This offseason, NBA players across the country might feel pressured to add a different kind of skill to their repertoire. Along with jump shots, outlet passes, and free throws, some might start working on a robust prayer life and a stronger faith in God, in hopes of getting a supernatural boost.
Throughout the recent NBA championship, in which the Dallas Mavericks upended the Heat's "big three," the Mavericks' Jason Terry was vocal about his faith, even suggesting that the team's strong faith in God contributed to their victory. After the final game, Terry tweeted, "We played hard and prayed harder its all jesus . . ." For his part, Terry backed up his faith with a championship trophy tattooed on his bicep—even before the series began.
Presumptuous? Maybe. But, like Jesus said, if you have faith like a mustard seed, you can throw LeBron and D-Wade into the sea—or something like that (Mt. 17:20).
Invoking divine providence is common in professional sports. There's something mystical in the atmosphere of American sports, something that eludes more "mundane" professions. Imagine a lawyer telling a reporter that his faith in God was responsible for her successful verdict; an accountant insisting to a happy client that God is to be thanked for that hefty return; or a realtor praising Jesus for giving him—rather than his competitor—the sale. Most Christians rightly believe in some version of God's providence, his supervision in our lives. There's biblical evidence for interpreting (at times) God at work even in the details of our personal histories. And there's certainly nothing wrong with thanking God for what can be perceived as gifts or answers to prayer: a big sale when funds are tight, a special dose of confidence in an important job interview or sales pitch, perseverance in a difficult work environment, and so on.
But there's something about the claim, common in professional sports, that "God is on our side" (or more humbly, "God blessed my faith") that rubs many people the wrong way. Theologically, there are at least a couple of good reasons for this.
1) God probably doesn't have a "favorite team."
Let's be blunt: God doesn't care about wins and losses in sports. Yet this is not to say that God doesn't care about the athletes themselves. He cares about all human beings, period. But while it's easy to find evidence in the New Testament for God's particular involvement in details related to, say, the advancement of the gospel, the establishment of the church, the healing of the sick, and the liberation of the oppressed, one would be hard pressed to find anything suggesting that God cares about who wins sports championships. The assumption that God blessed the victor and rewarded her faith leaves the loser out in the cold. Did God disregard them? Did they have less faith? Or was it simply not their turn?
Case in point: After his team's collapse, LeBron James tweeted, "The Greater Man upstairs knows when it's my time. Right now isn't the time." Invoking divine providence can work both ways: either God is to be credited (in part) for the victory or he can be blamed for the defeat. Either way God is a cosmic game-fixer with more invested in sports entertainment than in the problems of the world. ESPN commentator Mike Wilbon, criticizing James' post, offered a simple but significant comment: "I hope the man upstairs has got bigger things to worry about than NBA games." While the "man upstairs" metaphor is problematic, Wilbon is right.
2) God does care about justice and righteousness.
While it can be difficult to find biblical support for the notion that God cares about athletic wins and losses, it is easy to find support for the idea that God cares about "bigger things," like justice and righteousness in the world, the advancement of the gospel, and the healing of the nations. Liberation theologians remind us of the social and economic dimensions of the gospel (e.g., Lk. 4, Mt. 11, Mt. 25). There are untold millions of the world's poor who, if they have enough to get by, may do so only barely and tenuously. The prophets were not shy about God's desire for the promotion of justice and righteousness in society (Am. 5:24; Mic. 6:8).
In light of the huge profits, payrolls, and exorbitant ticket prices that fund them, it's hard to imagine professional sports as one of God's favorite pastimes. The NFL is currently disputing how to distribute billions of dollars of wealth among owners and players and, by all accounts, the NBA is about to follow in its wake. In a society struggling financially and spiritually and in a world marked by economic disparity and extreme global poverty, it's hard to imagine God caring overly much about the outcome of the NBA finals. As a sports fan myself, this is hard to admit, but questions of economic and social justice might lurk beneath the phenomenon of major professional sports.