Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Removing the High Places

People who have read my blog for a while or know me personally have a good idea of my continuous struggle with professional sports. My challenges are fairly well-documented - and confessed!

Over the last year or so, however, the Lord has been putting in my path other people who have seemed to recognize the downfalls of investing too much time (or any time) in this form of entertainment. And these are not just ultra-conservative people. These are individuals who many would probably consider to be fairly well-balanced. My dad, for example, has definitely had a re-thinking of the subject over the last year. Then, one of my seminary professors, out of the blue, shared with me, via e-mail, that he had felt convicted about this area and was not spending as much time worrying about his favorite teams. And just recently, a very good friend of mine, much to my surprise, told me that he has been wondering lately whether he would want his children (that are just a figment of his imagination at this point) to be concerned with sports. "There are a lot better things we could be doing for three hours on a Sunday afternoon," he shared.

I don't think my interactions with these individuals are coincidental - even if just to remind me of my own priorities. And I am also wondering if God is raising a generation of men (or a couple generations of men) who are seeing the follies of professional (and even collegiate) athletics during this important juncture in earth's history. Could our obsession with professional and collegiate athletics be our own modern "high place" or "Baal worship" that God is calling us to remove (for one explanation of the "high places" in Israel, see 2 Kings 17:11)? As I read the Bible, I am startled how, with each successive generation, idolatry got worse and worse - mainly because the previous generation refused to remove the "high places." And I know I don't want that for my children.

Yesterday, this issue was again posed to me by a balanced yet conscientious friend of mine on Facebook. He wanted my perspective on the whole issue because he knows I have shared thoughts on it before and it is something he is struggling with. Below is my very informal and off-the-cuff response to him. Perhaps it will scratch where you're itching. Or perhaps you will respond to my sentiments much the same way others have: with a great deal of ambivalence, ridicule, or feeling as though you are being judged - which is not my intention at all. This is simply where I am in my thinking (though, sadly, as you will see, not in my living) and I do not condemn anyone else for not being at the same place philosophically, spiritually, or otherwise.

Anyway, without further ado, here is how I responded to my friend on Facebook:

Boy, great question! This is something I continue to struggle with. There is what I want to do in my mind, but then there is what my flesh often allures me into doing. I am a pretty easy target when it comes to the devil tempting me with sports, though.

So let me just explain where I am in my thinking, and then where I am in my doing.

For the last ten or so years, I have been under the conviction that God doesn’t want me involved in watching professional sports (and NCAA as well, though that is not as much an issue for me). This is mostly because it is not really all that productive, nor is it edifying, and it distracts me from what is most important in life - God, family, sharing my faith. It really drains me of affections that should be fully devoted to God and family.

Thus, I came to the decision many times over that I cannot participate in sports fandom on any level - watching, reading about, listening about. For me, sports is an addiction that I cannot participate in in moderation. Either I watch a game and get fully sucked into all that surrounds it, or I don’t watch it at all. I cannot find any middle ground.

But I am not even sure that God wants me to find middle ground. I honestly don’t think that there is one single redeeming quality about watching an athletic event - with the exception of doing so with people with whom you are trying to share the gospel or foster a relationship. I am not saying that this is a moral issue on par with one of the Ten Commandments and that if anyone does watch sports he or she is lost and in danger of losing their salvation. This is just where I am in my thinking and everyone is at a different place.

The reason I don’t find there to be much that is redeeming about sports is because of the violence on some level that is usually committed in most sports - especially football and hockey. Football literally shaves years off peoples’ lives. The average NFL player, for example, who plays four years in the league, has a life expectancyof 55 years, with each additional year of playing contributing to an even shorter life expectancy. Thus, we are literally watching people kill themselves - and others - for the sake of entertainment.

Beyond that, the act of competition where people win and lose is antithetical to the gospel, where everyone wins.

Aside from these two issues, the incredible waste of time that sports naturally produces is inexcusable to me, especially at this important juncture of earth’s history, where we are called to be more interested in Christ’s honor, glory, and salvation, then our own entertainment. This does not mean we should be going at a serious pace all day, every day, but that we should choose forms of “recreation” that truly “re-create” rather than destroy our thirst for spiritual matters. Interestingly, I just heard this definition of sin recently by Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias. It is what John Wesley’s mother told him the definition of sin is when he was a boy, and it is very poignant and relevant to this discussion: “Take this rule: whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off your relish of spiritual things; in short, whatever increases the strength and authority of your body over your mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself.”

With all that being said, let me just briefly tell you where I am personally as far as implementation. This is an area that I have not fully surrendered over to God. I have moments of victory and periods of “dryness,” but that’s usually not during football season or it’s at times when the Patriots aren’t playing so well. I have lost much of my interest in the Red Sox, though I sometimes listen to them as I am driving during the summer, and I feel like I can do it rather innocently. But when football season comes around, or when the Bruins are playing well, that’s another story. I still have great affection towards these teams!

So pray for me, brother.

*I would encourage anyone and everyone to watch the video below. It is very poignant!!


Staci said...

Appreciated your honesty and candidness on this subject. It is not a high place I struggle with but I know so many of my guy friends do. Your post caught my attention because our pastor here in Lansing has been preaching an entire sermon series on removing different high places from our lives. I agree with you that God is raising up a generation who will remove things that may not be "evil" but are not best from their lives as they prepare for Jesus' soon return. Another part of revival and reformation.

Orion said...

Always like to read your posts. Thanks for taking the time to put these kinds of things out for other people to read.
God bless you in your ministry.

Shawn Brace said...


Thanks for sharing! That is awesome. I just noticed on your church website that Justin Ringstaff is your pastor. I worked with him in seminary when he was the pastor of the Chikaming Church (while also in the seminary). We had some great times. I absolutely love him and his family - and I think he is a great pastor. Give him our regards!

Yes, I think the Lord is raising up a generation who is not afraid to move the high places - always motivated by God's love and grace, of course, and realizing that we, in our own strength, cannot do the work ourselves. But as we see the love of Christ as revealed on the cross, and our hearts are stirred, that "agape" love of Christ will constrain us to live for Him wholeheartedly (2 Cor 5:14, 15).

And thanks, again, for your feedback too Orion! I always enjoy your thoughts.

Andrew said...


Growing up I had no interest in sports--although I did not mind playing it.

This was a great source of shame and isolation for me growing up since I have always felt less than male and an outsider because of it. There are some people I cannot make conversation with--period because I have no sports background whatsoever.

Still, reading your post I became anxious (again), thinking "What else do I have to chuck now? What else is forbidden?"

I just cannot get over the thought that if God is convicting you that something is wrong--then it's wrong for everyone. After all, I believe your testimony--and I believe that you are a sincere follower of Christ; and your position is well reasoned and I have heard other express it.

I really have a problem with the strong convictions of others. I tend to apply them to myself very rapidly--and in not-helpful ways.

That's no fault of yours--it is just how I think.

Anyways, I just wanted to highlight how the sports thing affected me.
I still have no use for sports. I like to run and swim and sometimes people get me to play soccer; but in general the sports pages hold little interest for me.

I am not competitive by nature, but I sometimes wonder what a world without competition would look like.

Andrew said...

Just to clarify--my own personal issues stem from a fear of asceticism.
When people say things like:

"I agree with you that God is raising up a generation who will remove things that may not be "evil" but are not best from their lives..."

I begin to wonder when the purging will end. I was an expert at purging. And when you struggle with superstition like myself--anything "suspect" becomes fair game. I've dumped clothes and books because of this impulse of mine (and I mean innocuous books on history and sociology because of superstitious reasoning I later regretted). I've even avoided people!

This comes from my own religious experience growing up, when I used to feel guilty doing all sorts of things that were not necessarily "sin".
At times I felt guilty reading the news ("Maybe the news is too negative."); reading in general (my passion; "Maybe I spend too much time reading secular things."); eating sweet bread; watching TV and on and on. I can multiply sin in my mind very easily.

Sometimes I even wonder if I just love sin, hate restrictions and am therefore "ungovernable". I spent so much time in my youth suspicious and superstitious and avoiding things, that I absolutely chafe now at any further "restrictions".

Maybe I'm just mentally ill or a hypersensitive outlier. I'm just happy to be able to share my experiences here.

Shawn Brace said...

Thanks for your thoughts, as always, Andrew. I think there is a continuous balance that we need to find in our spiritual journey. We need to always been firmly established and assured of God's love, grace, acceptance, and faith in us, as well as being continuously open to areas of growth He is convicting us of. We cannot face the second part, however, without having a firm grasp of the first. Many people attempt it but are driven to despair.

At the same time, we cannot truly embrace God's love and acceptance without also asking Him to show us where we need to grow. No relationship can survive if one of the parties is not willing to grow in areas that might be hurting the other party.

Thus, it always goes back to the "law and gospel" balance that must constantly be present. The two cannot be divorced.

Thanks again for your thoughts!

Brad Underwood said...

I think that the most serious problem theologically and spiritually with sports that you touched on is that it is all about me and my team! Watching sports, I am troubled with the fact that I rejoice when my own team does something good and get frustrated when the other team does something good or makes a good play. This totally goes against the Biblical idea that in Jesus our enemies are dissolved.

HOWEVER, we need to you make the distinction appreciation for an "excellent play" and winning or loosing. If one values a great game, they will value both teams performing well, whereas if one values winning or loosing more, the "me" and "my team" factor gets in there much easier.

But in the end, while appreciating a good athletic feat cannot necessarily be morally condemnable, we do need to realize that this stuff is a luxury and ultimately doesn't matter that much.