When are you most likely to see someone pray? Before dinner? During final exams? Shortly before take-off? The answer used to be “in church,” but prayer gradually is disappearing from Christian worship. The invocation of Almighty God is not very “seeker-sensitive.”
The only place you can count on seeing someone pray any more is on the NFL Game of the Week. Football players used to spike the ball when they scored a touchdown. Now they get down on one knee to thank God that nobody tackled them. Their teammates still come running down field to celebrate, but first they gather in the end zone for a post-TD prayer meeting.
Should Christians boo or cheer when they see such public displays of religion? Or, to pose the question on everyone’s mind, “Should I pray when I score a touchdown?”
Prayer is such a valuable commodity one would hate to do anything to discourage it. Think of Deion Sanders, the flashy athlete who plays cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys. Deion has been baptized and claims to have entered a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But he admits he is not yet mature in the faith. Among other things, he says he needs to take a month to master the Bible, “or however long it takes.” Who knows? For a new believer like Deion, praying in the end zone may be a significant step of faith.
One suspects, however, that most end zone prayers lack sincerity. Professional athletes are a superstitious bunch. So prayer may be just another way to stay lucky. During the 1996 season a post-game fight broke out in the Detroit Lions locker room. It may have had something to do with the fact that the Lions had been clobbered by the Green Bay Packers 31-3. But the fight also had something to do with wide receiver Herman Moore’s refusal to join his teammates for postgame prayer. One of the Lions’ bad-tempered defensive ends was so upset he tried to sanctify Herman with his fists.
This points out the danger with praying in end zones and other public spaces: outward displays of religiosity lead to hypocrisy. That is why Jesus taught his disciples to pray in secret: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, but… go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen” (Matt. 6:5-6). To paraphrase, “Don’t be like football stars who kneel in the corner of the end zone on national TV. But go back to the locker room and pray behind closed doors.”
Another issue athletes face when they pray is knowing what to pray for. In the fall of 1996 John Blake was in his first year of coaching football at the University of Oklahoma. When his Sooners upset arch-rival Texas in overtime, Blake was so excited he told ABC-TV, “this was Jesus Christ working through my players.” One sportswriter in the New York Times wanted to know where God was the rest of the season, when Oklahoma lost eight games. Did they get outplayed, or just outprayed?
Christian athletes sometimes pray for victory. But what happens when players on both teams pray for a win? Does the team with the most Christians win? Or what if two Christian schools play against each other? Who wins then? I think it was President Eisenhower who defined an atheist as “someone who doesn’t care who wins when Notre Dame plays Texas Christian.” Part of Ike’s point was that some Christians are tempted to pray for their favorite teams.
This raises a more basic question: Does God even care? What role, if any, does the triune God have in the outcome of sporting events?
Doug Marlette often includes religious themes in his comic strip, Kudzu. One cartoon depicts two bench-warmers talking theology during a church-league basketball game. Their uniforms indicate that they play for the “Holy Rollers.”
“Really, Preacher,” says one of the subs, “if we thank God when we win, shouldn’t we blame God if we lose? I mean, if He’s on our side and he’s the Author of all things, then He’s doing it—He’s making us lose!”
“I see,” the pastor drily observes. “So maybe that’s why you missed that game-winning free throw! The Lord willed it!”
“Exactly!” says his teammate. “Don’t you love theology?!”
It is true that God’s playbook extends to the smallest details of life. As the Puritans liked to say, by his providence God “preserves and governs all his creatures, and all their actions.” God’s eternal plan is worked out even through blocks, tackles, fumbles and everything else that happens on a football field.
One doubts, however, whether God cares who makes the playoffs. (Which means, by the way, that Christians should not care very much, either.) What God does care about is what happens to the souls of the players who are battling to make the playoffs. Thus, there are plenty of things for Christians involved with sports to pray about, including the salvation of their teammates.
According to the old cliché, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” That is not an attitude that wins many championships, but it is not bad theology. Sports, like every other part of life, provide an arena for godliness. Athletes have daily opportunities to live out the love of Jesus Christ. They should not pray for the kind of success which can be measured in wins and losses. Instead, they should pray that—win or lose—they would glorify their Head Coach.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org