Sport and religion: Does Jesus want you to pray for His help?

Posted on January 21, 2011


Did Jesus make me (able to) do it? He certainly gets a lot of credit. Not as many shout-outs as He gets at the Grammies. But he still seems to get credit for His fair share of home runs, touchdown catches, and buzzer-beaters. During my unintended blogging hiatus in the autumn I failed to pass along some great quotes on this subject from virtual friend and blogger, Steve Saideman.

Steve recalled comedian Jeff Stilson’s take on the unholy alliance between the Lord and American athletes:

I’m trying to wean myself off sports, it’s too time consuming. I don’t watch football anymore, I gave that up. I got tired of the interviews after the games, because the winning players always give credit to God, and the losers blame themselves. You know, just once I’d like to hear a player say, “Yeah, we were in the game, until Jesus made me fumble. He hates our team.”

Steve was excited because he may have found the first Christian athlete — Steve Johnson of the Buffalo Bills, who dropped a game-winning touchdown in the endzone — who did, at least jokingly, blame Jesus.

“I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!!” the 24-year-old tweeted from his iPad at around 5:15 Sunday after the Steelers’ 19-16 overtime victory. “AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO…”

I’ve always thought that praying for help to win a competition, especially a sporting competition, either fundamentally misunderstands what games and competitions are all about, or vastly, narcissistically, over-estimates one’s place in the greater scheme of things.

For God to help you or your team, he must necessarily harm your opponents. Can any professional athlete really believe that there is some special reason why God would want to do this? Both teams have many players praying to help them win, but do any of them really think that God should see their side as more spiritually worthy of a victory than the other side every single game? (I’m pretty sure there’s no college athlete who prays, “God, I appreciate all that you’ve done for us, but our next game is against Notre Dame and I am totally not going to ask you to hurt the Fighting Irish.”) Isn’t presuming that you are morally and spiritually superior to everyone else an example of sinful “pride,” and therefore something that should make God less likely to want to help your team?

Or put another way, praying for a victory in a winner-take-all competition is exactly the same as praying for God to harm the other team. But what kind of sportsmanship is that? You’re not confident you can beat your opponent on the field of play so you’re going to bring in outside help to make it more difficult for your opponent? That’s Tanya Harding-level sportsmanship isn’t it?

(And surely there is a similar kind of religious hypocrisy, if you will, almost any time one prays for help in a zero-sum competition, like a job application. You’re not just asking God to help you, you’re asking Her to help you rather than the other people, about whom you usually know nothing.)

And if we recall the brilliant definition of “a game” from the late philosopher Bernard Suits (which I discussed here, among other places), we remember that in essence “playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” There are very efficient ways to put a golf ball in cup 500 yards away — e.g. by picking it up, walking 500 yards, and dropping it in the hole — but it’s only golf if you attempt to overcome an unnecessary obstacle, namely, hitting the ball with a regulation club. If you’re asking God to help the putt go in, it’s like training a dove to swoop down and pick up your ball and drop it in the hole. That might in fact count in golf (where balls can can bounce legally off trees and worms and even, recently, bird shit); but it wouldn’t be legal if the officials knew you had trained the bird for that purpose. How is it any less a form of cheating to ask God to help you (rather than your opponent)?

It would also be interesting to know whether the athletes and entertainers who explain their success in terms of God’s help also give significantly more of their earnings to charity than do the ones who thank particular individuals and hard work. Surely this could be studied empirically. Anybody care to bet in advance of such a study? Of course, they should be giving away most of their winnings. If you really think that God was the difference, you would have to think that you didn’t earn it, or at any rate, that God was probably not doing this so that you could have more jewelry and vehicles.

When quarterbacks or running backs in the NFL win awards or break records, they famous buy expensive gifts for their offensive linemen. Because they believe, rightly, but for those big dudes, I’m not breaking records, I’m probably just breaking bones. Who do the God-thanking athletes give their money to?