Does God Care Who WIns? (And Other Thoughts Sparked by Tim Tebow)

I was waiting for it. Last week, published stories originating from a website suggested a Denver area pastor was maintaining that God intervenes in Denver Broncos football games and actually aids quarterback Tim Tebow because of his Christian faith. The brief story involves Wayne Hanson, pastor of Summit Church in Castle Rock, CO, and includes this widely quoted excerpt:

Hanson tells us, “It’s not luck. Luck isn’t winning 6 games in a row. It’s favor. God’s favor.”

Pastor Hanson adds, “God has blessed his hard work.”

We asked Hanson if Tebow would be winning games if he wasn’t such a strong believer — and the pastor replied, “No, of course not.”

Being an ardent sports fan as well as a chaplain for a college football team, this kind of thing usually peaks my interest. And so I was all set to write a post about how this way of thinking didn’t necessarily match up with a biblical perspective when the story got a bit more interesting. A follow-up article from the Denver Post reported that Hanson maintains the article distorted what he actually said in the original interview. He explained:

I don’t think God cares about who wins a football game,” he said. “I do think he cares about people and people care about football. I think Tim has favor from God in his life, but that is there win or lose.

Regardless of whether the original quotations were accurate or not, I think a lot of Christian observers would consider these latter comments to be a significant improvement. And that may be true to a point. But for what its worth and with all due respect to a fellow pastor, my take would still be a bit different.

As an aside, I feel compelled to lay a few cards on the table regarding the whole Tim Tebow phenomenon in general. I’m a Chiefs fan, so I have almost a hardwired negative response to all things Denver Bronco. Still, I’ve appreciated much of how Tebow has handled himself both on and off the field. Would I communicate about my faith a bit differently if I were in his shoes? Probably. But I find the vitriol that some level at him to be mystifying. In a society that expends a great deal of effort in drawing attention to the shortcomings and negative influence of professional athletes, one wonders why anyone wants to tear down a guy who, by almost every account, works hard and remains humble. After all, the last thing we’d want is our kids to grow up and do the same. Tebow is a lightning rod, but I don’t think he’s much to blame for the storm. Now, who knows whether his throwing motion is too long to have long-term success in the NFL, but that’s a different conversation…. Now back to our regular programming.

It’s always problematic when someone suggests that a team or player is enjoying a given blessing (winning a game, playing well, getting a big contract, etc.) due to faith and the favor of God. Not that it’s untrue out of hand. There are any number of biblical passages that suggest God does give blessings to people who trust in him and live in a manner consistent with his will (see, e.g., Prov. 3:1-4, Mark 10:29-31, Gal. 6:7-10). But it’s also true that God’s definition of blessing isn’t always the same as ours. For example, he routinely uses what we view as hardship and suffering to bring about a greater good in our lives (Rom. 8:28; 2 Cor. 4:17, 12:7-10). If God’s favor inevitably means success and a life free of difficulty and setbacks, what are we to make of people like David (recall Saul’s attempts to kill him), Job (the proverbial paradigm of suffering while enjoying God’s favor), Paul (see the impressive list in 2 Cor. 11:23-29) and perhaps most importantly, Jesus! On top of all this, the Bible is also clear that unbelievers often enjoy an abundance of temporal blessings (see Psa. 73).

No, even this brief discussion illustrates that we presume too much by blithely explaining success on a playing field in terms of God’s favor. Many God-pleasing men and women have failed badly in their sports. Many who have turned their backs on him have reached the pinnacle of athletic success. A failure to realize this runs the risk of embracing a version of the prosperity gospel and the crushing weight it can lay on those who aren’t on the positive side of the scoreboard.

But even if we can’t neatly explain athletic successes or setbacks by faith or the lack thereof, neither do I think we can say that God doesn’t care about who wins football games and the like. If God is the sovereign Lord of all creation, if a sparrow doesn’t fall to the ground outside of his will, then I’m guessing he cares about the outcome of everything from your pickup basketball exploits and ten-year-old daughter’s softball game to the Super Bowl and the World Cup.

Of course, he may not care about them in the same way you and I do. And for this, we should be thankful. For example, it’s safe to say that he’s not reduced to inconsolable disgust at the outcome of a particularly crucial moment in your team’s big game. He will not “just die” if your team wins the national championship. He doesn’t spew invective on internet message boards after your team loses to its archrival.

But does he weave each one of those wins and loses (and every moment leading up to them) into the lives of everyone involved—players, coaches, fans, anti-fans, etc.? And does he do it in such a way as to further his own good purposes, even if they’re often mysterious? Absolutely. Divine wisdom will call for some to experience the thrill of victory and others the agony of defeat. And depending on the person, the outcome of a game might be a bigger or smaller means to achieving countless different purposes. But at the end of the day (age?), those purposes are doubtless bent to a goal much bigger than championships, be they for little or major leagues.

All this is to say that God is involved with sports at all levels in the same way he’s involved in every other area of life: sovereignly, and resulting in both his people’s ultimate good and his everlasting glory.

And that should give us joy and comfort in the face of both victory and defeat.

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