Having just returned from a family mini-vacation in the north Georgia mountains, I discovered that my post on “Gabby Douglas, Jeremy Lin, and the God of Parking Spots” had generated some conversation. Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon.com had criticized Douglas, the newly crowned all-around Olympic champion, for what one writer has called a facile faith in “The God of Parking Spaces,” or a God who rewards us with the ideal parking space because we prayed piously. It struck many as absurd to criticize a sixteen-year-old’s joyful profession of faith in the full flush of an Olympic victory. We cannot judge a person’s faith on the basis of sound bytes, after all, and when one takes a more full orbed view of Gabby’s life and the things she has said about her faith, it seemed as though Mary Elizabeth Williams had rushed to judgment.
My point was slightly different. When people blanche at an athlete who thanks God for her victory, they seem to assume that the athlete believes God is rewarding them for their piety. In my experience, that’s not the case. All athletes, even elite athletes, experience far more failure than triumph. You have to fail at a skill dozens, scores, sometimes hundreds of times before you learn how to do it properly. You have to lose at dozens, scores, perhaps hundreds of competitions before you reach the pinnacle of your sport. Elite athletes are experts at losing. As Tony Dungy told me when I interviewed him for my book on Jeremy Lin, faith is helpful to the Christian athlete far more for helping the athlete deal with success than dealing with failure. Sports itself will teach you how to fail. Your faith may help you persevere through the tough times, but so do other things, like pride and desperation. It takes faith to learn how to succeed and receive your victory with humility. Received in faith, victory is far more humbling than defeat, because in the moment you receive a victory as a gift from God you are profoundly aware of it as a gift, as something unearned, something that is infinitely more than you deserve, something that could so easily have gone to someone else.
This is where responses like Williams’ are so wrong-headed. When an athlete gives thanks to God for a victory, this is not a sign of arrogance but of humility. It’s not: I thank God for giving me this victory, because I earned it through my greater righteousness or better praying than the other competitors. In that case, why give thanks? If you’re only getting what you deserve, then God is just delivering your wages in some kind of metaphysical calculus. No. What the athlete is saying is: I thank God for this victory, because it’s a pure gift. I don’t deserve it. God did not have to give this to me. I’m more grateful than I can possibly say.
But I wanted to respond to one particular criticism that was leveled in the comments — and it comes via Christianity Today writer (and someone I recently enjoyed meeting) Katelyn Beaty. Katelyn wrote:
What this essay as well as David French’s neglected to address was Mary Elizabeth Williams’s ongoing battle with cancer, a battle she alludes to at the end of her article about Douglass (sic). She writes, “…I don’t believe in a God who punished me with disease any more than I believe in one who rewarded me with health. I certainly don’t believe in one who ‘keeps me safe.’ I don’t think I got to live while my friends Phoebe and Gigi died because I prayed better.”
So how should we expect Williams to respond to this sentiment, which describes something as insignificant as finding a parking space, if we extend the logic to her current battle with cancer? “When God gives you the [successful cancer treatment], it’s for his purposes, and not because you prayed in just the right way. And when God does not give you the [successful cancer treatment], that too is for his purposes.”
It’s one thing to praise God at the height of Olympic victory. It’s another thing to praise God when your body is being ravished [sic] by disease. But the logic of this essay suggests that both are equally appropriate, because God is ‘the God of All Things.’
I’d rather have a deist God who wasn’t that personally involved in the heights and lows of my life, than an intimately involved God whose purposes and intentions are so obscured as to be unintelligible and frustrating.
First of all, Gabby did not thank God for a parking spot. That’s just a derisive term developed by someone else. Gabby thanked God for giving her something for which she has trained for over half her life.
Second, neither David French’s post nor my response failed to address the issue of defeat and failure and disappointment. But Williams ascribes to Douglas and her ilk a theology that they do not possess. Douglas would not say that God is punishing Williams with cancer — and neither would I. She would not say that God keeps her safe from bad things; Douglas has said she’s constantly afraid for the life of her soldier father, which would not make sense if she held to a facile theology that God will somehow keep all the bad things away. Douglas would not say that Williams survived while her friends died because she “prayed better” — and, again, neither would I. There is no assumption here that God makes the righteous to prosper and the wicked to suffer, or that pray is some kind of magical incantation that compels God’s protection. I find it rather insulting on Gabby’s behalf that Williams attributes this theology to her.
We all know that people suffer — everyone involved in this conversation has experienced a good deal of it: Williams in her cancer, me in my broken neck and chronic pain, David in his horrific military experiences, and Gabby (to a sixteen-year-old extent) in her own struggles and in her father’s absence and family stresses. No one, at any point, is saying that suffering is meted out as punishment or that success is given to those who pray the best. Yet that’s what Williams ascribes to Gabby Douglas, and that’s completely false.
Third, I do believe it’s equally appropriate to praise God at the height of victory and as your body is being ravaged by disease. In fact, the scripture seems pretty clear that we are to praise God in all things. That’s not (necessarily) to say that we should praise God FOR disease. It’s certainly not to say that disease is good in itself. It’s only to say that we should praise God in all things. We may believe that God ordained this disease for his own glory (there is biblical precedent in the story of the man born blind in John 9), or we may believe that God merely permits such things — but we believe that we should praise God in all things, and that God can bring good out of evil. So while I don’t say that God caused my broken neck, I do praise God in the midst of the chronic pain, and I praise God for the good that he has brought out of it.
But the whole pez-dispenser theology she attributes to Douglas here is just false. Why do we so often assume superficiality in those who differ from us?