How do we work hard at a hobby or potential career without turning it into an idol? How do we find joy in sports and other pastimes while keeping God first?
A lot of Christians see their lives this way, as a kind of precarious balancing act where you have to keep both your day-to-day life and your spiritual life going at the same time. It's almost like that guy you see on TV or in the circus who starts a plate spinning up on a pole and then another and then another and has to keep frantically running around to keep them all going. The problem with looking at it like this is that God doesn't see the various aspects of our lives as separate, individual entities or components that He only has partial rights to. God doesn't just lay claim to Sundays and devotion times. He doesn't want just a portion of us. He wants all of us, all the time, in all that we do (Mark 12:30). Colossians 3:23 says "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord and not for men..." Whatever you do, not just going to church or witnessing or reading your Bible or the other activities we tend to classify as "Christian," but everything that you do, you are to do whole-heartedly and put forth your best effort.
I think the lesson here is that time management for the Christian is less like balancing different sides of our lives than integrating all aspects of our life under the heading and authority of Jesus Christ. When we look at Christian living as an integration of all aspects of our life rather than a separation of individual aspects or components of it, the frenzy and friction we create for ourselves mostly resolves itself. It's no longer necessary to quit a job or a sport you love participating in so that you can free up more time for God, because all time belongs to God and you can honor, serve, and glorify Him through the everyday activities you do. That is why the Bible can command us to "do all to the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31).
As long as we keep that perspective, we can use all of our talents, whether creative or athletic or academic or administrative or whatever it may be, to serve and glorify God. Then it's not so much a detraction from God and your faith as it is just a channel through which we live out our Christian testimony before other people. When God is the ultimate focus of our lives — all our lives, every aspect of our lives — when we intentionally dedicate all our work and endeavors to Him, then everything we do is to Him and for Him.
You might want to check out Eric Liddell's biography. If you don't already know his story, it is a very inspirational one and is dramatized in the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire
. Liddell was an athlete in track and field, but he was also a Christian who was headed for the mission field when he qualified as a competitor in the 1924 Olympics. His sister advised him to blow off his promising running career in order to pursue his missionary work but he saw his passion for running as a gift to be used at that particular point in his life. In the movie he tells his sister
, "God made me fast and when I run I feel God's pleasure." Eric Liddell embraced the talent God had given him, and used it to bring glory to God and to show others the joy that comes of living a life focused on the One who created speed and athleticism and all other good things.
In terms of the danger of making idols out of what we love to do, I think it's helpful to remember that it is not idolatry to love something that you do. What makes an otherwise amoral (neither moral nor immoral) activity idolatrous is when we start to love it more
than we love God. When it starts to edge God out of our lives, affections, focus, thoughts, etc. and replace Him with itself, then we have made an idol for ourselves. Now, only you can tell if this has happened already with your hobbies or if things are heading in that direction, and that will involve some serious self-examination. I would start by asking yourself some basic diagnostic questions: 1) What would you lose if you didn't have your hobby in your life and why, specifically, would that be such a sacrifice to you? 2) What role does it play in your life, and how big of a presence is it? 3) What is its function in your life and what is it accomplishing or contributing? These questions can help clarify whether it has become an idol in your life and if it has, to what extent it has.
Sometimes, it's not the thing itself that has a hold over people as much as it is a byproduct of the thing. I am a personal trainer and I often find that when it comes to exercise and athletic achievement, it is not always the activity itself that attracts people as much as it is the payoff of the activity — maybe they want approval or fame or bragging rights over others (or even over themselves) by lifting more and more, going farther and faster etc., maybe they want to serve their own vanity and self-image by fitting into a dress size or looking a certain way or something like that. It's usually not the workout they are idolizing but something else they are getting out of the workout. Asking yourself why your hobby is so important to you can be helpful in trying to figure out where your heart really is in relation to it — is it merely a pastime you love or a sport you are passionate about, or is it something that goes much deeper, like being obsessed with performing perfectly or needing to feed your ego on your competitive or athletic ability and accomplishments?
Regardless of the object of idolatry, the cure is always the same. The answer to idolatry is to destroy the idol in your heart and to reorient your worship towards the only One who is worthy to receive your worship. If your hobby has become an idol to you, you don't have to quit, but you do have to quit the idol. That might involve drastically changing the way you look at it, what you want out of it and expect from it, and the way you approach participating in it. The missionary Jim Elliott once wrote, "That man is no fool who forfeits what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." He meant of course what the Apostle Paul meant in Philippians 3:8 when he said, "I count all things loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I...count them as rubbish that I may gain Christ..." As rewarding as your advancement in your hobby may be to you on this side of eternity, how important will they be in the next life? Learning to actively foster an eternal perspective — to look at this life as nothing but an investment in the next (Matthew 6:19-21) — helps to counter our tendencies towards manufacturing idols for ourselves here and now out of interests, objectives, goals, and achievements that we know are all "passing away" (1 Corinthians 7:31). Paul writes, "Physical training has some value, but godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come" (1 Timothy 4:8). Christians should constantly be in the process of doing this side-by-side comparison and evaluating what they are truly investing themselves in. This helps us not just to identify our idols but helps us to see them as they truly are &mash; objects unworthy of our fanaticism.
Most importantly, God is the ultimate cure for idolatrousness and the key to being rid of its hold over us. When we turn to Him in sincere faith, and as we come to know Him better and see more clearly who He is and what He has done for us, the unworthy and insufficient idols we have made for ourselves are exposed to us and by God's grace, torn down in our hearts. "Return to Him from whom you have deeply defected. For in that day everyone shall cast away his idols of silver and his idols of gold, which your hands have sinfully made for you" (Isaiah 31:6-7). Biblical repentance involves two parts — not just ceasing to do the sin but replacing the wrong attitude and behavior with the right attitude and behavior. So idolaters who have defected from God must not just turn away from their usurping idols but must return whole-heartedly to God who graciously provides the cure for idolatry with Himself, and who alone is worthy to receive glory, honor, power, and worship (Revelation 4:11 & 14:7).
For athletes: Because so much of their time and energy is focused on improving in their sport, many Christian athletes constantly struggle against their goals and achievements becoming a spiritually unhealthy obsession or even a full-blown idol. Here are several additional resources that might help you prevent this from becoming an issue in your life, or deal with it if it already has:
"Strengthen Your Faith Through Physical Exercise"
"Injury Interrupted my Idolatry"
A book by Stephen Altrogge, Game Day for the Glory of God: A Guide for Athletes, Fans, & Wannabees
Finally, you should check out the Fellowship of Christian Athletes
(FCA) They have all sorts of resources available and ways you can join local groups in your area for young Christian athletes who want to grow in their faith and in their sport.
I am praying that God will give you wisdom and discernment in dealing with this issue to His glory and your lasting good. God bless you!