THIS QUESTION doesn’t come from a “Religion Q and A” reader but a headline in The Record, the daily newspaper in the New Jersey county that’s hosting a certain athletic event:
“Does God care who wins the Super Bowl?”
THE GUY (who lives in that county) ANSWERS:
You gotta be kidding. Spiritual suffering, physical and mental illness, anxiety and loneliness, natural disasters, oppression, wars, terrorism, kidnapping, senseless murders, broken families, kids without dads, homelessness, addiction, materialism, privation, pestilence, prejudice, impossible decisions that must be made, and all manner of other woes and perplexities are abroad in the world. How could the Deity possibly be concerned about the outcome of a mere football game February 2d, no matter how big the TV audience is?
Still. Though such claims of divine attention seem theologically suspect perhaps there’s more to be said about an underlying question: Is it proper to bother God with prayer about life’s trivialities like this? “Religion Q and A” wrestled with a few of the big issues concerning prayer in a November 30, 2013 item, but what do religious figures think we’re supposed to do about “little” prayers?
Personal gridiron prayers are baked into American pop culture. In a January poll for the Public Religion Research Institute, 26 percent of Americans said they’ve prayed to God to help their favorite team, and 19 percent thought God actually plays a role in who wins. For some reason, football fans report praying more often than those who follow other sports. Fully 48 percent of adults thought “athletes of faith are rewarded with good health and success.” On that question, agreement jumped to nearly two-thirds among white Evangelicals and minority Protestants. If that’s automatically the case, the demonstrably devout Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow might be at MetLife Stadium with the Broncos, or might be hoping for future bowl appearances with the Jets or the Patriots, instead of analyzing college games on television.
Atheists smirk at the idea that God cares about who has the most points on the scoreboard. For instance, how might He decide which team to favor? On salon.com, Gary Labyrinthitis commented on prayers for one’s team to win: “There is something basically wrong with God deciding the outcome. It’s illegal to fix sports games . . . It diminishes the game if the outcome depends on to whom God throws the game. So why do we allow God to get away with it? And doesn’t this call into question God’s sense of fair play and honesty?”And yet. The God depicted in the Bible is so intent on mundane matters that He numbers “the hairs of your head” (Luke 12:7). The Bible also urges, “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Everything? Really? Does this cover (actual examples from preachers) a broken toe, lost car keys, or the need for a parking space?
Yes, proclaimed the late Adrian Rogers, prominent pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in the Memphis area. “If it concerns you, it concerns God,” Rogers wrote. “The biggest thing you can think of is small to God, and the smallest thing you can think of is important to God if it’s important to you.” A writer in the inspirational magazine Guideposts advised folks to “pray about even the tiniest of matters” rather than reserving prayer just “for those high and mighty occasions when they’ve exhausted every possible human solution and prayer is all that’s left.” This practice was said to teach people “how to depend on Him in everything.”
If athletic prayers are proper, should they call for one’s team to triumph? The Dallas-based Jesus Calls ministry cites this Bible verse: “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 15:57). Most interpreters say that addresses spiritual and moral victory, but Jesus Calls thinks it literally justifies prayerful partisanship and provides an example: “The Scripture says that we are more than conquerors through You. You are the only all powerful and wise God. I trust you to grant me victory in this field…”
Pope John Paul II provided a very different example in a talk at the 2000 Jubilee for the World of Sport. His prayer is posted on the soccer Website of Baltimore’s appropriately named Our Lady of Victory school (which was built on the site of the Catholic reform school and orphanage where the boyhood Babe Ruth lived for 12 years):
“Lord Jesus Christ, help these athletes to be your friends and witnesses to your love. Help them to put the same effort into personal asceticism that they do into sports. Help them to achieve a harmonious and cohesive unity of body and soul. May they be sound models to imitate for all who admire them. Help them always to be athletes of the spirit, to win your inestimable prize: an imperishable crown that lasts forever. Amen.”