Stephen Altrogge has written an insightful, encouraging, helpful book on one of America’s biggest and most obvious idols: sports. Americans love sports. Many people build their lives around the arena of sports. There really are two different issues concerning sports idolatry in America:

  1. Sports as competition.
  2. Sports as entertainment.

These two  issues may certainly bleed over into one another among certain individuals. It is highly probably that the competitive athlete will also enjoy sports as entertainment. But many people who enjoy sports as entertainment do not necessarily embrace sports competively as an individual. In other words, you don’t have to actually play or participate in sporting events in order to be captivated by them.

I think Altrogge’s book is most helpful for competitors and parents of children who participate in the sports arena competitively. He does a good job of keeping several issues in focus:

  1. Everything we do is to be done to the glory of God.
  2. Sports provide an excellent stage for sanctification if we pursue godliness in our pursuit of athletic excellence.
  3. Sports easily becomes an idol for most competitors.

I thought two chapters in particular were especially helpful and thought-provoking. In chapter 5 Altrogge addresses an inevitable reality in the competitive arena: There will be winners and losers. As good as programs such as Upward Basketball has been for outreach in local churches, it has failed to adequately teach children how to win and lose to the glory of God. Instead, culture is rapidly moving away from the reality that there are losers in life in every arena except self-esteem-driven sporting events. The Upward program goes so far as not to even keep score for the sake of nuturing the fragile self-esteem of our children! But if our children don’t learn how to win and lose to God’s glory in a basketball game that really means very little in the big scheme of things, how will they respond when they are thrown to the wolves in the competitive marketplace? Who will hold their hand and say, “You didn’t lose today even though the other team made 100 baskets to your 2. Here’s a gold star for being the best defensive player today!” Seriously, is anyone deserving a star for defense when you lose by 98 points? Talk about lowering the standards of excellence and settling for mediocrity.

Altrogge points out the obvious: Winning presents many temptations to take pride in one’s self and make an idol out out of one’s abilities and accomplishments. We are tempted to think we’ve achieved something apart from God’s help (Deut 8:11-18). We are tempted by the notion that winning achieves for us a certain image, meaning we want people to sing our praises. We are tempted to feel superior to those we have “defeated” on the competitive field. And when we lose we face similar temptations. We are tempted to criticize other players, coaches, and referees. We are tempted to hyper-focus on and agonize over personal failures without considering that God may plan for our good in our failures. We are tempted to feel shame for our loss. Altrogge reminds us that the key to both winning and losing to God’s glory is by fostering humility in our lives. God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble.

You might say, “If there are so many temptations, then perhaps not having a winner and loser is better!” Actually, winning and losing can be helpful ways for God to work in our lives and make us more like His Son. The key is whether or not we are pursuing godliness in the way that we compete. Not having a winner and loser can be just as deadly to our souls as winning and losing in an ungodly fashion. What is gained when we build competitive arenas around promoting self-esteem. What sinful behavioral patterns might self-esteem reinforce? Pride. Independence (we are made to be dependent creatures). Identity issues. Inability to deal appropriately with hardship. Anxiety. The list could go on.

In Chapter 6 Altrogge addresses parents, children and the glory of God. I thought that this might have been perhaps Altrogge’s finest contribution in this book.  He provides a compelling argument for why and how parents should use sports to promote godliness in their children. We need to remember that for most, participation in sports is temporary and it is meant to be prepartory. Sadly, too many people take sports too seriously for what they are. Both participants, parents of participants and coaches alike are guilty. Whether or not your child excels in sports isn’t the most important thing. The way in which they participate (and the way in which you participate) is of far greater importance to God than whether or not your child hits for a .300 avg and leads the team in RBI’s.

Altrogge says that parents should:

  1. Help your child savor Christ. This means we must teach them to recognize that our hearts are little idol factories. Anything can come between us and our affection for Jesus. Teach your child that Jesus is the most important person in the world because we have been made to worship Him.
  2. Help your child set godly priorities within their athletic participation and accomplishments. Prepare them both before and after the game. Cultivate humility. Teach them to hold their tongue when the referee makes a bad call. Tell them to ask their coaches how they can improve. Teach them to encourage their teammates. Teach them to give glory to God for any success they may have. Teach them to depend upon God by instructing them in how to pray for God’s help and grace when they play.
  3. Help your children see the big picture. Your child’s relationship with God is of more importance than whether or not they make the team. Your child’s relationship with your entire family is of more importance than whether or not they can fully participate in the traveling club soccer team. Your child’s commitment to God’s people in your local church is of more importance than your child training for the NFL draft at the ripe old age of 10 years old.

If I have one critique of Altrogge’s work it is that I don’t think he fully addresses the issue of sports as entertainment. Sports can certainly become an idol to its participants, but what about those of us who can no longer compete but still enjoy watching  (alot of) sports? I think one thing to consider is that we should never watch any sporting event without discernment. We should be evaluating the values being communicated to use through the medium of sports. This is especially true when we watch a sporting event with someone else. C.J. Mahaney briefly addresses this in the appendix but I’d love to see a more comprehensive work on this particular subject.

I also am left with a question from Altrogge’s work. Altrogge spend some time talking about the pursuit of victory in competition and makes some parallels to the gospel in relationship to the victory of God through His Son Jesus Christ’s work on the cross (chapter 3). At times I felt like Altrogge was stretching the relationship between victory on the basketball court (or the gird iron or the pitch or the golf course) and the victory of Christ a little too thin. He goes on to say that “victory is a reflection of God’s character”. He goes on to say that we can “catch faint, yet still delightful glimpses of the glory of God in the glory of victory, and this is what makes victory good.”

God’s victory in the Gospel isn’t the essence of His character. It is (I think) an accomplishment of His character. In other words, because God is all-powerful, wise, sovereign, just, good, etc, His purposes will stand. So when I hear that our victory is a reflection of God’s victory, I see these godly characteristics at work within me to enable me to accomplish this small victory in the competitive arena. However, I’m not so sure that this doesn’t cheapen God’s victory simply because what has been conquered in one arena is pitifully insufficient to represent what was conquered in the other. I appreciate Altrogge’s attempt to keep the Gospel central in regards to our pursuit of victory, but I’m not so sure there is a clear connection.

Which leads me to a closing question/observation. After reading through Altrogge’s book and spinning my own wheels on this subject, I’ve come to the conclusion that whether or not “victory” is acheived in sports isn’t the most important thing. It really is how we play (or watch) the game. God may certainly care who wins the game simply because he is at work in the lives of each and every participant to some degree, but in the end the game is also teaching us something about ourselves. How we play reveals what we value. When we get angry at a call or a teammate, it reveals that we believe that something other than God is more satisfying (Ps 16:11). We believe that something other than God Himself will make us truly happy. When we take pride in our accomplishments apart from dependency upon Christ, we worship ourselves and not God. When we agonize over missing the game-winning shot or our favorite college football team’s losing season, we fail to take into account that God works together good for those that love him and are called according to His purpose (Rom 8:28).

This is a book that every athlete (and non-athlete) should read. It will promote godliness in an area of life where we too often ignore the implications of the Gospel.