Saturday, January 17, 2009

God and Sports: Are winners more blessed?

I'm a total sports nut, and I've had draft after draft of blog posts dedicated to this subject, but I never seem to get around to posting them. Well, here's my overdue post on the role of God in sports, motivated courtesy of Mark Kriegel and Foxsports. (My friend Krazywakfunky just pm'ed me that Jime Rome and Dan Patrick also talked about this on their radio programs this week)

This is a hot topic right now because of the building media hype leading up to the Super Bowl, magnified by Tony Dungy's retirement and Tim Tebow winning yet another BC$ Championship. If you're not as much of a nerd as me, let me give you a quick rundown. Kurt Warner, the blue-collar come-from-nowhere Super Bowl Champion quarterback is back with a new team and another shot at glory. He isn't shy about the role his faith has played in motivating him through tough times, of which he's had many. Tony Dungy is retiring from coaching the Indianapolis Colts, whom he led to the 2007 Super Bowl. A well-respected and regarded coach with high expectations, he too would give credit where credit was due and was criticized following his Super Bowl win by boasting that he and his opposing coach, Lovie Smith, were the first to "d0 it the right way" supposedly by not cussing and being religious, implying that the other 30 coaches in the NFL do it the wrong way. (This is not meant as a knock on Dungy at all, just the way the media responded. In fact, I have a great deal of respect for him and would cheer for the Colts because of him. He is definitely a fine example to follow as summarized in this article from the Praying Fields at OnFaith.) Finally, Tim Tebow is a a phenom-quarterback at the University of Florida who not only thanks God for his accomplishments (only a couple of championships and Heisman trophies but who's counting?), but even goes on mission trips.

Of course it's no surprise that these outward displays of faith make others like Kriegel uncomfortable. If God has no place in our government or our public square, then certainly God has no place in sports, right? Faith is even harder to reconcile in sports, where there is a clear winner and loser. Who's to say God favored one over the other? Does God really care who wins a championship? (If he did, the Cubs would've won it all last year, but I digress) Some denominations recognize this and even go so far as prohibiting sports because not only does competition bring out the worst of us (just go watch your church's local softball team) but it also puts God in a box, forcing Him to choose a favorite. Of course, the Bible tells us over and over that God doesn't play favorites, so this would be a sin on our part.

The rivalry game between the University of Utah and BYU is called the Holy War (really, only recently so when both teams have been good enough to generate national attention). Does God really care who wins that game? What if Baylor (a Baptist school) plays Notre Dame? Does God care if the baseball player that crosses himself before his at bat strikes out or hits a home run?

Of course, most Christians in sports treat this humbly by crediting God for their talents and their health. They don't pray to win, they pray to glorify God and for there to be no injuries. It's usually the fans (and some knucklehead players with misinformed theology, see below) who take it overboard. But even crediting God for talents and opportunities makes others uncomfortable. Look no further than critics of President Bush who never did understand what he meant when he claimed that he believed God chose him to be president. This wasn't a boast, but a humble reference to Romans 13:1. We can joke that Obama is the 'chosen one' but again, referencing Romans and conceding that God has a hand in all things, he really is. But then we're back to the problem with sports- was Florida 'chosen'? If so, where's free will?

So there's a danger in all of this. There's no problem with thanking God, for that's what the Bible commands us to do "in everything" (Phil 4:6) and "in all circumstances" (1 Thes 5:18). But we need to draw a line between divine providence (opportunity and talent) and divine intervention. This is where some fans and athletes cross the line. I mentioned BYU earlier and I'm not shy in saying that I absolutely hate them. But last year, there was a "miracle catch" to beat Utah as time expired and later a "miracle block" to beat UCLA in their bowl game. Their receiver, after this miracle catch was quoted as saying, "Obviously, if you do what's right on and off the field, I think the Lord steps in and plays a part in it. Magic happens." But what about the thugs and cheats that permeate professional sports who are successful? See where this theology leads? (this is also a problem with Prosperity Doctrine, but that's another post for another day)

This isn't a new problem. Look at how David lamented on the success of the wicked in the Psalms. Solomon did the same in Ecclesiastes. Or even the apostles who wondered why a man was born blind. Righteous living does not equate success in this life despite what our favorite athletes might say. We need to look no further than Jesus' reply to reconcile our faith with prosperity, or in our case victory: "[T]his happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life." (John 9:3)

The "his" above could be "us" or "them" with regards to our own success or that of our favorite (or least favorite even) team. Give God the glory. Give him thanks. And humbly recognize that whether you win or lose, God is in control.

(For entertainment, check out this article from a year ago that gives a list of sports colliding with faith. See if you can tell the difference between most of the quotes- the most obvious exception being the boxer- and what the BYU player said.)

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