I grew up in a Christian sub-culture that viewed sports as worldly. That idea comes from Gnosticism, which states everything non-physical/spiritual is good, and everything physical is bad. The Biblical authors would disagree. Paul even uses imagery of boxing and running track, both popular sports then and now, as examples for the Christian life (Gal 5:7; Phil 3:14; 1 Tim 6:12a; and 2 Tim 4:7). There are good lessons to learn from athletes. Yet, this is where we must pause, most of us are not athletes, we are chronic consumers, addicted to a dream crafted by the NFL. The NFL is an organization that can provide, as all idols do, everything that we could want or dream about; from young, violent, muscular heroes and sexually provocative girls, to entrancing music, invigorating thrill, excitement, passion, and greatest of all, a sense of belonging. That is not to say that anyone who watches football is automatically an idol-worshipper (for even I would be guilty of that, and perhaps I am). However, such is the brokenness of the human heart, that we would gladly worship the NFL as an idol, something it is well suited for. In any event while there are those who are idol worshipers, and others who love Jesus and like football, all of us are prone to learning some bad lessons from watching football.
1. Results and recognition should be instant
In football games each touchdown is visible, and tallied right away. As soon as the clock ends, victory is instantly awarded. Those players who scored receive instant fame on television networks country wide. Yet in life, more often than not, the things that truly matter don’t have instantaneous results or recognition. Some of the most important men in this world lived, loved, labored, and left never seeing the results, nor having any fame. There are missionaries that spent their whole lives for a handful of converts, and only after their deaths, it was found out that their lives had an effect on nations.
2. Joy comes from winning
When the timer stops, and one team is glorified with victory, you can always see the sullen faces of the other team, as they slowly walk away, utterly despaired. Elsewhere millions of fans are letting bitter disappointment sink in. Sometimes, there are complimentary riots, car burnings included at no extra cost. In Christianity, we are called to have joy even in our trials and sufferings (Rom 5:3, Jam 1:2). Our joy is not based on the circumstances of our life but because we are loved by the Creator of all life. In football, we are taught to only have joy in victory.
3. Good things come with applause
Every good play is rewarded with cheers and applause as thousands of screaming fans pour out their adoration to the heroes. We as a culture are obsessed with applause (the Facebook like button can prove that), and wrongly assume that the things worth doing are those that we will be awarded, admired, acknowledged, and applauded for. Yet, it is obscurity, not celebrity, that is a Christian virtue. To quote an old Count, “Preach the Gospel, die, and be forgotten.”
4. Strength is what makes one a hero
Football celebrates youthful strength, talent, and energy. Old men and children don’t play football, neither do the sick, or anyone else we would consider “weak.” The way to win is to have more strength and talent than the other guy. Conversely, Christianity tells us that sometimes to win, you must become weak (1 Cor 1:27; 2 Cor 12:9-10). In fact, Jesus chose to be weak (Phil 2:7), in order to sympathize with us, and to save us. In his weakness Jesus was strong. So too, our strength comes from admitting we are weak without Christ.
Yet amongst all the bad lessons, hidden in a sea of NFL logos, chips, cheerleaders, and grown men screaming like girls, I see an enthralling vision of Grace and the Cross. When the Seahawks won yesterday, many of my friends took on this win as their own personal victory. For every touchdown that Marshawn Lynch scored, they felt a very real reward of joy. This heroes spent years training, beat their bodies, strained hard, to earn a victory, but the fans, only by associating themselves with the team, received the reward of that victory. That is how the Gospel works, Jesus won the game, and we freely receive the victory as our own.