Growing up in suburban Detroit, I never had to wrestle with the question “Is it okay for me to pray for my team to win the Super Bowl?”
As a basketball player turned minister, I’ve observed that sport and religion have one interesting thing in common: both tend to bring out the best and worst in us. Especially in America.
Religion has given us Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa. Religion has also given us witch hunts, the Middle Passage, unethical T.V. preachers who prey on the naive, and the mistreatment of minorities.
Both bring out the worst in us. Both bring out the best. I’ve learned to embrace the paradox.
On November 28, 2010, Steven Johnson lined up as a wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills. On November 28, the Bills were playing the Pittsburgh Steelers and they ultimately lost the game because Johnson dropped a pass late in the game, in the end zone. After the game, Johnson tweeted, “I praise you 24/7!!! And this is how you do me!!! You expect me to learn from this??? How??? I’ll never forget this!! Ever!!”
Johnson praised God 24/7, but what kind of God was he praising? It was a kind of religious transaction where he gives God the glory and God gives touchdowns. Or victories. Or Super Bowls. A fair exchange?
God ends up becoming a cosmic vending machine.
Everything is well and good until Jesus makes you fumble. But this isn’t just Johnson’s problem. This way of approaching God shows up often and the best name for it is religion. And notice who is really in charge of this arrangement. You and me. Not God.
This year, Tim Tebow became a household name because Americans (in Red States and Blue States) have differing opinions on the role of prayer in the outcome of sporting events. After learning that Tom Brady’s super-model wife (Gisele) sent a personal e-mail to friends and family asking for prayers “for Tommy” some tweeters had a field day. My favorite tweet went something like this: It’s fine for people to pray for Tom Brady. But ever since Tom Brady threw six touchdowns against Tim Tebow’s Denver Broncos, Tim Tebow—4th member of the trinity— is no longer answering Tom’s prayers. Tebow took the wheel.
Or how about this anecdote that surfaced recently?
Tom Brady dies (he is mortal after all) and goes to heaven. St. Peter is waiting at the gate. “Tom, I’m here to show you around heaven and where you’ll be living for eternity.” After showing Brady the ins and outs of heaven, the perks and works, St. Pete takes Brady to his heavenly digs. Patriot red white, and blue are everywhere.
As the odd couple approach Brady’s home, he is thankful until he notices a huge mansion on a large hill above his home with Denver Broncos regalia, signage, and decoration. Orange and Blue everywhere. The house is three times the size of his.
Brady looks at St. Pete. “Let me understand this . . . I win multiple championships, MVP awards . . . this is the house I get while Tim Tebow—a great guy—has his first season in the NFL . . . and he gets that mansion? And I get this How does that work?”
“Tom. Um. Well . . . Mr. Brady . . . that’s not Tim Tebow’s house. That house belongs to God.”
We love to think God takes our side. Roots for our teams. It’s part of our American DNA.
To paraphrase Anne Lamott: You know you’ve created God in your own image when God roots for all the same teams you root for (I’m looking at you Yankee and Cowboy fans).
Here’s my short answer. Based on Christian scripture and practical experience, the purpose of prayer is for God to win. Not for you to win. Or your favorite team. Even if you are from Cleveland—though if anyone has a shot, God just might be rooting for you, Cleveland.
Millions of people all over the world will tune into the Super Bowl tonight.
God’s probably not concerned with who wins the Super Bowl. God’s consumed by working on behalf of the usher who can’t figure out how to pay his chemo bill. Or the player going through a divorce. Or the assistant coach who lost his son to suicide. Or the trainer wrestling a gambling addiction. Or the recent immigrant, trying to pay one more bill by cleaning up the confetti that falls in Lucas Oil stadium.
God sees the whole stadium, not the final score.
God’s probably groaning for street kids in Nairobi, Kenya. God’s plotting for an end to Joseph Koney’s abduction and abuse of child soldiers in East Africa. God’s probably orchestrating hope for farmers in the Ulpan Valley, Guatemala.
God’s probably among homeless vets in Cass Park, Detroit. God’s probably grieving children victimized by abusers.
God’s celebrating the new adventure a retiree is setting out on.
God’s smiling as God sees a new mother hold her infant son for the first time.
God’s dancing at our parties.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy this game or any other game.
It also doesn’t mean you can’t pray for your team. Because God is a father, God likes to hear from us—whatever the reason, even if our prayers might be childlike in nature.
Just don’t fall into the trap of assuming that your prayers are God’s prayers. Even if that’s your heart’s desire.
Josh Graves is a pastor and author of "The Feast" who loves theology and sports. His next book—"Heaven on Earth" (Abingdon) comes out later this year. Visit him on his website: www.joshuagraves.com. Follow him on Twitter: @joshgraves.