Prayer and the Big Game: Can You Pray Before You Play?

Prayer and the Big Game: Can You Pray Before You Play? March 18, 2015

8708625717_7aa025e005 It’s so typical a moment that it’s become trite: the athlete steps out for his big moment, crosses himself, and goes on to the glory of victory…or, possibly, the agony of defeat. And every so often I hear this kind of thing: “Yeah, like God’s going to win the game for him.” Last Superbowl Sunday I heard several people talking about praying for their team and then dismissing it, because “Of course, God doesn’t get involved in sports.”

We’ve got some interesting things going on here: athletes who apparently think God can affect the outcome of the Big Game; atheists who know that God can’t possibly affect the outcome of the Big Game; and sports fans who wish God could affect the outcome of the Big Game but admit that He doesn’t do that sort of thing.

And it all got me to wondering…what role can prayer reasonably play in the world of sports? Might God influence the outcome of the Big Game, or is He completely hands off? Are there some prayers that are reasonable and some that aren’t?

First of all, it’s clear to me that God can influence the outcome of any sporting competition, should He choose to do so. A player’s foot might slip; the wind might gust; a muscle might spasm. It’s His world; we just live in it. And God’s providence works in mysterious and hidden ways: if the greater good, as God sees it, is served by a Dodger victory at the World Series then God might choose to arrange that. And God’s providence might be influenced by all of the prayers said by fans. Of course, the game would have to be worth the candle: someone’s immortal soul would have to be at stake.

But though it seems possible I admit it seems unlikely in practice. A sporting event is meant to be a contest of skill, and for God to take sides seems unfair (unless one side is the Yankees). Consequently, simple prayers for one side or the other to win seem pointless: why should God favor this team over that team? And then, of course, there’s the common sense observation that fans on both sides are praying for their team, and why should God favor this team’s fans over that team’s fans?

On the other hand, it seems to me quite reasonable for an athlete to ask God to help him do his best—to focus, and to remember, and to perform at his peak. Everyone has off days and on days, and if I were to be playing in the Superbowl you can bet that I’d be praying for an on day—along with doing whatever else I could to ensure that I had one. Teams are the same way; we’ve all seen the better team lose on an off day to the team that had the day of a lifetime. (It happened to figure skater Michelle Kwan at several consecutive Olympics.)

And by extension it seems reasonable to pray that the players on my team would be able to play their best.

Prayers that the other team would play their worst, though…that’s another thing altogether. Even if the other team is the Yankees.

* I’m writing for theists, here. If you’re one of those who thinks prayer is necessarily ineffectual, you don’t need to tell me where you stand. I got it.

photo credit: Richmond Flying Squirrels vs. Trenton Thunder via photopin (license)

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  • Another Kevin

    The benefit of prayer is at least as much to the soul of the one doing the praying. So pray. Don’t forget intercession, thanksgiving, praise and blessing as well as petition, but it’s human nature to pray for the things we think we want. It helps, however ill-intentioned it is, because disposing mind and soul to God is always opening the door at least a crack for Him to come in.

    I’ve heard a great many people over the years saying how wrong it is to pray for your own intentions – but the seeming contradiction is right there from how our Lord Himself taught us to pray. Right after we say, “Thy will be done,” we go on with a catalog of our own intentions: our daily bread, forgiveness for ourselves and others, freedom from temptation, deliverance from evil.

    Besides, praying for the things that tempt us is a “teachable moment.” God answers every prayer, and sometimes it elevates the spirit to learn that the answer is, “No.”

    • Will Duquette

      Yup. I posted about praying for your needs and concerns some while back, as you’ll recall because you commented on it. 🙂