Competition/Sports, Evangelism/Discipleship

How Do You Know When Sports Are An Idol? Part 3

Sports and Idolatry – In Part 1 and Part 2 of “How do you know when sports are an idol?”, I have sportsidol-01-300x300tried to make this connection and equip you to deal with this idolatry. I contend that three ideas are important to embrace when discussing sports and idolatry. They are

1) Assume sports are an idol

2) Examine our deep emotions around sports – especially our anger

3) Own the passions of our heart – especially for our own glory

In this post, I want to unpack the second idea – Examine our deep emotions around sports – especially our anger.

We all know it – you can’t hide your heart on the field, the court, or whatever environment you compete in. Sports cut us open and what is in us comes spilling out at the referees, the players on the opposing team and our own team, coaches, even at ourselves. This exposing quality is one of the reasons I love sports.

While this reality is apparent, what is interesting is that I don’t find a lot of people who probe into what is underneath those thoughts and emotions, especially our emotions.

And there is always something underneath our emotions. Emotions are never independent. They are always generated by beliefs.

Let’s take anger. It was Larry Crabb, Christian psychologist, who first alerted me to the fact that anger is the result of a blocked goal. It is my emotional response to the belief that the goal I am pursuing is being blocked. (A goal is something I believe I want or need to have and pursue.) When we don’t get what we want, when our efforts to achieve our goal are stymied, we get angry. The deeper the demand for that goal, and the deeper the resulting anger when it is blocked.

Now take that understanding to the athletic field. A coach gets really angry at an official’s call. Why? The official blocked the goal of the coach. What is the goal? While I am not sure, what I do know by the emotion is that, whatever the goal, it is important to the coach. The depth of the emotion, whether expressed or not, is determined by the depth of the goal, the importance of that goal to the person. When I see deep anger, whether in me or others, I know the goal is really important – it is something I really need to have, have to have. Now let’s tie that emotion to idolatry. Remember our definition of an idol – “If I have that, then I will be happy, valued, significant, etc.” I think I have to have “that” and “that” becomes an idol.

For most of us who play, watch or coach sports, the “that” is winning. (This is not the exclusive “that”, for even “having a good time” can be a “that” – a thing I have to have. Winning is just the “that” I will address now.) Therefore, when we don’t win, when someone gets in the way of our winning (including ourselves), we get angry at whoever or whatever got in the way. Anger reveals the reality of the idolatry in our sports, in this case the idolatry of winning. The deeper the anger, the deeper the idolatry, the more important the idol.

Next time you are watching, playing, coaching and you feel deep emotion, acknowledge it. Don’t run from it. Press into it by asking yourself, “Why am I feeling this?” Look for the beliefs that drive the emotion.

If it is anger, ask yourself, “What is the goal that is being blocked?” “Why is that goal so important that I feel this anger so deeply?”

The beliefs that you find underneath the emotions reveal the possible idols of our hearts. Acknowledge to God the “thats” (like winning) that you find, that were revealed through your emotions like anger. This is confession.

Turn away from, say no to these beliefs that take good things (like winning – a good desire but a bad goal) and make them ultimate things, making them idols in our hearts. This is repentance.

This begins the process of dealing with our idolatry of sports. In Part 4, I want to look at how deep this process of confession and repentance needs to go if we really want to break the tie between idolatry and our sports.


Bob Schindler