From the Archives – Of God and Basketball Victories

On the evening of March 30, 2002, in the city of Atlanta, Georgia, the Indiana Hoosiers upset the Oklahoma Sooners in a “Final Four” contest of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Following the game, Indiana coach, Mike Davis, credited God for giving Indiana University the victory. “I have a lot of people praying for me,” he told the press, “God has placed His favor on me.”

Let me be the last to object to any praise going to God in the media. A man steps up to the microphone and declares that God factors into his view of the world, including the world of basketball—I’m with that! I lauded Mike Davis’ courage to proclaim his faith to the world on that occasion and I laud him still.

But I must admit, as a man of faith, that I’m growing increasingly uncomfortable with the array of athletes and coaches announcing through a microphone their euphoric gratitude to God moments after an athletic victory over their opponents. My discomfort has nothing to do with bringing God into the sports world—he’s there anyway, kudos to those who acknowledge reality. My discomfort stems more from the message that seems to be subtly communicated by such public expressions of divine adulation.

I fear the message is conveyed that God plays favorites, dolling out victories like a cosmic vending machine to those willing to acknowledge Him publicly as the dispenser of their triumphs. I’m also troubled by the fear that thoughtful viewers may well ask why God refuses to hear prayers offered in behalf of losing teams? And why did, in this instance, coach Davis and his Hoosiers lose the championship game two nights later? Did their prayers fail between Saturday and Monday evenings? Did God’s favor, which rested on Davis’ head on Saturday, dissipate by Monday night? Did Coach Davis, his team, or some obnoxious Hoosier fan somewhere do something wrong on the Sunday sandwiched between those two game days?

The problem lies not with thanking God publicly for an athletic victory. The problem is: no one ever seems to thank God for losses. Where are the athletes and coaches who stand humbled before a microphone and thank God for suffering defeat? Few athletes—or anyone else for that matter—seem to consider that God has everything to do, not only with victories, but also with losses.

Suffering perhaps the worst defeat of human history, the biblical writer, Job, stood humbled before the reporter’s microphone, so to speak, and commented on the recent loss of all of his earthly possessions and on the death of each of his children in a violent windstorm. “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away,” he said, “blessed be the name of the Lord … shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil [as well]?” (Job 1:21; 2:10).

Job believed that God dispenses not only victories, but also defeats. Job realized that, rightly understood, God has everything to do with everything. He ordains catastrophe, suffering and disappointment, as well as blessing and triumph. And He is, by the way, unimpeachably good.

This is dangerous thinking, I admit. If God has everything to do with suffering and tragedy, we must wonder about the implications. What possible good could God intend for the horrendous tragedies suffered, and for the horrific sins committed, in this world with such frightening regularity and destructive effect? Or is God even good after all?

The answers unfold slowly in the Bible and require a lifetime of contemplation. Salient points include the truths that God is never the source or author of sin (James 1:13-15), yet has ordained that sin exist (Isa. 45:5-7). And when people sin and nature destroys, God does not wring His hands in anguished despair but weaves the discordant threads of evil with His sovereign hand to accomplish His good purposes in the end (Job 42:1-6, Rom. 8:18-30).

The quintessential demonstration of God’s holy conspiracy to ordain evil for good purposes is found in the death and resurrection of His Son. The Father handed Jesus over to the evil purposes of His executioners (Acts 2:22-24), ordaining thereby to defeat death through Christ’s resurrection from the grave. In other words the victory of Easter Sunday would not be possible without the tragic execution of Jesus on Good Friday.

We find in Scripture a God who rules supreme over all things and is working everything to conform to His ultimate purposes (Eph. 1:11). Since we have no experience running a universe in which free creatures carry out their will and in which good triumphs through tragedy, we will not always understand how or why God works the way He does. But we can fully trust Him—even in our losses (Rom. 8:31-39). And there is an empty grave that says we should.

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