This article is the first in a series of nine on The Christian Athlete, authored by Dr. Luis Fernando Aragón-Vargas, professor of human movement science in the School of Physical Education and Sports at the University of Costa Rica.
From a very young age, you have probably been pushed to refine your talents and be successful in your pursuits. If you were raised in a Christian family, as I was, you were also probably told that your talents had been given to you by God as gifts and that it was your responsibility to use them well, for good and not for evil. Such gifts include your intelligence, your artistic abilities, your interpersonal skills, and of course your physical abilities: your athletic talents.
The “Parable of the Talents,” found in Matthew’s gospel, presents an excellent challenge for us. Although it refers to the currency known as a Talent (equivalent to six thousand days— or 24 years—of work), it may well be applied to the talents (skills, abilities) we have received from God. You remember how it goes. A man going on a journey entrusts his property to his servants. He gives each of the servants a different portion and heads out of town. The story then picks up:
More recently, we have another papal statement focusing more on the type of sports we should practice, but nevertheless emphasizing the idea of the body at the service of the spirit. This is from John Paul II, speaking to a group at a water-skiing exposition:
But can participating in athletics really be a form of worship? The word worship is often used in the Bible with a restricted meaning, related to service and bowing down. In order to please God, worship must meet several requirements: it must reflect a life dedicated to obedience and the service of God (cf. 1 Samuel 15:22-23; Micah 6:6-8). The worshipper must live in holiness (cf. Psalm 15) and must be a just person (Isaiah 1:11-17). The Old Testament is full of prescriptions for acceptable worship. Furthermore, the New Testament states that there is one way to worship God: in spirit and truth (John 4:21-24). It seems a bit of a stretch, therefore, to try to fit any sports competition, and sports success in particular, into the category of worship. Perhaps celebration would be a more appropriate description for all that happens around athletic competition. Meanwhile, Christian athletes must remember that honoring God with their athletic talents involves serving him in obedience, living in holiness and justice, and worshipping in spirit and truth.
I can think of one good example in this respect: Gino Bartali, the Catholic Italian cyclist from the 1930s and 40s. Using his athletic talents, he helped to save many Jews during World War II, but very few people knew about it until he shared his story with his son Andrea several decades later. When asked about why he had kept it secret, he declared: “The good must be done, not said. And some medals are meant to be hung upon the soul, not on the jacket.”
“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
To view the complete series with full citations as hosted by the University of Costa Rica, click here.