Sporting on the Sabbath

Intention or justification?

Stefani Leeper

During a typical Sabbath evening at Union College, after the sun has disappeared beyond the western horizon, it isn’t uncommon to find ASB sporting festivities taking place out on 49er’s Field or games of basketball shaking up the Thunderdome.

Extreme physical exertion after sundown is the students’ way of respecting the Sabbath—but that doesn’t stop some from embarking upon a jogging excursion around Holmes Lake or even from throwing around a football during the daylight hours.

Under the subheading of “We Believe: Discipleship” in the 2014-15 Union College bulletin states: “Life is best experienced by serving God, applying a biblical worldview, and sharing God’s love with others. We commit time and energy to developing personal relationships with God that are genuine, creative and intentional.”

Like many, I was left to ponder what the Union College view of sporting on the Sabbath is. Because there is not a definitive answer, I met up with Pastor Rich Carlson to get his take on the issue.

Carlson explained the Seventh-day Adventist view of physical activity on the Sabbath in general has changed significantly over the last few decades. For example, when he was a kid, he never rode his bike on the Sabbath because it was an activity that could be done on any other day of the week. His not partaking in bike-riding was not a demand of anyone of him, but was due to a simple understanding that the Sabbath is to be reserved for something different and something special.

This respect exhibited by Carlson was not limited only to him but to Adventist campuses as well. “Thirty to forty years ago, if the deans saw some students throwing around a football [on Sabbath], they would have stopped it.”

“It’s threatening when someone else does something another person wouldn’t do. For young people, accepting freedom of deciding how they experience the Sabbath gives a great deal of insecurity to adults,” Carlson warns. “At the same time, we need to be careful not to condemn decisions. We need to be careful not to judge or to make it just another holiday.”

You may now be wondering what the Union College youth have to say on the topic. Like Carlson, many students point back to intentionality.

“Playing sports in an Adventist school, we never played any official games during Sabbath hours,” recalls Spencer Tonack, a senior studying Biomedical Science. However, he and his friends were never deterred from shooting free-throws in the driveway—just as long as they didn’t keep score or make it a competition. “For us, playing sports together was a bonding experience. So as long as we weren’t playing to compete, physical activity and sports was a great way to spend the Sabbath. We were also getting exercise, keeping our bodies in shape, and honoring God’s temple by keeping healthy. I was conscious about a few of those reasons. This was something we talked about with our parents.”

Jessica Santee, a sophomore IRR and nursing student, adds, “I don’t see physical recreation as desecration of the Sabbath because I’m out there doing something in nature. I see it as me being able to take a break from my normal activities and relax, whereas I feel competition totally detracts from what the Sabbath is about, and that’s the difference I see.”

While Tonack and Santee agree that competition detracts from the meaning of the Sabbath, sophomore IRR and Pre-Med major Gabby Vizcarra has a much different view of how to exert oneself and still honor God’s day.

“When God said to rest on the seventh day, I don’t think He just meant physically, but I think He meant mentally as well, and He meant it to relieve stress. For me, resting would be having fun; sports is a part of stress relief and putting my mind to rest,” she explains.

Despite the intentionality illustrated by these students, some still feel that these reasons are used as explain-away excuses.

“It bothers me when people say they’re ‘doing it for God,’” says a student who wishes to remain anonymous. “My fear is people are justifying their actions by saying it’s done in the glory or honor of God, rather than doing it with true intention from the heart at the outset. It’s not a legalistic viewpoint, it’s an intentional viewpoint,” the student explains. “There have been so many acts done in the name of God that really were not bringing glory to His name, and so when people discuss doing sports on the Sabbath, it always brings to my mind competition and trying to be better than someone else. It doesn’t bring thoughts of unity, and maybe that’s the way I’ve been brought up to view sports.”

“Start helping people think about their actions, don’t legislate them,” Carlson advises, advocating for intentionality in decision-making. “Many see it as a holiday—a “me” day—and not a holy day. It becomes a Sunday afternoon. Everyone needs to look at what they’re doing on Sabbath and why they’re doing it. What does each one of us do on the Sabbath? We need to reevaluate to see if it’s good, if it reflects God, and if it gives us time to reconnect with Him.”

Now I ask you. How do you feel about sporting on the Sabbath at Union College? How would you respond to the diverse opinions of these students?

Stefani is a sophomore studying communication.