podcast | 07.09.19
Graham Daniels and Jonny Reid look at a very simple question - What does the bible actually have to say about sport?
Jonny Reid: Today, we're going to look at the most basic question as we kick off this new series, what on earth does the Bible say about sport? It sounds simple, it sounds basic and it is, but it's such a deep question, such an important question for us to get our heads around.
I've got Danno, Graham Daniels joining me, general director of Christian sport. Welcome Danno, how you doing?
Graham Daniels: Morning Jonny? Funny you should say what you've just said actually about the most basic question, because I actually had to have a meeting with somebody to do with football just yesterday, just before we recorded this, and you've just triggered my mind. She doesn't come from Western Europe and she doesn't particularly do sport, and she just said to me, "I looked you up. You work for Christians in sport. How on Earth does Christianity have anything to do with sport?" She comes from a polytheistic, lots of Gods belief culture, and she could not get her head around what on earth that could mean. Actually it's a really good question to ask because most people think how on Earth do those things go together?
Jonny Reid: Yeah. It's a question I get all the time as well. I play hockey, play cricket, my team always go, "What on Earth? Christians in sport, what on Earth?" Well take us back then. You're a young Christian, you were a professional footballer back in your day, how would you have answered this question about what the Bible has to say about sport?
Graham Daniels: Well, I don't suppose I'd have answered it very well because I'd never had the chance to think it through, so it was more about how I felt. I definitely remember how I felt. Before I'd met Jesus in my early twenties, before that, when you play, the only trick I had in my whole book, I played wide on the left and I had one trick in the world, which is the drop my right shoulder, shift the ball with the outside of my left foot, go the other way and run down the touchline and try and cross it, normally failing. That feeling when your body weight shifts to the right and you push the ball on the outside of your left foot and accelerate, just the sheer wonder of movement and timing, that was with me as a kid, it's, with everybody who plays doing the sport, doing the skill, feeling the feeling.
Graham Daniels: The second thing that was always with me as a kid was when it went brilliantly, you win against the odds or something, the sheer intimacy of the dressing room, the sheer we're all in this together. There's a wonder about playing when you're a kid, and there's an intimacy about your teammates and being in it together.
When I came to faith in Christ in my early twenties, I'd been involved in professional football since I was probably 15, and it was the weirdest experience really. I felt that one wonder again. It had almost been boxed up by the pressure of playing, and the first thing I got in becoming a Christian was that God had given me this and it all became fresh again. I thought that was unusual at the time, but now that I'm miles older I've spoken to hundreds if not thousands of elite athletes by now. Do you know what? It's a common thread. When people who have no faith in Christ come to faith, especially in elite sport, it's almost like something in them recaptures the wonder of their talent on the relationships that he gave them in their sport. It's m ore of a feeling initially, I think, than a thought [inaudible 00:04:16].
Jonny Reid: Well, so take it to your conversation yesterday then maybe. It's a common one which maybe if you are listening, you are a Christian, you play sport and maybe somebody's seen you wearing one of our T-shirts, or you've been to one of our camps and they've gone, Christians in sport?A what?" As in they have maybe found us, they know the Bible a little bit, they go, "Oh, didn't Paul say something about running the race, training to be an athlete? Isn't that all the Bible has to say about sport?" When you were sitting with that person yesterday, when you'd sit with somebody now, what would you say in response to that about what does the Bible have to actually say, now you've looked into it sort of 20, 30, 40 years on from when you became a Christian?
Graham Daniels: Yeah. Well just for the sake of somebody who's listening now who says, "Yeah, well what does Paul say about sport?" I better say something about that. Paul as an early Christian leader who came to faith, and he ends up writing a lot of what we call the New Testament. He writes lots of letters because he started lots of churches and he wrote to them while he was on the move. He's quite a character really.
Reidy, just as an aside, you're spot on, he loves using illustrations and analogies from sport, so at the very least we can think, I don't know, I think of something now, right at the end of his life he writes to a pal of his called Timothy in a place called Ephesus where they've started a church, and he thinks he's about to die. He's in prison waiting to be executed. Probably the last thing he ever wrote, Paul, is he says at the end of his letter to Timothy, "The time of my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." He uses sports even as he's writing, thinking he's about to go to execution.
The one thing we can say for sure is that Paul's use of sport in the New Testament in an affirmative way certainly means that he was for sport and he liked sport because he was willing to use it. That's an interesting addition in New Testament thinking about Paul, but there is more. There's much more big, thick, almost fundamental stuff in the Bible about our bodies and our relationships and our talent that God has given us when we really need to think through sport.
Jonny Reid: Great. Help unpack that for us. As you say, there's a far fuller view that God has about sport, a richer one than just some metaphors and some analogies. If you were sitting, as you often do with your job, you'd be sitting maybe with a top level sports person and they said, "Dano, I just don't get it. How on earth is my sport, how's my running, my football, my tennis," whatever sport they're playing, "My golf, how on Earth is this connected to God? Does God care? What does God have to say about my sport?" What would you say to them?
Graham Daniels: Well, I think we should try and pick this apart really with three big ideas, and I think for the sake of our listeners, I think if we work this around three big ideas we can do our best, have our best shot at explaining what God thinks about sport. I would say the three big ideas are that God made us in his image, somehow he made us like him, and the result of that is the two other big ideas, he made us creative or talented, and he made us relational. He made us talented and relational because that's what he's like. I think if we played with those three big ideas, we could get right underneath what the Bible has to say about sport and our playing of it.
Jonny Reid: Correct. Well it's a bit jargon. Maybe to say we're created in the image of God. Help us understand that. Right back, Genesis 1 and 2, that's what you were saying weren't you? Right back in the beginning, I think he says doesn't he? He says, "Let us make mankind in our own image," God says, "In our likeness."
Graham Daniels: Exactly.
Jonny Reid: What does that mean? What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
Graham Daniels: Well, I think it without doubt means two things, which gives us our three big ideas. You're right Jonny, right at the start of the Bible, in the creation stories, God says, "Let us make humanity in our image, in our likeness." Somehow we're like him. He gives us a hint of what that is. He says, "Rule over the creation for me. Look after it. Be My representative. Take care of the world that I've put you into as humanity." The two things that shout out to us in the Genesis story right at the beginning of the Bible, the first few chapters of the Bible are to be made in God's image is to exercise his leadership over everything we do. All of culture, he asks us to create it for his sake.
It boils down to two big things. One, God was creative. The first line of the Bible, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth." Human beings are made in his image, and therefore we are creative, we have talent. God didn't make one planet or one galaxy, he made millions of planets, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of galaxies, so God loves to make things. He loves creativity and we are made creative. We're like him. Sport is an aspect of creativity, the arts, the humanities, all kinds of aspects. Engineering, science, we love to create, and sport is a creative act that represents God in culture.
Then secondly, to be in God's image is to be deeply relational. To be creative, talented, and relational. In the opening story of the Bible, we've got to realize that God is father, son and spirit as the Bible unpacks it, God is in relationship. He says, "Let us make man in our image." God is in relationship with himself. It's impossible, the grasp, but he's deeply relational. When he makes us, the story's remarkable. It says, "This is why a man leaves his father and mother, and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh." Adam and his wife were naked and they felt no shame.
When he made humanity he made male and female. When he made male and female, he gave us a picture of intimacy. Marriage. In that picture he says, "They knew everything about each other. Nothing had gone wrong. They knew everything about each other and they were committed to each other." It's a picture that God is deeply relational, he made us to be deeply relational, and the marriage picture is the image of what it means to have the deepest friendships, relationships, trust, commitment, belonging.
Look, that's an overview summary. We're made like God, who is massively creative and massively and innately relational, and so am I.
Jonny Reid: Yeah, so ground that for me as a sports person, as in part of me would go great as in that theology, great, helpful. We need to understand this. I could go to my local church on Sunday and hear this potentially. I'm sitting in my locker room, I'm a sports person, okay great, how does that relate to my sport now?
Graham Daniels: Yeah. Good Reidy, and I should have got there quicker because this is how it relates. Narrow it down. Look, I'm going to choose football because it's me okay?
Jonny Reid: Yeah.
Graham Daniels: Choose your own sports yeah. God made me, God is creative and relational, he made me creative and relational. When it's 10 to three and I'm going out to play, and I'm playing wide left in a team, every single eye-foot coordination, every single capacity to look across the pitch and make a pass, or to make a movement, it's all given to me by my creator. Every person in my dressing room and the away dressing room, and the officials room and the stand, everybody watching that game, somehow I have a degree of relationship with them because we're all in this game. Somehow. I'm closest to my teammates of course, but I'm in this game somehow.
Now when I walk out of that door, I've got to be saying to myself, "God made me in his image and likeness to look after this thing today. Whatever I can do with my talents and my creativity and my relationships in this act that I'm part of today, I'm doing it with his blessing and by his talent and friendships around me. It's a gift to me. Enjoy it. Enjoy it. Somebody bigger than you made this possible." It's just magnificent. It's the same event as all my teammates will have, but if I know God gave me my talent and the relationships to be in this group and in this place, I can rejoice that somebody saw much bigger than me says, "Go on, take my culture in there. Cultivate it, look after it. Do your part, represent me." Oh my word, it's so much bigger than yourself then. It's wonderful actually.
Jonny Reid: It makes me, again, I love my sport, I could watch it all day, I could play it all day, it makes your heart jump doesn't it? It's like when you hear that, when you go, "That is what God's view of sport is," it's not separate from everything else, it's good. It's joyful but, and there is a but here isn't there? Genesis one and two then leads into Genesis three, we get what is commonly called the fall. Sin enters the world and it affects everything. We see that in sport all the time don't we? If we just flip through the back pages, we've got doping, we've put cheating, we've got greed, we've got injury. I've just been listening right now to discussion around the sandpaper gate from the Australians, as we have the ashes summer, cricket summer as well. All sorts of stuff goes on. Why is it important we understand Genesis three today as sports people? Because sport is good, we've seen that, but we all know, we're realists, we all live in a world where it's not always as rosy as it's been painted there.
Graham Daniels: Yeah, and obviously there isn't a man or woman, girl or boy listening to our conversation now who plays, who doesn't get that sport is this ridiculous mixture of beauty and screwed up.
For every time in the dressing room, and I'm ready to go out and I'm absolutely buzzing that I get the chance to use my talents given by God with my teammates, so every time I'm buzzing about that, there's probably four times out of five where I'm thinking oh, I've got a bit of a hamstring. It's feeling a bit tight, or their right-back's outrageously good, I'm scared to death, how can I protect myself? Or I've had a row in training on Thursday night with the left-back and we can hardly talk to each other. All our talents and all our relationships are fractured because, as you say, the Bible clearly explains how the first human beings said to God, "Listen, you said there's something we can do. There's only one thing we can't do, everything else we're allowed to do in this world that you've given us. We Want to do the thing you've told us not to do because we want to be in charge, not you." That's the story.
"No matter how much you give us, it's not enough. We need to run it ourselves, so we're going to do what you don't want to do, thanks very much." In the early story of the Bible, after the wonder of being created with talent and relationships, because humanity turned its back on its wonderful creator who gave them talent and relationships, the consequences are, and as you rightly say, it's the third chapter if somebody wanted to read it of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, the immediate consequences are this incredible line really, "Cursed is the ground because of you. The painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles. By sweat of your brow, you will eat food."
He's saying in poetic language, "The very talent and creativity you have is fractured. Even your best effort at cultivating the world, even your best skills are now not going to work as well as they should do. If you want to run the world yourself and if you don't want me to run it, no problem, but I'm warning you now it's going to be a deep fracture, and work is going to be hard. Sport therefore will it be broken. It'll have mixtures of beauty and ugliness, joy and sadness. All of your creativity will, from now on."
Then the second thing that goes of course, once we reject him and say, "I'll run it myself, I don't want to be like you," the second thing that goes is relationships. The very first thing that happens in this story is that Adam and Eve, the wife blames the husband, sorry, that's what I would do, the husband blames the wife. What happens is God says, "Why have you done what I told you not to do?" The first words out of the mouth of the husband are, "She told me to do it." That's meant to represent that our relationships become self-centered and defensive, and we want to protect ourselves against others, even the ones we love the most.
It just means really that if we were made to look after the world under God's leadership, if we turn our back on him, our talent, our dressing room will break, our bodies break, our relationships with teammates and opponents and officials, they break, and that this horrible, weird mixture that our sport is wonderful and then sometimes it depressingly awful. That's the consequence for sport.
I hate it. The number of times I've sat in a room because of my job working with elite athletes where if you're outside, you look at them and you think, well she's got everything. She's the best in the world at her discipline. He's a multimillionaire. He's famous, and they come and sit in a room and they say, "I just wish I could never ever have to go onto the pitch again. I'm lonely, I'm scared. I don't think the manager likes me. I'm not getting on with my teammates. I'm in bad form, I can't score." When you're in the room, you just see the brokenness of talent and relationship. Without Christ at the center to give security. Oh, it's amazing. Sport is beautiful and ugly all at once.
Jonny Reid: I presume this is isn't it? You'll have had this conversation as I'll have had this conversation. This is the point where many people would go, "Well, how can a Christian be involved in sport then? What's the point of playing sport? If it's so broken, if it's so fractured, surely this isn't the sort of place a Christian should be." Well, what would you say to someone quizzing you on that?
Graham Daniels: Well now we're going back in reverse aren't we, from a few minutes ago, because earlier on you said to me, "Well theology, word about God, explaining God generally, creation, talents, relationships. Good, give me something about sport." Well now I'm going to go up from the sport to what we might call theo logos, theology. Words about God. Well straight forward really. If you had to stop doing things because they were broken, because the talent that people use in them are used brokenly and because relationships go wrong, well to be honest really, you'd have to become a hermit. You'd have to go and live in a cave because all work, all art, all relationship, all music, all science and engineering, all creative, everything, everything is broken. Everything is broken.
My relationship with my children, with my best friend, with my parents, it's all fractured. It doesn't mean it's rubbish, it just means it has times of beauty and ugliness. Actually, if somebody says to me, "Well you should quit sport because it's broken," I say, "Well, I better quit life then. Perhaps I better [inaudible 00:21:34] ." well that's right isn't it?
Jonny Reid: Yeah. No, you're right.
Graham Daniels: The Christian is a realist. That's the most important thing here. We're not fluffy, gentle, grandfatherly, this guy one day, it'll all be lovely, lovely, it's a broken world and God knows it's broken. He didn't make it to be broken, he made us to look after it in his likeness and image by creating beautiful things and having fantastic relationships with the people we create them with. All has been fractured in sport and everything else, so that's why the world is a funny place of beauty and sadness.
Jonny Reid: That's helpful. Help me now then. We often would say, when we would say knowing Jesus, potentially it's good news. The Gospel means good news, it's good news. In that funny world as we say, that mixture between created good, broken now, how is there good news today for the sportsperson. Maybe in some ways it's unpacking what I've just asked you, what does it like now to live as a Christian sportsperson?
Graham Daniels: Well, the massive thing, the massive thing that has changed is that God sent his own son, Jesus Christ, into the world, and the thing, if you get this you can get the rest, there's only one human being who ever lived who never ever, ever once at all didn't create culture for God. Everything Jesus did, every talent he ever used, every relationship he ever entered into, he did it with perfection. He's the only one who ever kept the world, ruled the world, cultivated the world around him in the way God made him to, and it didn't break for him. Once you get that, you can know that he's the one who ridiculously, he's the one who went to a cross to die. The Bible is clear. He died there because I deserve God's judgment for my brokenness and my rebellion against him, and the way I use my talents and my relationships to cover my back.
Jesus pays the penalty from my rebellion. The result of that we can unpack now Reidy, but the result of that is an incredible liberation before God, which makes everything, and therefore for me as a sportsperson, my sport free. Free in a way that was unimaginable without the liberation of being clean before God through Christ.
Jonny Reid: Because you hear that said, I think I've heard you tell the story before as well of you became a Christian when you're a footballer, and your coach has, "Oh no, not another Christian in my team. What?" How is it, in some ways, good for that coach? How does this freedom work? How does it free you to play? I don't want to say play better because if you can't kick, you can't kick, but yeah, how does it help?
Graham Daniels: Well look, there's a few stories about this, but of course I can't name the club or the player, but the story works right? I got a call some years after I'd become a Christian, and I was working for Christians in Sport, and it's from quite a big club. The assistant manager phoned me and said, "Danno, listen, you've got to get... " and he wasn't a Christian, he said, "You've got to get yourself over here. One of our players has become one of your lot. The manager's worried because he's a hard man and he runs the midfield for us, and he's worried that he's going to lose his edge. I've told him well you know Christians who play professional sport, I don't think they have to. Could you get yourself over?"
I went over, so I'm actually in the dressing room, the restroom where the managers used to change in the old days before training, nobody in there's a follower of Jesus except me, and my friend, the assistant manager, "Tell the boss what's going to happen to him." He says to me, "I'm scared to death. If he loses his bottle, I'm done for because he holds the midfield together and he's hard and he's a talker." It was a great moment because I was able to say to him, "No, no, no, here's the thing. If he's come to trust God through Jesus Christ, this is what's going to happen to him, but we can steer him on this. The first thing that will happen is instinctively he'll start to know somebody who lives inside him."
See what the Bible teaches is that the image of God is fixed in us. We begin to know him personally as they did at the beginning of creation. The spirit of God comes to live in us, so we become more like him. We literally become more in his likeness and we regain joy, like almost a child-like joy comes back to you, and liberation that you're not guilty anymore. You're not scared of God anymore, you're not running away from God. He's opened his arms to you in the cross and he's welcomed you in. I said, "The first thing that'll happen is he will regain a love for his sport, because he'll be less frightened because he knows God personally. Somehow, he won't even understand it. he'll be less frightened. Then a second thing will happen. He will start to feel a freedom that the talents that he has as a player, you won't even need to tell him. It'll become instinctive that somehow God gave them to him. That God who has come to live in him through his relationship with Christ has given him his talents and his gifts, and he'll feel it."
I said, "I can teach him it, I can find a church leader to teach him it, but he will be liberated and find a new found freedom with his ability to run, jump, kick, move around, win tackles. Thirdly, you'll see his relationships will become stronger. He'll become less needy to defend himself and to blame others. He'll find it less important to cover his back. He'll actually start to love his teammates more, and funnily enough, he'll start to respect his opponents more. What you might get is a bloke who's less dirty, less likely to do sly things, and if you want that from him, it might be a struggle. But I'll tell you what you will get, give this two or three years, help him to read the Bible, find somebody to help unpack this for him and you will get a guy who looks at football and says, 'God gave me the gift to be in this and all the relationships in it. I'm so glad that my creator has given me this. I'm not scared of God anymore and I'm not scared of people in the way I used to be.' I'm telling you now, he'll be liberated."
They said to me, "Wow, that's serious. Are you saying if we ask him to kick their center forward off the ball when no one's looking, he'll still do it?" I said, "He probably will, but I would teach him not to. But I tell you what, you'll get a more rounded man." As I said earlier Jonny, you won't necessarily get a better player your technical ability, but you will get a person liberated to use their gifts with less fear and more hope of a future. It's a wonderful thing to watch. That's what happens when you come to Christ.
Jonny Reid: Great. As we try and land, as we close here, in some ways take me away from the manager's office. Maybe you're in a coffee shop on a Friday, you're sitting with a sportsperson, you may be meeting to read the Bible with them, they're somebody you know relatively well. They're injured, poor form, instead of sort of living the highs of life at the moment, they're slightly in the lows. How are you saying that what the Bible has to say, what the Gospel has to say is great news for them in that situation?
Graham Daniels: Well, I know what I would say because I've said it a thousand times. I would take them take, we've talked about the Genesis stories at the beginning of the Bible, God's creation, Genesis one and two, the brick, the rupture, the fracture, the fall when humanity rebels, messes up their creativity, messes up their relationships, lives in fear of God and people. Romans 12 is the backdrop to summarizing what I'd say on that Friday. The first thing I ever do really is teach people who come to know Christ Romans 12 verse one. It's the guy Paul we talked about earlier, writing to Rome, the capital of the empire in the Christian [inaudible 00:31:06], and in explaining the Christian life, he says to them, "I urge you brothers and sisters in view of God's mercy, to offer your body as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. This is your true and proper worship."
I'd get guys to memorize that when I get to know them, and I'll say to them, "When you sit here on a Friday morning injured, frightened you won't get your place back, worried about how your teammates going to do tomorrow, worried about what people will think about you, worried about being on the margins of the team now, worried about being forgotten by your family, let me tell you something right now, God has had mercy on you. He knew you when you an absolute opponent of his. You didn't want him, you didn't like him, you didn't care about him, and you rejected him and you run your own life. He saw you like that and he died on a cross, the perfect human being died on a cross to take your punishment.
"Now before we go any further Mike," I might say, "Before we go any further Mike, you need to remember right now that the God of the universe who made billions and billions of planets, he loves you regardless of your performance." This is the liberation Jonny. This is liberation. You don't have to present yourself to God to prove anything. We spend our lives presenting ourselves to others. Players do it all the time, how fit they are, what form they're in, they're in with a crowd, have they got a contract? Have they got a move to another club? There's nothing wrong with all that, that's how we play, but if your identity hinges on it you're stuffed because you will fail.
What if somebody loves you out of mercy in your rebellion? I'll say to them, "You've got to try and remember that God judges you on nothing other than Christ, and it's a free gift and he loves you." That's the first thing I'll ever want them to grasp. In fact, if you grasp that, you grasp everything. It's how you present yourself to other people will be totally dependent on knowing how loved you are by God.
You see, the second part of it too is that I'd want to say to a player then, "Mate, the first thing we need to do is to remember how much you're loved when you deserve nothing but judgment. You may have been the best kid in school at eight, you may have been the best kid in town at 10, you may have been the best kid in the county at 12, you may have been the best in the country at 15, you may be famous now, but you know what? That's not who you are. That's how people see who you are. They see parts of you. Who you are is somebody totally unconditionally loved by God if you were the worst player ever seen, because Jesus loves you and it's all that counts.
"Therefore, when you go in tomorrow injured and hobbling in, feeling like a spare part and not wanted by anyone, stomach sinking when your team's winning 3-0 and you think I'll never get back in, here's what you've got to remember, take your talents and your relationships, and the talent you have tomorrow is the talent to be an encourager of your teammates. Go there, love your teammates, love the gaffer. They'll know that you hurt, they'll know that you wish that you were playing, they'll know deep down some way you wish somebody else would pull a hamstring so you could come back in two weeks, and yet they know that the fact that you're willing to go there and genuinely encourage them, not because you have to or pretend to, genuinely will be a mark that you know how much your loved regardless of whether you win or not, and you've got the freedom to give, give your talent, even if you can't play, give your friendship and depth of relationships to those around the dressing room."
That's how Christians get noticed because they're free. They're free from self-defense and liberated by God and his spirit to give, and still be the best player they can possibly be when they put the shirt on to play. Somehow, I'd be trying to convey that to him through that verse in Romans 12. "I urge you invite view of God's mercy, to give what you have, your body to God, your mind to God. This is worship." I'd say, "Get out there and worship him. Are you using your talents and your relationship for the sake of others? Because God loved you when you deserved nothing. Now you're free to give, go give."
Jonny Reid: Wow.
Graham Daniels: I don't explain it well Reidy. I know, I know, because we'll do more on it won't we Reidy?
Jonny Reid: Yeah.
Graham Daniels: But somewhere in here is the heart of being a really, really committed player. Committed to your skills and your teammates because you've been liberated by the saving God to give it all with less fear. It's a great thing to be a Christian in the world of sport.
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Christians in Sport is a UK based charity that aims to reach the world of sport for Christ. We mainly work with sportspeople in competitive and elite sport.
Registered Charity England and Wales 1086570.
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