A Public Religion Research Institute Survey released earlier this week showed that that 53 percent believe that “God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success” and that 27 percent of Americans believe that “God plays a role in determining which team wins a sporting event.”
There have been plenty of devout Christian athletes who have had long and successful sports careers: former NBA most valuable player and two-time champion David Robinson, six-time Olympic medalist (and four-time gold medalist) runner Allyson Felix, Cy Young Award-winning pitcher John Smoltz, all-time great NFL defensive end Reggie White, are just a few of the athletes who have excelled at the top level of their respective sports while being outspoken about their faith.
But for every Christian athlete who ends up in his or her sport’s hall of fame, there are many more stuck in minor leagues or on practice squads or who lack the skills to play their sport beyond high school. And there are others, such as former NFL MVP and born-again Christian Shaun Alexander, whose careers are cut short by injury. Can we really say with any confidence that “God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success”?
A year ago, NFL quarterback Tim Tebow appeared to be the beneficiary of divine meddling. As quarterback of the Denver Broncos Tebow, who is famous for writing Bible verses in his eye black as a college player and kneeling in prayer after scoring, made several incredible game winning plays in the fourth quarter and overtime, many of which came in games where he otherwise played poorly. The Broncos, who began that season 1–4, went 7–4 with Tebow as the starting quarterback and earned a playoff berth. In their opening round playoff game, the Broncos upset the heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers behind Tebow’s 316 passing yards.
But following Tebow’s transcendent 2011 season, the Broncos signed Peyton Manning and traded their former quarterback to the New York Jets. Tebow spent 2012 as a backup and ended the season as the Jets’ third-string quarterback. Thus far no NFL team has expressed interest in having Tebow on its roster in 2013. If “God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success,” why is America’s most recognizable Christian athlete looking for a job? What does that say about God? What does it say about Tim Tebow?
Jesus never says that God’s people will be rewarded with “good health and success.” To the contrary, Jesus invites us to a life of sacrifice and tells us that we are blessed when we are “hopeless” and “harassed” (Matthew 5:3, 10). And while some American Christians have the opportunity to play professional sports, many more Christians around the world suffer from poverty, war, famine, disease, and persecution. They would love some “good health and success.”
The idea that “God plays a role in determining which team wins a sporting event” poses similar problems. When the St. Louis Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV, the world learned the story of Rams quarterback Kurt Warner. Warner, who wasn’t drafted out of college, went from working in a grocery store in Iowa to Super Bowl MVP in just five years. Along the way, he gave his life to Christ, a decision he credits for his unlikely rise to superstardom. But Warner led two more teams to Super Bowls and lost both times, once to a team that would later be accused of illegally taping the Rams’ practice to get an advantage and once to a team whose quarterback was twice accused (but cleared) of sexual assault. What does that say about God?
And what does it say about God that the 2004 USC Trojans won the BCS National Championship only to vacate the championship six years later when the NCAA determined that running back Reggie Bush had been ineligible? Why, for that matter, would God allow cyclist Lance Armstrong and runner Marion Jones—both of whom would receive bans from their respective sports for doping—to win so many Tours de Frances and Olympic medals?
Maybe God is making a statement about the NCAA’s rules. Maybe God is reminding us, “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23), even if we’ve never taken performance enhancing drugs or illegally recorded our opponents’ practices. So before we get worked up about the splinter in Lance Armstrong or Marion Jones’s eyes, we should deal with the logs in our own eyes (Matthew 7:1-6). But when we look for God’s hand in the outcome of every sporting event, any message we think God is sending us gets muddled.
And when we decide that God determines who wins a sporting event, we have to ask the uncomfortable question of why God intervenes in human affairs to help a team win a football game but not to end the conflicts in Syria or Mali. Such a God is less a lord, father, or comforter than a college student who spends so much time playing Madden 13 that he neglects to study for midterms.
The cover of last week’s Sports Illustrated features the headline, “Does God care who wins the Super Bowl?” And, yes, God does care. We can affirm that God cares about who wins the Super Bowl just as God cares about everything else that happens in this wonderful universe God has created. But we shouldn’t assume that God has a rooting interest, that the outcome of Sunday’s game was God’s will, or that certain Christian players on the winning team have been rewarded for finding favor with God. When we make these assumptions, we end up with a God who doesn’t look much like the God we know in Christ.
Josh Tinley is a curriculum editor for Abingdon Press and the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports.