The Purpose of Prayer is for God to win

This is from a friend, a pastor-thinker in Nashville, Josh Graves:

On November 28, 2010, Steven Johnson lined up as a wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills. On November 28, the Bills were playing the Pittsburgh Steelers and they ultimately lost the game because Johnson dropped a pass late in the game, in the end zone. After the game, Johnson tweeted, “I praise you 24/7!!! And this is how you do me!!! You expect me to learn from this??? How??? I’ll never forget this!! Ever!!”

Johnson praised God 24/7, but what kind of God was he praising? It was a kind of religious transaction where he gives God the glory and God gives touchdowns. Or victories. Or Super Bowls. A fair exchange?

God ends up becoming a cosmic vending machine.

Everything is well and good until Jesus makes you fumble. But this isn’t just Johnson’s problem. This way of approaching God shows up often and the best name for it is religion. And notice who is really in charge of this arrangement. You and me. Not God….

To paraphrase Anne Lamott: You know you’ve created God in your own image when God roots for all the same teams you root for (I’m looking at you Yankee and Cowboy fans).

Here’s my short answer. Based on Christian scripture and practical experience, the purpose of prayer is for God to win. Not for you to win. Or your favorite team. Even if you are from Cleveland—though if anyone has a shot, God just might be rooting for you, Cleveland.

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  • Fish

    Much of “applied Christianity” actually falls into the category of magic rather than religion.

    The idea that if I do “X” then God will do “ABC” is magic, because the power is in my hands. I control God.

    I would wager there are millions of Americans who believe that Tim Tebow is successful because he’s a Christian. He did “X” and so God did “ABC.”

  • Rick

    In fairness, I don’t know if the player was as upset about the loss as he was about being put in an embarrassing situation. That still does necessarily fully change the “vending maching” issue, but it does move the focus from team and individual “wins”, to being humiliated in front of thousands/millions for no clear reason.

  • Chloe

    I’ve often thought that we all sometimes treat God as a “jukebox God”. If we put our money in (pray, go to church, read the bible) then we feel like we’ve got a right to choose the tune that comes out. When I think about it, I don’t believe in a jukebox God, but sometimes I catch myself acting like I do!

  • Of course God doesn’t root for the Yankees. Now the Cowboys…

  • Todd Jordan

    God use to root for the Cowboys…we even put a hole in the roof of our old stadium for him to watch…but that was in the days of Tom Landry…since Jerry Jones took over…oh well…there is always NASCAR and Joe Gibbs racing 😉

  • DRT

    As a Steeler fan, I claim the Immaculate Reception –

    I was in my room, covering a model airplane with tissue and dope (!), listening to the game on radio (!), resigned to the fate of inevitability, and behold, a star in the east, manna from heaven! Ah, indelible ink on that one.

    I’ve tried to find the original radio broadcast that I was listening to, but I can only find it as one part of a long Myron Cope tribute.

    Here is the play in video

  • Larry Barber

    I would wager there are millions of Americans who believe that Tim Tebow is successful because he’s a Christian. He did “X” and so God did “ABC.”

    But, to his credit, Tebow is not one of those millions of Americans.

  • This conversation seems to be mostly about football, but in light of Josh’s comments, I can’t not share a quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel:

    Prayer is an invitation to God to intervene in our lives, to let his will prevail in our affairs; it is the opening of a window to Him in our will, an effort to make Him the Lord of our soul.

  • DRT

    Larry#7 and others…

    Is it just me though, or does he only pray when he does good?

  • Drane Reynolds

    American Christians can be so trivial. Let me edit the paragraph above:

    To paraphrase Anne Lamott: You know you’ve created God in your own image when God roots for all the same teams/NATIONS you root for (I’m looking at you /Yankee[read UNITED STATES] and Cowboy [read CHRISTIAN RIGHT]fans.

    Why does it matter for the trivial sports issues but not for greater political issues? And, no, I don’t exclude liberal Democrats from criticism. But they do not, for the most part, claim to represent the only christian way.

    Fact is, there is only one Christian nation, the catholic church (catholic with a small “c”), meaning “universal”. The global church is the only Christian nation which deserves our prayers for success. No other “team” or nation so qualifies.

  • T


    It may not be just you that’s thinks that, but you are mistaken nonetheless. I don’t love everything about him, but he does not prioritize football (or his performance in it) over God. He prays when he’s doing well, poorly, or not playing football at all.

  • Ouch.
    Did he really have to go there?
    I think I’ll go cry in the corner now.

  • God seems to be capable of overlooking folks yelling at Him. I stand as living proof. I once observed a fellow worker standing out in the open shaking his fist at God and daring Him to strike him with a thunderbolt at the top of his voice. God passed on the opportunity.

    I would say in response to Mr. Johnson, yes, you will remember dropping the ball for the rest of your life, and probably remember yelling at God publicly too. And yes, God expects you to learn from both those things and a lot more besides.

    Possibly one of the things to be learned is that God is not as egocentric as we tend to be and isn’t necessarily thrilled at being praised 24/7. Another might be that not only is football just a game, but life on earth is, as the emergency radio and television puts it, only a test.

  • Rick (at #2), “humiliated” is a very strong word. How do you know Steven Johnson was “humiliated”? Because you would be in that situation? Also, “for no clear reason” implies clear to you. It certainly is clear to God, and may eventually become clear to Steven Johnson, even it if never becomes clear to you.

  • Mark h

    Love this post, but why you gotta pick on Cleveland.

  • scotmcknight

    Mark, Josh Graves is picking on Cleveland … thinks those who cheer for them have got to have faith. He’s got a point, no? (What about us Cubs fans?)