Written by Tony Cammarota, Associate Pastor of Equipping at Stonebriar Community Church. Originally published on his blog playingforglory.com.
What started as a hobby quickly turned into one of the scariest moments of my life.
One day, my wife and I decided to try a triathlon. She grew up swimming. I had gotten into running. We both enjoyed biking. So we decided to register for a triathlon that would begin with a 1500m open water swim in a local lake.
We were newbies to triathlon, so we naively thought a pool swim and open water swim would be the same. I learned quickly that they were not. As the race began and I jumped into the water, I got scared. I couldn’t touch the bottom, my heart was racing, my body was cold, and my breathing was uncontrollable. I was having a panic attack…in the middle of a lake. Thankfully, the lifeguards came to my rescue. It was one of the most frightening moments of my life because, for the first time, I realized that drowning was a realistic possibility.
Over the next year, I tried other open water swims, but I could never get over the panic. Then one day, I came across this passage in my Bible reading:
“The God who made the world and everything in it…since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things…for in Him we live and move and have our being.” Acts 17:24-28
Our Bodies Matter
The lesson is simple. God made our physical bodies. God gives all humans our literal breath. God gives and sustains our capacities for physical movement.
This concept changed how I thought about my physical body and capacity to swim, in any environment. This Bible passage tells us that we are created beings and whole beings. The physical is not less than the spiritual part of us and vice versa. Our physical bodies matter just as much as our souls. We are a whole being, just as Jesus was a whole being. Humanity does not have forgiveness of sins or redemption without the physical birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The apostle John appeals to this to encourage Christians to love others. In 2 John, he wrote to correct lies that were spreading. He said…
“Some deceivers do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh.” 2 John 7-8.
In other words, our bodies matter.
Sports Aren’t Just for the Sporty
This has far-reaching implications for people of faith. But for our purposes, the point I’d like to make is that athletics aren’t just hobbies for those inclined to sports. Rather, kinesiology, physiology, or athletics (call it what you’d like) are just as much a part of life as music or food or laughter.
As an aside, in the December 26, 1960 edition of Sports Illustrated, President Elect John F. Kennedy wrote the article “The Soft American.” It highlighted the negative effects in society when fitness declines in a culture and the benefits to society as fitness increases. JFK recognized the scriptural truth, even though he did not reference the Bible in the article.
This reality is the foundation for how people of faith ought to re-adjust their perspective of athletics and sports in our culture. Too often, Christians have primarily listed the dark side to sports, or they have relegated athletics to being a hobby or way of life for those naturally bent to it. This has affected the way Christian leadership has thought of sports ministry in the United States.
Para-church ministries such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action have developed ways to reach out to the sports world (with great intentions and fruitful efforts), while others who aren’t interested in athletics give a supporting, polite nod to those called into that part of culture. However, I contend that this view falls short of the ideal.
I readily admit that God has made us all different and our interests vary in degree. I’m not advocating that all humans need to develop a deep love for sports. Rather, I am hoping that all people of faith will put play and physical movement in its proper place as part of God’s great design. Remember…
“God made the world and EVERYTHING in it.”
Feeling God’s Pleasure
Take the Chinese Missionary and 1924 Scottish Olympian, Eric Liddell, as an example. It’s stated that he told his sister before the 1924 Olympics, in which he won a gold medal in the 400m, “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure. To not run would be to hold God in contempt.” Eric Liddell cited God’s design of his body as a reason to run and a way to honor the One who created him. For Eric, there was no arbitrary and unnecessary divide between the physical and spiritual.
It is important to note that some Christians have referenced Eric Liddell to illustrate that all people should use the talents God has given them. Those with a bent towards art should cultivate artistic talent. Those gifted musically should use that talent. I totally agree with that. God has uniquely gifted each human, and when humans exercise our design, it makes God look good. Yet, the theological truth embedded in the Eric Liddell story isn’t just talent, but also that we are created with a physical body. Foundational to Eric’s comment is that the spiritual and physical part of us make us “us.” Tony is not just a soul. Tony is not just a body. Tony is a being that is soul and body.
Whether you enjoy running as a hobby or only run when someone is chasing you, we should all begin to realize that play, athletics, or sports shouldn’t be relegated to those who do them well. Rather we can think about sports the way we think about music.
Let’s Be Consistent
For people of faith, one of the most important confessions is found in the Old Testament. For over 3,500 years, this statement served as THE foundation for a human’s relationship with God. It says…
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Deuteronomy 6:5
One of my friends observed that Christians rightly interpret the first two parts of that verse literally, but then Christians change the way they interpret “all your strength.” He wisely noticed that most Christians interpret that phrase metaphorically. The better way is to interpret all three parts of that passage in a normal, literal way.
The point is simple. One way we love God is through active use of our physical body. A farmer may not enjoy running a marathon, but he sure enjoys the physicality of a hard day’s work.
Some of us have been given extraordinary doses of talent and musical ability. Others, not so much. Some sing more beautifully than others, yet all can sing. And in the context of worship in the church, all of us can sing. A few uniquely gifted musicians will lead from the stage, while others will sit in the seats. The point is that all participate. The same ought to be true for physical movement. Some will amaze the world by sprinting 100m in less than 10 seconds, while others can simply enjoy walking around a track, neighborhood, or park.
Everyone Can Participate
The church I attend has a wonderful way of caring for children and adults with special needs. We have special classes, groups, and events for those with special needs. Those who lead our care of special needs have become national influences for churches who want to develop a better way to minister to people with special needs. The reality in our church is that there is a small group of leaders trained to minister to this group. Yet, even though only a handful of people are directly involved, our whole church owns, believes in, and supports the efforts to invest in the lives of those with special needs.
The point is that even though there are various degrees of involvement, some direct and others indirect, everybody in our church is involved. We are supportive in one way or another because we believe that God made all humans, and all humans have innate dignity. This should be the same way people of faith approach sports and games. Christians should all be involved in athletics in some way because God is the one who designed our bodies in the first place.
Finally, this concept of play doesn’t have to be dismissed as something just for kids or for those with an inclination to sports. Take a look back into an Old Testament passage. Many of the prophets provided visions of how the earth would function when sin is gone and Jesus is reigning as King. One of those passages includes the following description…
“And the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in its streets.” Zechariah 8:5.
Did you catch that? One of the ways God describes a future in which all things will be made new is that He says that boys and girls will play freely and safely.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting everyone goes out and joins a gym. Rather, I’m suggesting that all people of faith begin to practice what we’re encouraged to do in the New Testament, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
Athletics is so much more than just a niche ministry. Sports don’t have to be pigeonholed as a ministry just for those who like to work out. Christians do not think that music ministry is niche ministry or that special needs ministry is a niche ministry. Sure, Christians have different degrees of capacity and involvement in these, but all are involved in some way. And the reason we ought to be involved in some capacity is because at the end of the day, these aren’t issues of preference or likes, but they are issues of creation. They are issues for all humans. After all, it is in Him we live and move and have our being.
Tony has enjoyed playing sports his whole life. He played soccer as a kid 35 years ago and now enjoys coaching his kids’ teams. He enjoys shooting hoops in the driveway and competing in triathlons. As an Ironman Texas finisher, he loves to swim, bike, and run when he isn’t spending time with his wife, Dorianne, and his four kids. He earned a B.A. from University of North Texas and a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theology Seminary and now works as an associate pastor at Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, Texas.