We have all seen it. A football player makes a big play, scores the winning touchdown, drops to one knee and points a finger towards the heavens.
What does it mean when in a moment of success a player acknowledges God in someway? Does the gesture mean that the player is giving God credit for the touchdown? Did God help the player or make the play happen?
I have always wanted to see the other side of this sort of athletic piety. Say for example, what would happen if a kicker after missing a field goal, raises his arms palms up and stares into the sky as if to say, “Where were you when I needed you.” Or after a brutal tackle with a resulting fumble, the running back shakes his fist towards heaven as if to say, “Can’t you hold onto the ball?”
I guess, since that kind of piety does not happen, the theology at work here goes something like this. When you win God is with you, but when you lose, you are on your own.
Of course, it doesn’t always work out so well for winners.
Recently the Covenant School, a Christian school in Dallas, Texas sent their girls basketball team to play the girls team at Dallas Academy, also a Christian school. At the end of the game the scoreboard read Covenant 100, Dallas Academy 0. You are reading that correctly, it is not a typo. The Dallas Academy girls were held scoreless for the entire game while the Covenant girls scored 100 points.
As the results of the game were made public, criticism began pouring in to administrators at Covenant. The Covenant team’s deliberate effort to score 100 points while the Dallas girls did not score at all was dubbed unchristian behavior. Apparently Jesus does not trounce his opponents, except maybe that pesky antichrist.
Anyway, in the face of mounting criticism the Covenant School is offering to forfeit its win. They are seeking forgiveness for running up the score and not allowing their opponent to score any points—behavior they now admit was less than Christ-like.
So the theology at work here seems to be this. If you have success in appropriate portions, God is with you. But if you vaunt your abilities and run up the score, God is not with you. If you lose you are on your own unless you lose in such an egregious fashion as to invoke the oppressed people syndrome in which case God is with you.
I remember an English professor in college who, after listening to two students argue over which team God loves best—Alabama or Notre Dame—finally said in exasperation, “God does not watch football games.”
I am not sure he is right about that. The New Testament says that God watches the birds, takes note when a sparrow falls, numbers the hairs on our head, pays attention when little ones are at risk, seeks to protect rebellious children like a hen gathering her chicks, waits patiently for prodigal children, searches for us like a poor woman who cannot afford to lose a single coin, travels difficult paths to pull us out of the ditch.
So why wouldn’t God watch football? The sticking point is that God may watch, but God does not take sides. God doesn’t care who wins or loses. Like all things in life, God is mostly concerned about the way we play the game.
James L. Evans is pastor
of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Alabama. firstname.lastname@example.org.