Of God and Basketball Victories

BasketballEditor’s Note: This article was reprinted with permission from Dan Miller’s book Spiritual Reflections. It appears here verbatim.

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 his team 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, even 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.

Yet I must confess my growing discomfort with the array of athletes and coaches announcing into 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 may be subtly communicated by such public expressions of divine adulation.

That message, I fear, is that God plays favorites or doles 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 concern that thoughtful viewers will ask why God chooses not to answer the prayers offered in behalf of teams who lose. And why did, in this instance, coach Davis and his Hoosiers lose the championship game two nights later? Did the power of prayer fail between Saturday and Monday? Did God’s favor, which supposedly rested on Davis’ head on Saturday, dissipate by Monday night? Did coach Davis 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 that no one seems to ever 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 as much to do with the right column of the  win–loss chart as with the left.

Suffering one of the worst defeats in human history, the biblical writer, Job, stood before the reporter’s microphone, so to speak. Utterly humiliated, he commented on the recent loss of all 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?” (Job 1:21; 2:10).

Job believed that God dispenses not only victories, but also defeats. Job realized that, in the right sense of the word, God has everything to do with everything. He ordains catastrophe, suffering and disappointment as well as blessing and triumph. And he is good.

This is dangerous thinking, I will 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 affect? Is God really good after all?

The answers unfold slowly in the Bible and require a lifetime of contemplation. That said, the salient truths include the fact that God is never the source or author of sin (James 1:13-15) yet has ordained that sin be (Isaiah 45:5-7). And when people choose to sin and nature strikes with destructive force, God is never found wringing his hands in anguished despair with no clue of what to do next. Rather, he begins to weave the discordant threads of evil with his sovereign hand in order to accomplish his good purposes in the end (Job 42:1-6; Romans 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 apart from the tragic execution of Jesus on Good Friday, and God knew it.

The Bible reveals that God rules supreme over all things and is working everything to conform to his ultimate purposes (Ephesians 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 chooses to work the way he does. But we can learn to trust him—even in our losses (Romans 8:31-39). An empty grave in Jerusalem says we should.

Dan Miller has served as senior pastor of Eden Baptist Church (Savage, MN) since 1989. He graduated from Pillsbury Baptist Bible College (Owatonna, MN) with a B.S. degree in 1984. His graduate degrees include an M.A. in History from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and M.Div. and Th.M. degrees from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He is nearing completion of D.Min. studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Dan is married to Beth, and the Lord has blessed them with four children.
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