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.
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.