Athletes and PDF (public displays of faith)

November 30, 2010

I have mixed feelings about athletes and PDF (public displays of faith). When a football star catches a touchdown pass and drops to a knee or points heavenward with his forefinger, at best it’s a statement of humility—a way of deflecting praise and adoration to the One who gave us our amazing bodies and athletic prowess to begin with. I get that.

(And as I’ve noted in a sermon, I greatly approve of the recent trend of opposing players gathering at midfield after games for prayer.)

But an athlete’s PDF can also communicate something more theologically troubling: “God has blessed me—me personally—by enabling me to catch this touchdown pass.” If so, this raises the following questions: Is God a [fill-in-your-favorite-sports-team] fan? Why does God care who wins a football game? Is God playing favorites? After all, for every receiver who makes a catch, there’s a defender who failed to stop him from making a catch. Why didn’t God bless that guy? And if God caused the receiver’s catch, the defender couldn’t do anything about it anyway. Are we not free to use the gifts God gives us to play a game (for which I strongly believe we should be thankful) without divine intervention?

With these questions in mind, let’s give some credit to Buffalo Bills’ wide receiver Steve Johnson, who dropped a game-winning pass yesterday versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was devastated after the drop and apologized to his teammates. But he posted the following candid prayer on his Twitter feed:

I praise you 24/7!!!! And this how you do me!!! You expect me to learn from this??? How??? I’ll never forget this!!! Ever!!! Thx tho

I would happily offer Johnson pastoral counseling to talk him down from his theological ledge, but at least he’s being consistent: If God is responsible for all those potentially game-winning catches, then God is responsible for this game-losing drop. Right?

Still, praying in anger to God is better than not praying at all. God can take it. And I suspect Johnson’s faith will recover.

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