Isn’t it degrading to suggest that God cares about sports? Isn’t that anthropomorphizing? Are we, like the ancient Greeks with their stories of gods who did all sorts of silly and petty and naughty things, really supposed to imagine that God dons a cheese-wedge upon his head and roots for the Packers?
With war and famine, death and disease, doesn’t God have better things to do? Aren’t sports beneath his dignity, unworthy of his time and station?
In the process of writing Jeremy Lin: The Reason for the Linsanity (official release date is May 8th), I had abundant opportunity to reflect upon these things. Tim Tebow had been congratulated by many in the media for not talking as though “God gave us the victory.” He thanked God less for the outcome of games than for the opportunity to play in them. When Jeremy Lin first came upon the scene, there were some criticisms even when “Linsanity” was at fever pitch. Jeremy seemed to talk as though God were involved in his basketball career in very intimate ways — as though God not only gave him abilities and opportunities, but gave him successful outcomes — hitting a shot, having a great night, getting the win.
Jeremy’s spiritual mentors and teachers have generally been Reformed. The books he cites as favorites are from John Piper and C.J. Mahaney, and Jeremy’s reflections on his life and career consistently refer to a close and careful divine sovereignty. It’s what theologians have called providentia specialissima, God’s most fine-grained care in the minutiae of our lives.
When people protest the notion that God should care about sports, they tend to be (1) atheists or agnostics who doubt God’s existence in the first place and find the notion of God caring about sports particularly ridiculous, (2) de facto Deists who believe that God created the order of things and then sits back to watch it all unwind, (3) people of faith who believe that God guides history (through natural or supernatural means) in the broadest sense but does not get involved in the sordid details, or (4) just people of faith who really haven’t thought it through.
Of course God cares about sports. The Christian God is not a God who refuses to get in the trenches, not a God whose dignity prohibits him from getting involved in the sordid details of human life. The single most distinctive doctrine in all of Christianity is the doctrine of the Incarnation. Not that God drinks and frolics in the heavens, but that God entered into history as a human being, fully God and fully man, sinless but suffering, enduring all the meager indignities of human existence. This was the scandal of Christ in the ancient world — a God who stooped into the muck of our common condition, who entered the world in the blood and detritus of birth, an incarnate God who (not to put too fine a point on it) had runny noses and infections and diarrhea and who got that goop you get in your eyes in the morning. He died naked and mostly abandoned, with spit and blood and grime upon his body, with thorns puncturing the crown of his head and nails piercing his hands and feet, and…well, I could go on.
God cares about the details, if for no other reason, because God cares about us. We should affirm common grace: that just as God ordains the sun to shine upon the righteous and the wicked alike, God ordains victory for believers and unbelievers. God does not simply give the victory to the most righteous individual or team upon the field. We should make clear that we cannot manipulate the outcome, as though the right formula of prayers and genuflections and “aw shucks” humility can compel God to grant victory. But we should also affirm, whether or not we’re Reformed, that God cares about the details and working through sports is not beneath God’s dignity.
Perhaps we can be a bit more precise. God does not care about sports in themselves. God cares about the people who play them. God cares about the people who watch and enjoy sports and whose lives are affected by sports. And God works through sports, as God works through all things, for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. Training the body is, or can be, a profound and necessary school for the spirit. And in today’s age, when so many Christians live lives of comfortable complacency, when the rigor and striving of faith have been so terribly deemphasized, sports can serve an important role in reminding us of the importance of discipline and collective sacrifice in the pursuit of a greater goal.
So if sports can help us grow closer to God and more mature in our faith — and they can — then yes, God cares about sports for what can be accomplished through them.
What, then, can be accomplished through them? How do sports help us, as athletes and as spectators, to understand God, to witness God, to love and live with God better? Tune in tomorrow for my thoughts on that question.