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Dear Christians in Sport,
I read a recent article about competing in sport for God’s glory, but what about violent sports? Can a Christian really bring glory to God in combat sports like boxing or martial arts?
The world of sport is often a physically violent place. A bone-crunching tackle on the rugby pitch. A powerful kick to the body lands flush in the cage. A right hand delivers a knockout blow in the ring. When we encounter violence in sport how should Christians engage? Is this sporting skill to admire or a savage spectacle to avoid? Can violence ever bring God glory in sport?
The first thing to do as we approach this question is to understand what it means for God to be glorified. Check out this article for a more in-depth look at this, but here are the headlines:
1) God is Glorious.
2) We see God’s glory in His character, in His works and in Jesus Christ.
3) His glory is revealed in His Word and in His world through all things that are true, good and beautiful.
4) We glorify God by enjoying Him and the gifts He gives us and declaring His Greatness.
The purpose of every human being is to glorify God. We do this by using the talents and creativity He has given us to reflect something of His glory as we bear His image in what we do.
With that in mind, we can perhaps rephrase our question; Can violence in sport show us something of the glory (character, truth, works, beauty) of God?
One thing the Bible makes very clear is God’s hatred of violence. The book of Proverbs warns its readers time and time again against the use of violence (Proverbs 3:31). But where we most clearly see God’s heart towards violence is in Psalm 11:5.
The LORD examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion.’
These words could not be more crystal clear. God hates a love of violence.
However, these are not the only words we read regarding violence in the Bible. In Psalm 144, David praises God for the skill and gifts that God has given him to use in battle and war.
Praise be to the LORD my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.
Here David is praising God for gifts and skills that he can use in the violent arena of battle. This shows us that God does not condemn violence in the appropriate ‘arena.’
Indeed, we can even take from this verse that whilst God detests violence, He has given people gifts and talents to be used for this exact purpose in the right arena and appropriate context.
We can easily see how this applies to sport. Rugby, for example, is an inherently physical sport. Players use power and strength to crash their bodies into the opposition and gain territory on the pitch. Fans, coaches and players alike cheer on the power, strength and skill are on display.
However, if a rugby player was to run down a busy street and crash their body into an unknowing member of the public, we would be shocked! We should not applaud this as a display of skill and strength. The same action, that on the sports pitch would be applauded, is now totally wrong because it does not take place in the appropriate arena of competition.
So, we see the arena and context really matter. But secondly, let’s consider what sports, particularly violent sports, promote. Do they promote something that shows the glory (character, truth, works, beauty) of God?
First, let’s make one key distinction. There are combat sports which are generally one-on-one physical contests and are won through the correct use of physical violence. In contrast, many invasion games involve appropriate use of violence as part of the game.
For example, the goal of MMA is to punch, kick, knee, elbow or submit your opponent through the use of violence. In contrast, the aim of rugby is to score points through tries and kicks at goal. That is the aim, but this goal can be achieved by one team physically dominating another.
Today we’ll focus on sports where there is positive reinforcement of violence. What of God’s glory do these sports promote?
Firstly, like other sports, combat sports take immense athleticism and skill. Jake Peacock, who competes professionally in Muy Thai said to Christians in Sport,
“No one's in there trying to mame the other guy. It's a sport, it's an art, we're putting it on display for people to watch."
In Muy Thai, boxing and MMA this is the aim, and strict rules and sanctions are put in place to ensure this. For example, at the beginning of every MMA fight, fighters are brought to the referee and reminded of the key rules; the first of which is to “protect yourself at all times.”
Then other rules safeguard the fighters:
Fighters must compete at the same weight.
There are certain techniques that cannot be used in combat.
Referees are scrutinised closely on how well they protect fighters according to the rules.
All these and much more are put in place for the protection of the fighters and for the promotion of skill and creativity in the particular sport. For Jake, like many other Christians, his participation in Muy Thai is a way to use the gifts he has been given by God to worship Him.
Secondly, we know that sport can promote and grow godly characteristics. This is no different in combat sport. Fighters must be disciplined, must learn how to work hard alongside a team. Fighters must learn to control negative emotions and respect opponents. All these are necessary for fighters to compete at the top level.
From this, we can see that even in the violence of combat sport, the glory of God can be seen through the creativity and character that is often on display in these sports.
Finally, as we consider this for ourselves, let us not forget the words of Paul in Romans 14. As we pray and think through these things, we should not violate our own conscience, but… “Each of them should be convinced in their own mind.” And let us remember that “…each of us will give an account of ourselves before God.”
So how should we relate to violent sport as Christians? Let's remember the words of Psalm 11:5. If we participate or spectate violence in sport to quench a sinful thirst in our hearts, then let us repent! Let’s pray that God would help us to become like Him in his hatred of violence.
But let us also remember the place of competition. In the right sporting arena, actions that would otherwise be totally inappropriate can be used by athletes for wonderful displays of creativity skill and godly character. Let’s praise God for this, but only if we can do so without violating our conscience.
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