Three years ago, I wrote a column about Tim Tebow, the Denver Broncos quarterback who used to kneel publicly after every touchdown and hold his hand to his head as he offered a prayer of thanks. The practice was often called “Tebowing.”
Back then, I wrote that I didn’t think God was really a football fan, or that God controls the outcome of any game. “Frankly,” I wrote, “I don’t think God cares.”
That column caused someone to write a letter to the editor and disagree with me. It seems that there are many who disagree with me. According to the Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service, 25 per cent of Americans believe God actually does decide who will win the Super Bowl. The same poll found that over 50 per cent of Americans believe that God rewards faithful athletes with success in sporting events.
Some athletes believe the same thing. The recent semi–final game saw the Seattle Seahawks engineer an amazing overtime comeback against the Green Bay Packers. Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson threw an astonishing four interceptions. It seemed almost certain that the Packers would win, foiling the Seahawks’ attempt to repeat as Super Bowl champs. But they didn’t.
After the game, Wilson claimed that God caused both the four interceptions and the spectacular reversal: “That’s God setting it up, to make it dramatic, so rewarding, so special.”
Now a skeptic might ask, “What would Wilson have said if the Seahawks had lost? Would he have seen his four intercepted passes as the result of God’s will or divine displeasure rather than his own mediocre passing? Would he have blamed God for the loss?”
Athletes, of course, are noticeably silent about God’s will when their team is defeated. Then they have to show patience with the trials and tribulations of life, but that doesn’t make news or a good testimony on the popular Christianity circuit even though such endurance may reflect a deeper faith than the praises of the fortunate.
Now I don’t expect Russell Wilson, Tim Tebow, or other athletes to be sophisticated theologians. Wilson is a fine young man who has used his celebrity status to help others. His relationship with Jesus has made a difference in his life, and I delight in that.
But there’s a problem with this kind of thinking. To think that winning is the result of God’s favour also means that losing is a sign of God’s displeasure. If God really plays favourites in this way, then the losers in the game of life, whether on the field or off, are “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.” Their skills and commitment make little difference if God has already determined the outcome.
Secondly, does God really choose favourites in this way? I don’t think so. I would say that God loves all people, regardless of which team they play for, regardless of which nation they live in, regardless of which way they practice their own faith.
Thirdly, I don’t think that when we believe in God, we also need to assert that divine providence determines everything from sporting contests to car accidents, cancer, and business success.
The book of Job in the Bible explored this theme over 2,500 years ago. Does God reward the faithful and punish the unrighteous? Job is a righteous man, but everything falls apart in his life, He loses his children, wealth, social standing, and health. He finally comes to the conclusion that being faithful does not necessarily mean success in life. Nor can Job believe that God unilaterally determines our destinies, for good or ill.
The story helps us understand, I think, that we live in a wild and amazing universe which contains pockets of chaos. The events of our lives are usually the result of the interplay of many events, including divine providence (that is, God’s decisions or vision), human freedom, genetic and meteorological factors beyond our control, and sheer randomness.
Sometimes an amazing catch is not an “immaculate reception” ordained by God; it may be just skill, or dumb luck, or a ball tipped into the hands of a skilled player nearby. Sometimes a wonderful comeback is not determined by God deciding to make it more dramatic, but by the amazing skill of these athletes.
I am sure that God was there — but not as a miracle worker or team mascot. God was there urging the players to achieve their best as team members, to be sportsmanlike, and to remain healthy amid a rough and tumble game. I suspect God was indifferent to the ultimate outcome.
Perhaps Aaron Rodgers, the Packer quarterback, who is also a Christian, was closer to the truth when he responded to a question about whether his faith was shaken at his team’s loss. “I don’t think God cares a whole lot about the outcome. He cares about the people involved, but I don’t think He’s a big football fan.”
To that, I can only say “Amen”.
I’m going to be cheering for the Seahawks (since the Broncos aren’t playing). But at the end of the day, I’ll be at peace regardless of the result. There are so many more important things than the Super Bowl that God actually does care about — feeding the hungry, giving comfort to the vulnerable, remaining faithful and open–hearted as we endure the realities of pain, sickness and defeat.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook