Sports on Sunday’s: A Look at a Great Example

“Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.”

James 4:17

“God made me fast and when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

Eric Liddell

What if…

Your kid actually made it to a professional level? The chance of your child actually playing as a professional athlete as you might already know are miniscule (more will be shared about this). But, let’s say that your child made it to the Olympics. Let’s pretend that your child developed in to an elite long-jumper that actually had a chance to win the gold. Everyone in the family is excited. His moment has come. All of the practices, coaching and participating in many states is finally paying off. His big moment is here. Then, he finds out that the jumps for the qualifying round are to be held on a Sunday. He comes to you as a parent and says, I just don’t feel like I should jump on that day. God is the one who gave me the talent and I think that the best thing I can do to honor him would be to go worship with His people on that day. What would you say to your child? My guess is that most of the world would think that your child had lost his mind. You may as well, but has he? That scenario may seem a little far-fetched unless you know the story of Eric Liddell.

God first

Eric was a great example of an athlete who loved sports but loved God even more.  If you have never had an opportunity to watch the movie Chariots of Fire, please do it! The movie is a good picture of the first part of his life.  Eric Metaxas in his book 7 Men profiles the life of Liddell.  Because of his conviction that it was wrong to participate in sports on Sunday, Liddell refused to take part in a qualifying heat of the 100- meter dash (his best event) at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. He also gave up running in both the 4×100 and 4×400 meter relays because both required participation on Sunday as well.  Metaxas says during those events “Liddell was nowhere near the Olympic stadium. He was in the pulpit at the Scots Kirk in Paris, preaching to a large and admiring audience.”1. Liddell received many harsh words from his countrymen because of his stance to put Christ over competing.  But Liddell ran for God. He believed that his gift came from God and that it would be dishonoring for him to use it on a day that God had said to keep holy.  Liddell’s desire was to please Jesus Christ more than any man. Because his qualifying heat for the 100 fell on Sunday, he opted to run in the 400 meter-dash instead. Liddell gave up the opportunity of competing in his best event, likely passing on a gold medal because the qualifying heat was on Sunday. Do you know of a professional athlete today that takes the Lord’s Day that seriously? Do you know any athlete that would give up a gold medal in order to be to be present at church on Sunday morning? Even though the 400 was not Liddell’s best event, by God’s grace he was able to participate and win gold in his second-best personal event.

So, what do you think?

Was Liddell foolish for not competing in the 100 meters? Do you think that his decision to not run was just a subjective decision and in no way objective for the body of Christ? It is a tough question isn’t it? When you look at the beliefs of Liddell, you can quickly see that to have competed would have went against his conscience and thus been a sin for him. James 4:17 says, “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.” I am guessing that because participating in sports is so culturally accepted, most fathers and mothers don’t even stop to wonder about whether it is wrong or right for them to participate on Sunday’s. There are some things in the Christian life that are subjective decisions that affect our conscience. It is important for us to examine what, why and when we are participating in things that might draw us away from times when God’s people meet. Was Liddell a hero or zero? Would you hold his example up to your child as one that should be followed? Do you think that he was overzealous and that it wasn’t that big of a deal? Be thoughtful about these questions. You are shaping not only your child’s views of these things but of many generations to come. Your decisions now, will affect your posterity from here forward. Choose wisely.

Eric Liddell vs. other models

One of the best models of faithfulness to the gospel in a pro athlete is Tim Tebow. Tebow is outspoken about his faith and has received much praise from the Christian world. He frequently speaks about his faith at churches and in other public arenas. Tebow also participated as a former NFL football player in games on Sunday. Was he any less spiritual than Liddell? What about other great men of God like the retired NFL great Tony Dungy? Again, his career was mainly made by participating in NFL Sunday. Many, many other pro athletes can be pointed out as participating on Sundays.

Sports teams for professional athletes today accommodate their players with chapel services that they can participate in. Most of these men took part in worship on the same Sunday that they participated in a game. Couldn’t Liddell have done the same thing? Yes, I’m sure he could have, but this is where he would be different from the pro athletes of today. Liddell believed that Sunday should be a strict observance of worship and that no participation at all in his given sport should happen. Many pro athletes today see Sunday more dynamically than Liddell did. They believe that they can both worship and participate in sports on the same day. A third category are others who claim Christ who participate in sports on Sundays on a limited basis. This would be a family that carefully and thoughtfully looks at the spiritual toll that a given sports schedule may have on their child. Because they think that gathering with the God’s people is more important than the sport, there is only a certain amount of Sundays that they will be willing to miss during the season. Maybe no regular season games at all are worth a Sunday morning, only tournaments. This view of course is subjective, but this family has a threshold that they are not willing to cross. The fourth category is a family who claims Christ, but don’t even think about the possible spiritual impact that missing Sundays will have on their child. Any time sports conflicts with the church schedule, it will naturally be the sports that wins out. In fact, it might be better to say that the church schedule conflicts with the sports schedule. Sports wins out every time with this family and they don’t even think about the implications of skipping church.

The following may illustrate different beliefs about Sunday morning and participating in sports. Which family are you?

NO PARTICIPATION IN SPORTSPARTICIPATE IN WORSHIPERIC LIDDELL MODEL (STATIC)
PARTICIPATE IN SPORTSPARTICIPATE IN WORSHIPPRO-ATHLETE MODEL (DYNAMIC)
PARTICIPATE IN SPORTS (LIMITED)PARTICIPATE IN WORSHIP (LIMITED)MANY FAMILES (THOUGHTFUL PARTICIPATION)
PARTICIPATE IN SPORTSWORSHIP IS OPTIONALMANY FAMILIES (NOT THOUGHTFUL/SPORTS FIRST)

A great role-model

For Liddell, faithfulness to God came before everything else. Liddell ended up doing mission work in China for several years after retirement. While there, he was imprisoned during World War II.   Metaxas points out that Liddell had the opportunity to get out of the prison camp and reunite with his family, but in keeping with his personality, he put the priority on others rather than himself. Liddell gave up his freedom and allowed a pregnant woman to be freed rather than himself.  Liddell died in prison and never saw his family again.  A friend said that his last words were, “it’s complete surrender.”2 The Christian life is to be one of “complete surrender” not wasted time. “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” (Lk. 9:27) Sports will most likely be a tiny part of your child’s life.  The hope we have in Christ is eternal.  Develop a long-term vision for your child’s life. Look past the small amount of time that they will participate in sports and dream of what you will see. Will it be a godly man or woman? Will they have grown to love and cherish the things of God? What will their priorities be? Be prayerful and intentional about helping a Christian worldview of sports lead out in their lives. Consider these words by Liddell: “Many of us are missing something in life because we are after the second best, I put before you what I have found to be the best – one who is worthy of all our devotion – Jesus Christ. He is the Savior for the young and the old. Lord, here I am…” You may disagree with Liddell’s view of Sunday, but one thing is for sure, he was a great role-model. Personally, for me, a guy who loves sports, Eric Liddell is and always will be a hero, not a zero.    

End Notes:

  1. Eric Metaxas, 7 Men. (Nelson Books, Nashville, TN. 2013) 71
  2. Sally Magnusson, The Flying Scotsman, A Biography. New York, NY: Quartet Books Inc. p. 1981) 160-170.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.