If God is for us, who can be against us? So wrote the apostle Paul nearly twenty-one hundred years ago. (Romans 8:31) I’m sure that Paul had no idea that his affirmation of God’s sovereign faithfulness to persecuted Christians would be invoked to explain the outcome of next Sunday’s Superbowl. But, to many fans, God is in control not only of historical processes and matters of salvation and spiritual growth but also the outcomes of sporting contests. According to the Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service, 25% of Americans believe God will decide who wins the Superbowl. Over half of Americans believe God rewards faithful athletes with success in sporting events. Twenty-five percent of fans think their team has been cursed by supernatural forces.
The role of God in determining sporting outcomes was recently invoked by Seattle Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson following the Seahawks come from behind victory over the Packers in the NFC Championship. According to Wilson, who claimed that God was the cause not only of four interceptions but also the spectacular reversal: “That’s God setting it up, to make it dramatic, so rewarding, so special.”
Of course a skeptic might ask, “What would Wilson have said if the Seahawks had lost? Would he have seen his four intercepted passes as the result of God’s will or divine displeasure rather than his mediocre passing? Would he have blamed God for the loss?” It seems athletes are noticeably silent about God’s will when their team is defeated. There’s no glory to be given, just patience with the trials and tribulations of life! That doesn’t make news or a good testimony on the popular Christianity circuit even though such endurance may reflect a deeper faith than the praises of the fortunate.
Now I don’t expect Russell Wilson, Tim Tebow, or most football fans to be sophisticated theologians. Wilson is a fine young man who has used his celebrity status to help others. His relationship with Jesus has made a difference in his life. Still, are his theological explanations more problematic than helpful in the progress of the gospel? Do they give any solace to life’s losers or those put on the sidelines by debilitating illness or financial collapse? I am glad that Wilson believes in God, but does belief in God require us to assert that divine providence determines everything from sporting contests to car accidents, cancer, and business success?
Twenty-five hundred years ago, the book of Job explored whether or not God rewards the faithful and punishes the unrighteous. Following the theological vision of Deuteronomy 25, the book’s protagonist Job initially believed that righteousness is always rewarded and misfortune is a sign of sinfulness. But when everything falls apart in his life, including the loss of his children, wealth, social standing, and health, he is forced to question his naïve rewards-punishments understanding of God’s ways in the world. Job can no longer affirm that faithfulness means success in life. Nor can Job believe that God unilaterally determines our destinies, for good or ill.
While the book of Job doesn’t give us a definitive understanding of the relationship between God’s will and the events in our lives, whether these are related to football games, economics, or health, one strand of the text indicates that we live in a wild and amazing universe which contains pockets of chaos – symbolized by leviathan and behemoth – that even God must work hard to control. The events of our lives may be the result of the interplay of many events, including divine providence (that is, God’s decisions or vision), human freedom, genetic and meteorological factors beyond our control, and sheer randomness. Sometimes an amazing catch is not an “immaculate reception,” ordained by God, but just dumb luck or a ball tipped into the hands of a skilled player nearby. (For more on the book of Job, see Bruce Epperly, Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job.)
If Wilson and the majority of fans are right in their understanding of divine providence as all determining, the results of this affirmation are in many ways disastrous for our understanding of God’s character. First, this understanding of providence implies that God plays favorites, preferring the Seahawks to the Packers or Americans to Russians. The losers in the game of life, whether on or off the field, on are “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.” Their skills and commitment make little difference if they are chosen to be trumpeters of God’s glory. Second, the image a God who rewards faithfulness and punishes unbelievers leads to a sense of Christian privilege, on the one hand, and spiritual uncertainty, on the other. Life experience shows us that a person can do all the right things in terms of faith, behavior, prayer, diet, and exercise and still fail at business, die of cancer or an unexpected heart attack, or lose the big game.
A god who is present and active in every aspect of our lives does not need to be all-determining or prefer one team over the other. God may shape the events of our lives, including football games and personal well-being, in ways that leave room for decision-making, skill, determination, faith, and accident. A faithful God does not need or desire to be responsible for every aspect of our athletic performance. I suspect that God’s will did not directly cause Russell Wilson to throw four interceptions. A more likely explanation involves misreads by receivers, poor throws by Wilson, and heads up play by the defensive team.
I am sure that God was present on the playing field but not as a miracle worker or team mascot; God was there urging the players to achieve their best as team members, to be sportsmanlike, and to remain healthy amid a rough and tumble game. I suspect God was indifferent to the ultimate outcome.
Perhaps Aaron Rodgers, the Packer quarterback, who is also a Christian, was closer to the truth when he responded to a question about whether his faith was shaken at his team’s loss. “I don’t think God cares a whole lot about the outcome. He cares about the people involved, but I don’t think He’s a big football fan.”
So, what are we left with as we head toward Superbowl Sunday? I suspect the God of 125 billion galaxies would have been just as content with Joe Flaco and Aaron Rodgers at quarterback in the big game as with Tom Brady or Russell Wilson at the helm. Even in the wake of the controversy over deflated footballs, I don’t believe God will turn away from the Patriots to reward the Christian Russell Wilson, or defeat the Seahawks to chastise the recently divorced Wilson.
Of course, root for your team. Even pray that they do well, although their opponents deserve the same courtesy. As a loyal member of Patriot Nation, I will be cheering for Brady and the Pats. But, at the end of the day, I will be at peace regardless of the result, knowing that even more important than the Superbowl outcome is our willingness to live in accordance with God’s vision of justice, to feed the hungry, give comfort to the forgotten and vulnerable, and remain faithful and open-hearted as we endure the realities of pain, sickness, and defeat.