Gospel Fluency by Jeff Vanderstelt, Free for CAPC Members
In Gospel Fluency, Jeff Vanderstelt wants to help every believer speak the gospel in the stuff of everyday life.
I always find it a little off-putting when athletes, actors and anybody says, “This is what God wanted,” or “I want to thank God for helping us win today,” anything along those lines when a game or award is won. I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the gist. Personally, with all the chaos in the world, I’m not sure God really cares about the outcome of a game or an awards show. What do you think of statements such as these? You’ve obviously got your faith. Does what happens on Sunday impact your relationship with God or your faith at all?
I agree with her. I don’t think God cares a whole lot about the outcome. He cares about the people involved, but I don’t think he’s a big football fan.
Of course, the puckish reply is, “Well, he did just lose.” At a deeper level, though, it’s fascinating to consider how sports reveals our theology of God’s will, providence, pleasure, and even the problem of evil. How we answer the question, “Does God care a whole lot about the outcome of football games?” reveals much about how we understand God’s love, sovereignty, and care for the world.
I don’t want to pick on Aaron Rodgers because, let’s be honest, he wasn’t trying to write a theological treatise on the subject. Also, he’s a professional football player, not a trained theologian. Still, I think it would be useful to think through in just what senses we might say that God does, or does not, care about who wins a football game.
How we answer the question, “Does God care a whole lot about the outcome of football games?” reveals much about how we understand God’s love, sovereignty, and care for the world.Some might hear the question and interpret it, “Well, is God rooting for a particular team?” Unless you’re a total fanatic, convinced that God himself favors your home-team, your gut instinct is “probably not.” It seems inconsistent with his universal love for all. Still, in Scripture, God did pick Israel to be his chosen people, and within Israel, he is seen to bestow special grace on various figures, either for particular purposes in redemption or his own good pleasure. God loves all, but he also seems to focus on particulars.
So who knows? It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that God may have special plans for a Seahawks victory.
The next question that arises is that of God’s providence or predestination. If you’re a theological determinist, someone who believes that God has foreordained everything that is going to happen in human history, then clearly God cares enough about the outcome of football games to decree how they turn out. But do we think there’s any reason to believe that?
Well, Jesus declares that the hairs on your head are numbered and that a sparrow doesn’t fall to the ground without God’s consent. Old Testament wisdom reminds us that while you might be rolling the dice in Vegas, they land where God determines. Your parents might have decided to move into the neighborhood you grew up in as a kid, but you got there because God appointed it as the time and dwelling place for you to live and reach out to find him as the source of your life.
If God invests himself in all these things, including the death of sparrows, why not multi-million dollar events like pro football games, or even peewee games? These details matter, far beyond their immediate contexts.
As Pascal observed in the Pensees, “Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.” The various personal, financial, political, and social transactions set off by the winning or losing of a game could have massive providential ripples that are unseen and untraceable to anyone but the Almighty God who sees all. Even if we trim things down, a Wesleyan, an Arminian, or even some species of Open Theist, might still conceive of God intervening in the outcome of some particular game.
So, on the face of it, it seems that any given Sunday, God probably has purposes for the way that game plays out.
Another sense in which God might care is morally, with respect to what theologians call his “will of precept.” I don’t think God finds the particular winning or losing of a game to be of moral import. God doesn’t love you any more if you win, or love you any less if you lose.
That said, I’m quite sure God cares about the fairness and virtue involved in the game on the part of players and everyone else. So a player who displays courage, or grace on the field regardless of skill may please God morally. I love Rodgers’ attitude as he was preparing for Super Bowl XLV four years ago: “I just try to follow Jesus’ example, leading by example.” When that happens on the field, it pleases the Lord.
On the other hand, if the result of a game turns on cheating, say, by deflating footballs, that might fall under God’s displeasure even though he allows it.
We can think about the question of God’s pleasure and displeasure from another angle as well. If we admit that God might care about these games, that he ordains and plans for certain outcomes, then what can we say about God’s favor or displeasure with particular players or teams? Contrast Rodgers’ response with Russell Wilson’s sense that God has been preparing his team for this moment. Can we say with any certainty that the Seahawk’s win was God’s blessing on Wilson, a reward for any particular or even superior righteousness? Or, posed differently, is losing a sign of God’s displeasure with you?
Good theology points us a God whose wisdom and providence is unfathomably complex. In God’s wisdom, he may use the outcome of a game to bless one player, discipline another, and test still another, none of which is apparent from the outside. Indeed, in God’s wisdom, blessing may come in the form of a loss for a player who may be given over to pride if that winning streak goes much longer. God does not measure blessing as humans do.
So if two Christians step onto the field and face each other, a victory one way or the other is not a flashing red light signaling the righteousness of one or the other. Learn a lesson from Job’s friends here.
We have an odd tendency to think that the greater, the more important someone is, the less concerned he is with the everyday, the small, and the particular. Presidents care about large, macro-level fiscal policies, but they can’t be troubled with whether or not a particular school district is going to take a furlough day on Tuesday.
In the same way, we imagine that God who rules all can’t be troubled with quotidian cares. God, we might believe, cares about nations and history, not football games. But to think this way is to take a surprisingly low view of God’s power and concern. Presidents don’t think about local school districts because, as finite and limited, they need to focus on the macro picture. But God is not a human that he should need to limit himself that way. God is big enough to care for the big events as well as the small ones.
This is where the second part of Rodgers’ statement is helpful: “He cares about the people involved.” God cares about every single image-bearer on that field. What’s more, when a couple of Christians like Rodgers and Wilson play, he has at least two adopted kids on the field.
And even presidents and kings care about their kids’ little league games.
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