Those Whose Work is Called Play

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Sports were not valued much in the home where I grew up.  My dad rarely watched sports on television, but he did take me to a New York Mets game at Shea Stadium once.  I played baseball as a kid, and was a member of a neighborhood swim team as a teenager.  Now, with few exceptions (such as the Winter Olympics) I have very little interest in any kind of professional or college sporting event.

Consequently, in my writings on the theology of work over the past two years, I had never focused on professional athletes.  I was unaware how they would fit into my biblical perspective.

However, I was pleasantly surprised when I stumbled on an article posted on Facebook by Focus on the Family, entitled “What Does it Mean to Play for an ‘Audience of One’?” Ed Uszynski, with Athletes in Action for 25 years highlighted a new organization, the AO1 (Audience of One) Foundation, founded by Carson Wentz, quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles.

The author also shared a link to a short video that is worth watching, featuring Carson and several players on his team who are clearly living for Christ, both on and off the field.

Two months later, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the Eagles had earned a spot in the Super Bowl.  I cheered them on as they beat the New England Patriots in a splendid victory!

This article opened my eyes to those whose work is called play.  These professional athletes, and many others like them, work for an audience of one, obeying Paul’s words in Col. 3:23: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”

Ed described what the concept of playing for an audience of one means.  Here are a few points he made that I found inspiring:

  • “It DOESN’T mean playing ‘for God,’ as though we are performing for Him, trying to earn His applause or favor by being successful in our competition.”
  •  “It DOES mean playing ‘with God,’ constantly aware of His presence in the midst of the game, competing completely focused on the job at hand while also completely aware that He is everywhere with us.”
  • “It DOESN’T mean receiving some sort of additional competitive blessing that others on the field cannot access. God as your primary audience does not mean He is predisposed to make sure you win or always come out on top of the competition.”
  • “It DOES mean that no matter what happens on the scoreboard in a particular game, God’s kingdom values keep the game in perspective, allowing you to be disappointed in a loss and excited in a win without losing sight of other priorities.”

That second bullet above illustrates quite well my own theology of work, which is summarized by the term Immanuel labor, meaning experiencing God’s presence in our profession.

Let me try to explain how professional sports as a career field fits into a theology of work.

Without a doubt, I must acknowledge first of all that in God’s economy, all kinds of legitimate work that humans pursue have intrinsic value.  I discussed this concept in some depth in an article I wrote a few years ago.

However, when I reflect on how the field of sports has instrumental value, I admittedly struggle a bit.  It is much easier to see how most other kinds of work are useful to meet the real needs of humans.  I am hard-pressed to find a direct connection between professional sports and the kind of work that God routinely does through the work of His people.  This does not diminish its value in any way.  I just have to think a little more creatively using my “sanctified imagination” to highlight its instrumental value.

I think I found a valid comparison.  I observe that sports events are not so different from a drama.  There are players on a stage.  There is conflict.  There are the standard plot elements of a good story: man against man, man against himself, man against nature (thinking of the Olympic skiing events).  There is resolution.  There are tears, laughter, and a shared experience with others that was memorable.

We are inspired by the teams and individuals who overcome great odds to win.  We see the strength, endurance, and beauty of men and women performing in ways that amaze us, causing us to be amazed by the one who created us in His image.  Sporting events do add to flourishing, and thus, the athletes that are paid to play indeed do work that is of value.

I must also briefly mention something about spiritual gifts.  Success on the field has given well-known players like Carson Wentz, Tim Tebow, Benjamin Watson, and many others a public platform.  There, they are able to use their spiritual gift of giving off the field, sharing much of their financial blessings with worthy causes to bless others around the world in Jesus’ name.

In addition, after watching another video about the Philadelphia Eagles, I was struck by the power of unity amidst diversity they experience as brothers in Christ.  I was reminded of Jesus’ promise, that “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20).  Once again, this illustrates God’s presence at work.  The genuine unity and love they have for one another demonstrates the reality of their faith in Jesus Christ to all who are on the outside.

I can confidently conclude that professional athletes most certainly glorify God in their work.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.