Some Thoughts on Football, Devotion, and Idolatry

Before I poke at our shared idols, let me begin by saying that I love football and I think it is to be enjoyed as a good gift from God. Good dads love to give good gifts to their children. Good dads don’t give snakes. They give things like s’mores. And hot chocolate. And Friday night football.

But even good gifts can transform into hideous idols, if we’re not careful. I was reminded of this recently at a high school football game I attended with a pastor friend somewhere in Tennessee. Like many football games in November, it is cold. Very cold. The fans are bundled up but they aren’t going anywhere. They are here to cheer on their hometown team in the playoffs.

(Confession time: As a youth pastor, it was often just me and family of the players in the stands on those frigidly cold nights. I figured out a way around it. If the high plains wind was driving the rain sideways and we were chilled to the bone, I would show up, say hi to my teens who were playing or in the band, go home early, check the score on my phone, and send congratulatory (or otherwise) texts to the players from my warm bed. #YouthPastorHack.)

But tonight we stay, and so does everyone else. Because some things are more important than warmth and comfort. Some things are worth suffering for.

The home team jumps to an early lead but misses the field goal. “That’ll come back to haunt us,” I hear several people mutter. But they are wrong. Next is an interception that they run back for a touchdown, bringing the score to 13-0. People are on their feet cheering. By the time halftime rolls around, it’s 20-0 and the hometown fans are amped. Some things are worth getting excited about. Some things are worth shouting about from the top of your lungs.

The refs don’t seem to notice that it is cold. They are throwing flags like confetti at a ticker tape parade. At one point, a referee makes a bad call. That gets the crowd going. “You’re the worst ref in the history of reffing!” screams an angry man behind me. “What he said!” contributes a lady near me who has nearly lost her voice. Minutes later, another bad call. Angry Man: “You better watch yourself going home, stripes!” No Voice Lady furthers the conversation: “What he said!” My pastor friend informs me that Angry Man is one of his deacons and I laugh. He’s joking. I think. Some things are worth getting upset about. Some things are worth feeling so angry that you have to do something about it.

The final score is 27-14, and this hometown team moves one step further in the playoffs. The boys played hard and for the most part demonstrated good sportsmanship. Everyone’s buns are a little frozen, but we had a good time together.

Don’t get me wrong: Football is a good gift from God. But like all good things, we can reduce them to idols, hoping to find more happiness and fulfillment in them than they were ever meant to provide. Like a customer who complains that his iPhone is not effective as a chainsaw, we get frustrated and depressed when our idols don’t live up to our own unrealistic expectations. And we often hurt the idol in the process too.

Now I’m back in our host’s home, slowly dethawing, I’m thinking about football and devotion and idols. What are the things for which I’m willing to make sacrifices? What excites me, angers me? Such questions help diagnose my heart condition of idolatry. It’s something we all struggle with. We probably don’t bow down to Buddha statues or pray to the sun god, but we set up idols in our hearts (see Ezekiel 14:3).

I’m willing to freeze my tail off for football. Am I willing to suffer for Jesus?

I’m willing to cheer and holler at a football game. Does the victory of Jesus over death and hell cause me to celebrate with all of my being?

I’m willing to get worked up about a bad call or a tough loss on Friday night, but do I reserve true anger for the things that anger God?

The hometown football players are heroes tonight. They are greeted by a clap on the back from a proud dad, a kiss from an adoring girlfriend, an “atta boy” from a beaming coach. It’s a good night—a good gift from God. But there are even better things that deserve our devotion. Watching football tonight inspired me to sacrifice my comfort “for the sake of his name among all the nations” (Rom 1:5). It motivated me to devote all my passion and energy for the greatest cause—that God would receive glory as he saves people around the world.

The good gift of Friday night football draws my attention to the Giver, the one who deserves all my devotion.

4 Replies to “Some Thoughts on Football, Devotion, and Idolatry”

  1. I appreciate your honesty about football games. I had often wondered where you were “sitting” on Friday nights. Now I know.

    Spoken with excellence. I miss those kind of thoughts when we talked. I miss your wisdom and intellect and brutal honesty. Keep sharing and pushing ahead. Excited to hear how God uses the Pates in Brazil. Love you my friend and brother.

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