Ninety years ago, a man turned down a chance to run in an Olympic race that he was highly favored to win. The world stood by in shock; some people were outraged, but most were just confused. Eric Liddell passed up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because of something that comes around every seven days–Sunday.
His only reason, as his character unswervingly says in the movie “Chariots of Fire”, was that “the Sabbath is His, and I for one intend to keep it that way.”
In recent years, this is not only an issue facing professional athletes, but youth competitors as well. Club sports have taken over Sundays. Any young athlete who wants to be anything is put in a position where they have to travel on weekends to tournaments or games in order to play against the best. When the kids are younger, it’s up to parents to decide what they will do. The atmosphere isn’t as strict–missing a game isn’t life or death. Once the child reaches high school, they usually make more decisions on their own and are also faced with a more competitive athletic environment. Tournaments mean more college coaches are watching, and a good performance at any time could lead to a scholarship offer for the next four years.
When the stakes are high, what should Christians choose? It comes down to more than just missing church. More importantly, what does it mean to observe the Sabbath, and does that necessarily equate with having a day of no activity on Sunday?
Athletes at all levels of their sport have answered this question in different ways. Heidi Mann, a current two-sport varsity athlete at Geneva College (PA), made the choice not to play on Sundays and to instead observe a day of rest. The NCAA technically allows competition on Sundays. It previously was more flexible about schools’ preferences for observing the Sabbath, but changed in 1998 to make it less possible for students to avoid competition on Sunday. That means there is potential for Heidi’s soccer or basketball team to have a game scheduled for Sunday, and if that were the case she would spend her day worshipping with family rather than taking the field or court. To her, the decision is clear. “When the Bible commands us to rest on the Sabbath Day and keep it holy, I take it to mean that we set apart the day from our normal activities and spend it in other ways that more explicitly rest in the Lord.”
It isn’t always easy to know that she is missing a chance to compete with her teammates, but she has reaped the benefits both spiritually and athletically. “Since sports consume my life the rest of the week, it made sense to take a break and it helps me to maintain perspective in life.”
On the other hand, Tim Tebow, one of the most outspokenly Christian athletes in professional sports, generated his fame in the NFL by playing every Sunday for the Denver Broncos. He never voiced any qualms about breaking the Sabbath by playing football, and many Christians became die-hard supporters of his because he liked to pray on the sidelines. His words, lifestyle, and actions all point to Christ, but can Tebow still glorify the Lord if he sacrifices the Sabbath to do so?
When it comes down to it, keeping the Sabbath should be a gift, not a burden. It isn’t a command for Christians to keep Christians from enjoying themselves, but instead to remind us what our true passion should be. Euan Murray, a professional Scottish rugby player, refuses to participate when his club had Sunday games. Murray’s reasoning reflects the heart of what the Sabbath is and how it relates to athletes. “Ultimately, rugby’s not what fuels my happiness in life.”
For decades, godly male and female athletes have fallen on both sides of the Sabbath spectrum. Maybe Tebow or other athletes who compete on Sundays observe a time of rest alone with the Lord on Saturday night or in the early morning. High school athletes who choose to play in tournaments on Sundays can still compete in a God-honoring way. To them, observing the Sabbath could be spending time in worship on the car ride home.
Resting in God’s presence is a vital part of the Christian life, whether it occurs on Sunday or Thursday. It’s not the time or the place that God desires, but the humble heart. Athletes can worship God in their rest or in their competition, and as Eric Liddell famously said, the greatest reward is “when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
Featured image: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/20/quarterback-moves-to-trademark-tebowing/