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.

[node:bio/pastor-dan-miller body]

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There are 10 Comments

Fred Moritz's picture

Dan:

Good article. One incidental piece of information for you. Having lived in Indiana and caught the fever of two national championships while we were there, I noted your statement: "Indiana coach, Mike Davis, credited God for giving the University of Indiana the victory."

Please be advised that all Hoosiers will tell you it is not "the University of Indiana." It is "Indiana University."

That is my theological bone to pick with you today! Smile Cool

Don Johnson's picture

You're such a stickler...

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

Couldn't agree more. I remember Davis' statement. The popular phrase over the last few years has been a coach or player declaring after something desirable happens that "It's a God thing." Drives me nuts.

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Shaynus's picture

Perhaps it would be OK for people to thank God for a victory, if the losers came out equally as often and said "God smiled on us today but causing us to lose. Blessed be His name. He gives and takes away." That would probably get a headline on ESPN worth having.

Brent Marshall's picture

Pastor Dan Miller wrote:
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.
I think that Pastor Miller makes a good point about losses. However, I instinctively question the part about wins: in the context and manner that we typically observe, are we sure there is no problem with thanking God publicly for an athletic victory? After the Packers won the Super Bowl, I saw a comment of appreciation that the Packers gave God the glory on national TV. As I commented to my wife at the time, I wonder exactly what kind of glory God is getting in those situations.

Dr. Bauder has frequently observed that we love different things in different ways—that the character of the love is different. He illustrates different loves by noting that he loves a good hunting dog and that he loves his wife; however, the loves are different, and if he confuses them, he will be the one in the dog house.

Similarly, the character of the praise and glory can vary. At this point, it seems to me that the character of the praise and glory appropriate to the Lord God is much different from the character of typical post-game adulation.

Things That Matter

As the quantity of communication increases, so does its quality decline; and the most important sign of this is that it is no longer acceptable to say so.--RScruton

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I've been disliking celebrity references to God (in front of media microphones) for years but haven't been able to put my finger on exactly why. Dan's nailed a big piece of it here.
But there is something else. Maybe it's along the lines Brent is suggesting.
Something always seems a bit fake about it to me.

Part of it too is the confusion people have about the relationship between God's sovereignty and what the Westminster Confession calls "second causes." It's almost like they are saying "We won because God gave us the victory and not because we played well." This is not quite true and I also wonder how many of them actually believe that.

But there is no inherent conflict between belief in the eternal, immutable decrees and belief that our own efforts have meaning and make a difference.

But, with Dan, I appreciate the fact that at least in some cases, these folks are making some kind of attempt to be humble and thankful.
(But there is really nothing humble about pretending you didn't play well when you know you did.)

To Fred Moritz: fixed the univ. name you mentioned. Thanks for catching it. All you Indianians can relax now. Biggrin

Ron Bean's picture

I've observed many things in my years of coaching and officiating sports, a lot of them in Christian schools. I've come to the conclusion that winning has no bearing on God's glory. The attitudes and actions of players, fans and coaches does. I've seen too many instances of Christians who teach submission to authority and then habitually challenge, question and condemn sports officials. I've seen preachers encourage submission to the will of God and then preach sermons on "sin in the camp" after their team loses the big game.

It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play (or coach, or watch) the game.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Ron, we probably don't disagree on this but ultimately if winning doesn't matter, how you play doesn't either. That is, there is no point in playing well if victory isn't the goal. So personally, I'd say "Whether you win or lose matters a whole lot, but how you play matters much more."

But I suppose that really defines the difference between "competitive sports" and "just for fun." Though I think even the latter needs the goal of victory for the effort to make any sense at all.

On the inconsistencies in the Christian school scenario...
This whole subject strikes me as a great venue for wrestling with how we understand the relationship between God's blessing and His approval as well as the relationship between His plan and our choices.

Ron Bean's picture

I agree that we should play to win and that the practice, discipline and effort that it takes to win are traits worth developing. What bothers me sometimes are the attitudes often displayed before, during and after games.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

No disagreement there!

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