The Bible’s Viewpoint
Is Competition in Sports Wrong?
TWO elderly men sit in a park on a sunny day, playing a game of checkers. Nearby are the sounds of children squealing and running about playing tag. Not too far away, a group of young men enjoy a game of basketball. Yes, all around us every day, young and old delight in sports and games. When they take part, most people try hard to do their best. Perhaps you do too.
But could it be said that such friendly forms of competition are wrong? Many are aware of the apostle Paul’s admonition at Galatians 5:26, where he said Christians should not be “stirring up competition with one another.” In view of this, would it be improper for Christians to compete in recreational sports and games?
Simply stated, no. Why is that? Before answering that question, let us look briefly at the history of sports and games.
The History of Sports and Games
Participation in sports and games dates back to ancient times and has been a constant feature throughout history—including the history of God’s people. The word “ball” even appears in the Bible. At Isaiah 22:18, when mentioning Jehovah God’s denunciations against wicked men, it says: “He will wrap (them) up tightly, like a ball.” Some modern balls—like golf balls and baseballs—are still made by wrapping materials tightly. The King James Bible translates the same verse: “He will . . . toss thee like a ball.” For this analogy to have been relevant, balls must have been used by those living at that time.
In addition, in the Bible there is the case of the patriarch Jacob wrestling with an angel. This account seems to presuppose some prior practiced skill on Jacob’s part, since the struggle was an indecisive one that lasted for hours. (Genesis 32:24-26) Interestingly, according to some scholars, the account may indicate Jacob had a recognition of wrestling rules. Israelites likely engaged in archery too—another sport requiring practice and skill. (1 Samuel 20:20; Lamentations 3:12) Running was another athletic endeavor for which men of old exercised and trained.—2 Samuel 18:23-27; 1 Chronicles 12:8.
Games that engaged the mind—like the propounding of riddles—were evidently popular and much esteemed. Perhaps the most notable example of this is Samson’s propounding of a riddle to the Philistines.—Judges 14:12-18.
In the Christian Greek Scriptures, sports and games were sometimes used as metaphors for Christian living. For instance, at 1 Corinthians 9:24, 25, Paul cites an athlete’s vigorous training regimen and applies it to a Christian’s need for self-control and endurance. Also, it is clear Jehovah incorporated a playful streak into much of his creation, for both man and beast find time to play.—Job 40:20; Zechariah 8:5; compare Hebrews 12:1.
When Competition Goes Too Far
What, then, was the apostle Paul saying to fellow Christians when he told them not to be “stirring up competition with one another”? (Galatians 5:26) The answer lies in the context. Paul prefaced this statement by telling them not to “become egotistical” or, as other Bible translations phrase it, not to become “proud,” “conceited,” “desirous of vain glory.” The pursuit of fame and glory was prevalent among the athletes of Paul’s day.
So too in today’s vainglorious world, more and more athletes resort to strutting and calling attention to themselves and their skills. Some go so far as to demean others. Taunting, finger-pointing, and verbal degradation, or what some athletes call “trash talking,” are rapidly becoming the norm. All of this would be “stirring up competition,” leading to what Paul referred to in the concluding part of Galatians 5:26—envy.
At its worst, unbalanced competition leads to fights and even death. Consider the meeting between Saul’s men and those of David at Gibeon, when Abner and Joab agreed to “let the young men come forward and sport before [them].” (2 Samuel 2:14-32, Tanakh) This seems to refer to a wrestling tournament of sorts. Whatever the contest was, it quickly degenerated into a fierce and bloody battle.
A Balanced View
Recreational sports and games should be refreshing—not depressing. This we can achieve by keeping things in perspective, remembering that our worth to God and our fellowman has nothing to do with our skills in sports or games.
It would be foolish to allow feelings of superiority to well up within us because of physical or mental abilities. So let us avoid the unseemly, worldly tendency to call attention to ourselves, lest we provoke envy in others, for love does not brag. (1 Corinthians 13:4; 1 Peter 2:1) And while it is reasonable to expect excitement, spontaneous bursts of enthusiasm, and congratulations among teammates, we would not want these emotions to run wild and become showy displays.
We would never measure the worth of others by their abilities in sports and games. Similarly, we would not want to think any less of ourselves because of lack of skill. Does that mean it would be wrong to keep score? Not necessarily. But we should remember how insignificant any game really is—people’s true worth does not depend on how well they perform. In team play some regularly change the mix of players on each team so that no one team always wins.
Christians should also keep in mind that while sports and games are mentioned in the Bible, they are mentioned only sparingly. It would be a mistake to conclude that the mere mention of sports in the Bible constitutes an outright endorsement of all sports. (Compare 1 Corinthians 9:26 with Psalm 11:5.) Also, Paul noted that “bodily training is beneficial for a little; but godly devotion is beneficial for all things.”—1 Timothy 4:8.
So in their proper place, sports and games are enjoyable and refreshing. The Bible condemns, not all competition, but competition that stirs up vanity, rivalry, greed, envy, or violence.