NFL fans know it's nearly impossible to get through a football game without reference to God. Whether Tebowing on the sidelines, giving a shoutout on ESPN, or pointing to heaven after a touchdown, plenty of players recognize that God's a part of the game.
Christians need to stop acting like that's a bad thing, according to apologist and theologian William Lane Craig. He's the one they should be praying to and thanking, says Craig, a professor at Biola University's Talbot School of Theology and author of Reasonable Faith.
CT's Kate Shellnutt spoke with Craig about prayer, providence, and pigskin ahead of Sunday's big game. (Craig, for the record, will be pulling for Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.)
Recent polls have found at least a quarter of Americans pray for sports teams, and that number is even higher among evangelicals. As a theologian, what do these stats tell you?
I think it shows how deeply committed they are to their teams that they would feel compelled to pray about it! In fact, it's almost irresistible for someone who is on a team to pray that God would help him to do a good job and to win and to prevail. I don't think that there's anything the matter with that type of prayer, so long as one adds the caveat, nevertheless "not my will, but thy will be done."
What's the value in praying for God's will to be done for the outcome of a game if God's will will be done whether we pray or not?
Now that's a question about prayer in general. What good does it do to pray about anything if the outcome is not affected? I would say when God chooses which world to actualize, he takes into account the prayers that would be offered in that world. We shouldn't think prayer is about changing the mind of God. He's omniscient; he already knows the future, but prayer makes a difference in that it can affect what world God has chosen to create.
Peyton Manning is a Christian, but he says he doesn't pray to win games. He said, "I pray to keep both teams injury free, and personally, that I use whatever talent I have to the best of my ability." Is it wrong or should we feel bad for praying for a win?
No, I think it's fine for Christian athletes to pray about those things so long as they understand, as I say, that the person on the other team is also praying, and that some of these prayers will go unanswered in the providence of God. Ultimately, one is submitting oneself to God's providence, but I see nothing the matter with praying for the outcome of these things. They're not a matter of indifference to God. God cares about these little things, so it's appropriate.
I do want to say that there are far more appropriate things that the Christian athlete ought to be praying for. He should be praying for his own character and development, to be a person of integrity, fair play, good sportsmanship, self-discipline, civility toward the opponent, and so forth. Those are the really important moral qualities that I think God wants to develop in a Christian athlete.
We're also used to seeing football players point to the heavens in the end zone after they score or thank God on TV after a win. Why do you think some Christians are embarrassed by that? Why does that make us uncomfortable?
It might be because it exemplifies a kind of triumphalism, a sort of in-your-face, God-is-on-my-side attitude. It's entirely appropriate for the player to thank God that he's been able to do well, score a touchdown, catch a pass or something, but flaunting it in front of others isn't so good an idea.
Judging from the reactions to the Seattle Seahawks player's controversial remarks after their playoff win, we also don't like when someone appears self-centered and takes all the credit.
The Scripture says every perfect gift and good endowment comes from the Father, from God. We shouldn't act as though we have our gifts and abilities of ourselves. I think it's entirely appropriate to give God the credit and glory for the successes that he gives to us. All I'm concerned about is that we shouldn't have a sort of attitude of triumphalism in the face of our opponent who has been defeated.
What about when players bring up God in a game, but don't honor God off the field? The NFL has notorious cases of DUIs, assaults, and other incidents.
That is the old problem of hypocrisy, isn't it? Probably no one does more damage to the cause of Christ than the hypocrite, the person who espouses Christian faith and belief in God but doesn't live like it. That kind of hypocrisy does great harm, I think.
Where do sports, and little things like who wins a game or even who wins the Super Bowl, fit into God's big plan?
As I understand it, God's purpose for our lives is to conform us to the image of Christ increasingly in this life until he takes us home. So, developing those Christian virtues will be of overriding importance. Lower in priority will be, for example, the number of wins that you get in a season or the number of passes you catch or complete. Those are much less important than the development of a Christ-like character, which is God's overriding purpose for Christians.
CT posted an op-ed about whether Christians should reconsider football fandom, given how violent the sport is and what we're learning about brain injury. What do you think about that? Should we be celebrating it the way we do?
From a Christian point of view, our bodies are not our own. We're temples of the Holy Spirit. We're bought with a price. We're to glorify God in our body, and therefore I think to do things that deliberately court serious injury and perhaps permanent impairment is something that one ought to approach with a great deal of caution and reservation. It's for that reason we would not allow our son to play football. He went into basketball instead.
These rules that have increasingly developed to try to protect players from concussions and other serious injuries—I fully support the moves to try to make the sport safer than it has been in the past.
As football fans prepare for the big game, what thought would you want to leave them with?
I think the overriding thing I want to say is God's providence rules all of life, even down to the smallest details. Nothing happens without either God's direct will or at least his permission of that event. That includes every fumble, every catch, every run. All of these things are in the providence of God, and therefore, we should not think that these things are a matter of indifference. These are of importance to God as well even though they seem trivial.
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