We live in a country wherein, as in so many other countries, sport plays a prominent part. Its appeal is reflected in the broad coverage given it in the media, in the variety of sports magazines and even in the increasing focus given it in today’s school curriculum. So what should be our attitude to this? Are we in danger of over-emphasising sport and physical exercise? Is this perhaps what Paul is referring to when he says, “bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come” (1 Tim. 4:8)? Is he saying here, as many people seem to think, that sport and physical exercise have little value?
Well, no, he is not; at least not here. Here Paul is not speaking about the bodily exercise as we tend to understand it today. As Calvin points out, in this passage Paul is “referring to outward actions undertaken for the sake of religion, such as vigils, long fasts, lying on the ground and such like”.[i] He is saying that this outward display of tempering and punishing the body, which tended to illicit admiration for the people around them (and which later led to establishing monasteries), was of little value for eternal life.
So what then should our attitude be to physical exercise and sport? I’m not absolutely sure but I would like to pass on a sobering commentary on the subject written many years ago in De Reformatie which a Dutch friend sent me recently. Written by Rev E D Kraan and titled “Sport and Play”,[ii] the article notes that while Paul does consider bodily exercise to be of little use he doesn’t say it is of no value let alone that it is forbidden. It does, therefore, have some value. What else would you expect, says Kraan, from the man whose many journeys around the Mediterranean Sea were mainly on foot and whose body was made subservient to God’s will (1 Cor. 9:27)? What else would you expect from the apostle who always preached that one’s body was a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19); that not only our soul but also our body has been bought by Christ and that therefore we must glorify God with both body and soul, both of which are God’s (1 Cor. 6:20)?
With the church of all ages we continue to confess: I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. That includes His creation of our bodies. The heart of covenant reality is, as the catechism says, that “we belong in life and death with both body and soul to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ” (LD 1). And because this is the case, says Kraan, we also give to the body the attention it needs and strive for a harmonious development and purposeful functioning also of the body God has given us. That’s all the more necessary in our day when many of us spend much time either sitting at an office desk, standing in a shop, making the same repetitive movements in factories around machines, studying or doing other tasks whereby the other body parts have little or no functions.
But while Kraan emphasises this at the outset he makes a restriction. He finds it necessary to draw a line between bodily exercise (including physical play) on the one hand and sport on the other hand. While we must promote the former, he says we must no less dare to reject emphatically the other – sport – and gives his reasons.
The first objection he states is that modern sports have become spectator sports. Although he doesn’t say so, I presume that he has in mind here elite sports. Their purpose is no longer the deliberate exercising of the body so as to keep it healthy; instead the sports games have a minimal number of participants while hundreds and thousands are passively absorbed in watching and being entertained. Indeed, he adds, by far the most lovers of sport are themselves inert and are, in the process, contributing nothing to the development of their own bodies.
We might reconcile ourselves a little to this, he adds, if the few who actively participate did so in order to promote the healthy development of their bodies. But even this is not the case, says Kraan. Whilst we should strive to develop the various muscles and other body parts, sports players tend to focus heavily on developing only certain body parts and muscles. There is a one-sided abnormal dedication to developing those body parts that benefit the particular game. Sport has become a specialty area – whether it is football, running, boxing, swimming, or something else – whereby the performer has lost a balanced exercising of the whole body and focusses on developing those parts of the body that would cause the performer to excel in the specialty area.
Kraan says that this training of certain body parts and muscles must be regarded as all the more dangerous when youth – whose legs and muscles, heart and lungs are developing so rapidly – are involved. Instead of promoting the healthy development of the whole body, such sports actually impair it. They cause the muscles to develop in breadth when they simultaneously also need to grow in length. He quotes specialist surgeon Professor Lanz who was reported to have dreaded operating on sports fanatics because they had far less physical resistance than the people who withheld themselves from specializing in a particular sport. If this is the case with adults, asks Kraan, how much the more won’t it be the case with young people? Moreover, such sports often require too much mental stress which in the years of puberty is often already at a high level.
He sees behind all this a deeper, principle error; namely this, that the God-given relationship between soul and body is broken, with the importance of the body eventually being elevated above that of the soul. What happens is that the body receives its own value separate from, and even elevated above, the soul or what could be termed the inner person. Furthermore, hereby sport is changed from being a means to being the end goal. This principle error manifests itself in all sorts of wrong views which deserve to be condemned on the basis of spiritual and moral principles.
For example, in sport the emphasis is not on developing the body but on winning, or on breaking a record. The purpose, says Kraan, is not to compensate for the mental stress of daily work but in order to promote the broader recognition of one’s own name and fame. The sports viewers are at least partly to blame here, he adds, because by and large they have turned sport into a despicable worship of people and heroes as if a sports hero is somehow a more important figure than someone who faithfully fulfils his calling in daily life. This focus on sport has given rise to a whole spectrum of sports magazines, sports news and pictures of sports heroes who are sensationalized by the public and especially by the youth, whose interests and ideals are hereby channelled into wrong paths.
Moreover, declares Kraan, it gives rise to all sorts of secondary problems that don’t necessarily belong to the essence of much sport but nevertheless arise from it. For example, the sports events and especially competition sports are often held on the Sabbath and thereby draw the attention of the masses away from the commandment to hallow the day of the Lord. These sports can also, and often do, lead to unethical practices of betting and gambling. And where these competitive sports are of an international character they can stimulate a certain rivalry between countries whereby, instead of promoting harmony, the national fervour can lead to international hostility.
Kraan distinguishes between sport on the one hand and physical exercise (which along with play games is not to be rejected) on the other. He sees it as desirable that bodily functions and muscles which do not receive exercise at school or at the work place are exercised and also that those muscles that are used very much at work can be relaxed.
While Kraan wants to distance our youth from the worldly infatuation with sport, he sees a broad terrain of permissible and beneficial activity that is still open to them. Things like swimming and skating; walking, running and bike riding; friendly games of tennis or basketball, and a host of other physical activities are accessible to them. The emphasis needs to continue to be on exercises that relate to natural life and that develop the normal functions of the body in contrast to training and forcing the body to function unnaturally.
What about organising Christian clubs for tennis, basketball, hockey, etc.? Kraan has this objection: that in this way we again begin to promote the same one-sidedness that is promoted in the specialised sports mentioned earlier. When our young people join such-like clubs they again focus on the same bodily movements and don’t exercise the entire body. And when some try to compensate for this one-sidedness by being members of various clubs simultaneously it leads to a disproportionate amount of their God-given time and calling being spent on sport. The first task of every person, also the youth, is still always to work in the service of the Lord. Indeed, the question can be asked whether every organization for bodily exercise and relaxation doesn’t bring with it the tendency to turn that which ought to be a means of relaxation and rejuvenation into becoming an aim in itself and that the game stops being a game and becomes something about which we become passionate.
Finally, Kraan has a positive view of the various hand activities and family-room games which, although they do not exercise the body as such, can still compensate well by relaxing the minds of those whose daily work involves much mental activity. These games also have the advantage that they can school us into various qualities such as courtesy, honesty, confidence, self-control, determination, acting honourably, etc. Moreover, they can be a means to get to know oneself; a person, it’s often said, reveals his character when he plays a game.
Although Kraan published these views some four score or so years ago, he gives us food for thought. No doubt our sports enthusiasts will find him too negative and can list positive reasons for engaging in organised sports. But let’s not deny the obvious: that in general the society in which we live is passionate about sport and that the dangers for us and perhaps particularly the youth is that some of that passion and fervour rubs off onto us, affecting our interests, our talk and way of life. Thereby we would risk compromising the honour of God by making room for the honour of man with all the associated dangers thereof. Let us heed the Holy Spirit who, speaking through Paul, warns us not to follow the passions of the flesh but to focus rather on godliness with its “promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come” (1 Tim. 4:8).
[i] John Calvin’s Commentary on Timothy, specifically 1 Tim. 4:6-10.
[ii] E D Kraan, “Sport en Spel”, De Reformatie, Vol 12, no 4, 23 Oct. 1931.