksgiving turkey roasted to golden-brown perfection receives our emphatic praise.
Everywhere you look people and companies are engaged in the passionate pursuit of excellence, and nowhere is this more clearly displayed than in the arena of sports. Every player is in search of the “perfect swing” or the “perfect shot” or even the “perfect season.” Day in and day out players push their bodies to the limit in an effort to sharpen their athletic skills. Some coaches have taken the pursuit of excellence to the extreme, cursing and screaming at their players over even the smallest mistakes.
As spectators we are also enraptured by excellence. We can’t help but be dazzled as we watch an Olympic sprinter run a blazing 100 meters in under 10 seconds or see Chicago Bulls guard Ben Gordon knock down nine consecutive three-point shots. There is something awe-inspiring about watching St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols swat mammoth home runs or seeing Tiger Woods absolutely murder a golf ball. Excellence is attractive.
Why are we so drawn to excellence? At first glance this might seem like an odd question. Why would we not be drawn to excellence? It’s almost like asking why a man would be attracted to a woman. It’s just the way it is. Or is it? I believe that the answer is not as simple as we might think. It goes much deeper and is rooted in the very character of God.
God is the most excellent, glorious being who exists. In Matthew 5:48 Jesus tells us, “Your heavenly Father is perfect.” Stop and ponder that word “perfect” for a moment. God is perfection. His love is the sweetest and most tender love that has ever been known. It is perfect love. His power is both awe-inspiring and terrifying. It is perfect power. His wisdom, which infinitely exceeds all the wisdom collected by men through the ages, is perfect wisdom. He is perfect in every facet of His character, and all that He does flows out of His excellence.
All of creation has been kissed by the glory of God and gives us a small glimpse into His character. Even though creation has been marred and distorted by sin, we can still see the glory of God piercing through. When we hear a bird lifting its voice in beautiful song or see a breathtaking sunrise, we are glimpsing the character of God. He created the singing bird and the golden hues of a sunrise. If we get such pleasure from these things, what must the God who created them be like? He must be the most excellent of all! The glories of creation are meant to direct our attention to the glorious Creator. C. S. Lewis put it this way:
I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. Then I moved so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces (London: HarperCollins, 2000), 607.
Lewis understood that we must look through the “beam” of God’s good gifts to see their glorious source. We see this again in James 1:17, which reads, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Behind every good gift in creation is a generous and glorious God.
This applies to sports as well. Professional baseball players are incredible. It amazes me to see a person hurl a ball at ninety miles an hour with sniper-like accuracy. I can’t throw a baseball that hard. My arm would fall off if I tried. My flimsy arm simply lacks the power. The arm of a Major League pitcher is like a stick of dynamite—absolutely packed with power.
Now consider God himself. If God has given such power to frail human beings, how much more powerful must he be? A Major League pitcher is throwing a small, white sphere that weighs a mere five ounces. God threw the planets into orbit. Even the best pitchers lack the ability to control their pitches at times. God holds the universe together and keeps the planets in orbit. Humans have some power. God is infinitely powerful.
I’m even more amazed by professional golfers. My body refuses to play golf. When I pick up a golf club, I lose all control of my hands and arms. I look like I’m having a mild seizure when I swing the club. When I hit the ball, there’s no guarantee that it will go straight, or even forward.
Watching Tiger Woods play golf is a different story. He has mastered his body, and it does his bidding. His swing is ferocious, his putts delicate. The excellence of Tiger, however, is but the faintest whisper of God’s excellence. Tiger Woods makes mistakes. He slices balls into the trees and misses easy putts. He occasionally chokes in the clutch. But God never makes mistakes, and he does all things with excellence! I experience joy in watching Tiger Woods because I’m catching a very faint glimpse of the glory and excellence of God.
This should greatly affect the way we play and watch sports. When we excel at sports, we are in a very small way reflecting the excellence of God’s character. This is part of the reason why we experience so much joy in playing sports. Doing things excellently is a reflection of God, who does all things with excellence. The same is true of watching sports. When we see an athlete perform exceptionally well, we’re seeing a small portion of God’s character.
For example, in the 1982 NFC Championship game, Joe Montana and Dwight Clark connected for what has since become known simply as “The Catch.” With less than a minute remaining in the game and the Forty-Niners trailing 27-21, Montana lined up on the Cowboys’ six-yard line. As soon as the ball was snapped, Montana was under pressure. The Forty-Niners’ front line collapsed, and Montana found himself face to face with three Cowboy defenders. He rolled to his right, under hot pursuit from the defense, desperately looking for an open receiver. At the last possible second Montana floated a pass to the back right corner of the end zone in the general direction of Forty-Niners receiver Dwight Clark. Clark launched himself into the air and managed to snag the pass with his outstretched fingertips, winning the NFC championship for the Forty-Niners and securing for himself a place in football lore.”The Catch (American Football)”; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Catch_%28American_football%29 (accessed January 4, 2008).
Clark’s catch was a thing of beauty; it was a reflection of the excellence of God. The application of this truth is simple. When you play sports well, turn your heart to God and praise Him for His excellence. Acknowledge that He’s the only one who does all things well. Acknowledge that your ability to do things with excellence is nothing compared to His ability to do things with excellence. Respond by thanking him for the abilities that He’s given to you and remembering that all talent comes from Him.
Similarly, when you’re watching sports and see an athlete make a play that brings your hands up and your jaw down, let that direct your thoughts to God. Take a moment to praise Him for the gifts that He’s given us, and praise Him for His superior excellence. For those of you who play organized sports, let this motivate you to practice hard. We can glorify God through the pursuit of excellence, and excellence only comes through hard work. God isn’t glorified by halfhearted, mediocre efforts. So work hard in practice, not for your own honor and praise, but for the glory of God.
From Game Day for the Glory of God: A Guide for Athletes, Fans, and Wannabes by Stephen Altrogge copyright © 2008, pages 33-38. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.com