Glorifying God through sport
As well as thinking of God and thanking God, we can also—as Shaun Pollock has noted—use sport to glorify God. We often hear sportspeople say after a sporting performance in which they do well that they “give all the glory to God”. (Some may cynically wonder if the person would give glory to God if they had not done so well. But, to be fair, the media do not usually interview those who are less successful.) But what does it mean to glorify God? And can we glorify God in ways other than actually saying “we glorify God”?
To give glory to God means to speak and act in a way that gives honour to God, and which reflects his greatness. It involves words:
Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name… (1 Chr 16:28-29a)
It also involves actions:
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. (1 Cor 10:31)
A sportsperson can glorify God with their words by acknowledging that the ability and opportunity to play their sport, regardless of how they perform, comes ultimately from God. Thus, athletes might thank God or give glory to God when they perform well or when they simply participate.
We can also glorify God in our actions. Australian brother and sister pairs figure skaters Stephen and Danielle Carr competed at three Winter Olympics in the 1990s. Stephen once commented that he and Danielle would often pray with each other, especially as they grew older. Their prayers about their skating also changed as they matured in their Christian faith. When they were younger believers, Stephen prayed that God would help them to win the competitions in which they were competing. As his faith developed, they prayed that God would strengthen them and that they would “skate for the glory of God”.
How can a performance bring honour to God? First, a sportsperson can bring glory to God simply by using their God-given gift. Former Chelsea and Newcastle Premier League footballer Gavin Peacock has said, “I regard my ability to play football as a gift from God. He has given me the talent. I believe he wants me to work hard and make the best of what he has given me and use it for his glory.”1
Sometimes the quality of a sporting performance is such that it takes the breath away and points to the power, creativity and beauty of God. Of course, God’s power, creativity and beauty are far beyond anything that a mere sporting performance can achieve, but it can give us a glimpse. A Christian sportsperson performing the athletic feat might be aware that this is what they are doing. A non-Christian performing the athletic feat would not be aware. But in either case, the Christian spectator can appreciate it. I sat near the final baton change for the 4 x 100 metres relay finals at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. The sight of the runners hurtling around the bend at incredible speed and then fluidly passing the baton to the next runners was awe-inspiring. The power, pace and precision of the process took my breath away, and certainly pointed to the qualities of the God who created all this.
Second, a sportsperson can bring glory to God by the way in which they participate—for example, by doing their best, and by displaying good sportsmanship. Colossians 3:23, cited earlier, says: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters”. Dual Olympic gold medal winning South African breaststroker Penny Heyns has spoken of how she came to appreciate that swimming laps of the pool was an opportunity for her to worship God. “I committed to giving my whole being and heart to God in every moment of my swimming”, she says.2 And while we will discuss sportsmanship more in the next chapter, it must be said here that competing in a sportsmanlike manner brings great glory to God and shows us something of his love.
It would be a tragedy for all concerned if a Christian participating in sport did not think of God when playing sport, thank God for that sport, and seek to bring glory to God in that sport by their words and actions.
1. Stuart Weir, What the Book says about Sport, The Bible Reading Fellowship, Oxford, 2000, p. 32.↩
2. Penny Heyns, ‘Training Worship’, in Josh Davis (ed.), The Goal and the Glory: World-class Athletes Share their Inspiring Stories, Regal, Ventura, 2008, p. 71.↩