Sports have Spiritual Importance

When I was an undergrad student I rarely rose before the sun. I don’t know why anyone would, really. The comforts of sleep almost always trump the benefits of an early morning routine in my admittedly naïve opinion. But, there were a few times when rising out of bed before the sun became part of my weekly routine. And no, it was not to study or to pray or to do some other activity that would make my parents proud; it was to play sports.

I vividly remember the early morning winter practices that would force me out of the house and into the unforgiving winter air. Winters were the offseason, so our team would book the school gym on Friday mornings at 6am – why so early? I am still not sure. Maybe it was in an effort to keep the team together, make guys accountable, and instill some discipline. By the end of it, we had fun, for sure, but waking up at 5:15am to make the 30-minute walk to the gym in -20° C southern Ontario weather was far from it.

After a few weeks though – and this would happen after a few weeks each year – the waking and walking on those cold early mornings became less and less of a burden. They even became, dare I say, a pleasure. The cold winter air that at first burned my lungs now purified them. The dark mornings that at first made me feel isolated and alone became a respite from the busyness that would envelope the campus in a few short hours. And the exercise that at first felt exhausting soon turned to play, and then to joy.

It is those times, a number of years ago now, that I remember best. The late night pizza runs or video games or movies or antics with friends (oh yeah, and studying) certainly had their place, but I don’t remember those times with the same fondness. I think it is because those early mornings required something of me. They asked more of me than what I often wanted to give.Sports demanded discipline. Sports asked not just for my mind — as the intellectual incubator we call college or university too often does – but for my body as well.

In his book After You Believe, NT Wright describes biblical virtue as doing the right thing even though that “doing” may not come naturally. It may be hard, like waking up to exercise before the sunrise, but the good news is that if you do it enough, eventually it will become natural. Eventually those good habits will seep into the core of our bodies and our minds and our souls, becoming second nature and eventually a source of real satisfaction.

For me, those early winter mornings were the times when I have felt like I best understood Paul in 1 Corinthians 9 when he says, “I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

The history of humanity and in particular Christianity has not always done a good job at appreciating the nature of our bodies. We too often and too easily separate our lives into a mind-body or spirit-body dualism that leaves the body with the short end of the stick. We too easily forget that salvation and redemption and the “prize” that Paul speaks of are not just for the soul but for the body as well.

The point is that our habits, whether good or bad, are inseparable from our body. Everything we do, in fact, is inseparable from our bodies. We are bodily people who move about in a physical world. We often refer to our behaviours as individuals as “human nature” and our habits and routines as being “second nature”. This is because the things that come most natural to us are the things that become closest to the center of who we are in body, soul, and mind.

Sports, with the demands they make on the human body, have been one way that I have been able to enter into this holistic understanding of human nature — which for me is more than a good enough reason to rise before the sun.