God and the Olympic athlete

August 14, 2012

Usain Bolt prays.

I understand why an unbeliever might be confused and even bothered by athletes’ publicly praying or thanking God before, during, or after a sporting event. Do these athletes believe that God favored them over all the other athletes who didn’t win? Do they believe that if God caused their victory, God therefore caused the other athletes’ defeat? Or do they believe that God rewarded them with a victory because they prayed more sincerely or believed more fervently than their opponents?

I can’t speak for each and every Christian athlete, but, in general, no. One high-profile Christian athlete who didn’t win a medal at the Olympics was hurdler Lolo Jones, the victim of an anti-Christian hatchet job in the New York Times a couple of days before her race. As she said in a post-race interview, she has never prayed to win a gold medal at the Olympics. Good for her! It’s natural that athletes would thank God for a victory, but winning, per se, isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the primary object of an athlete’s prayers or expressions of gratitude.

Is that surprising? If winning isn’t the main point, what is? Christianity Today‘s Her.meneutics blog covers the topic nicely:

Other commentators, like Timothy Dalrymple over at Patheos, defend [Gabby] Douglas and other Christian athletes for thanking God for their wins. He says to do so is not a simplistic naiveté but rather part of an orthodox Christian belief that “all things are divinely superintended.” “It’s not merely that God gives Gabby Douglas the victory,” notes Dalrymple. “It’s that God gives Gabby Douglas life, the breath in her lungs, the lungs to breathe it with, the talent in her body and soul, the strength in her spirit, the family that supports and inspires her, the opportunity to compete on the highest level, and then (when God gives it) the victory.”

When I think of the extreme unlikelihood of Douglas and Jones making it to the Olympics, where the strength and grace of the human body are on their fullest display, I can’t help thanking God either—for giving both women healthy minds and bodies, coaches, mentors, financial backing, the right equipment, and the sheer natural talent to number among the world’s best athletes, and to even be at the Olympics. Dalrymple is right: God is the source of all good things in athletics, just as he is the source of all good things in every realm of life. It only makes sense that Christian athletes would thank Christ for the blessings on the field as much as they do off.

When we consider all the amazing gifts that God has given us, whether we’re world-class athletes or not, we have much to be thankful for all the time—not only when things happen to be going our way. I’m sure Lolo Jones feels grateful to God right now, even while she’s heartbroken that she didn’t win.

By the way, there’s another objection to these public displays of piety that I wholeheartedly reject. It goes something like this: “Do you really think that God cares about something as trivial as an athletic competition?” Yes! Of course! If God cares about us as individuals, then God cares about trivial things like athletic competitions.

The faulty premise behind this objection is that God is just a bigger, more powerful version of ourselves, and that every moment God gives attention to something trivial is one less moment that God can devote to the “really important things.” There’s only so much of God to go around, so we human beings have to compete for God’s attention.

This is just silly. God is completely unlike what we are. Whatever we are, God is something else entirely. The theological word that’s pertinent here is transcendent. Among other things, God’s transcendence means that God is not one thing among other things in the universe. And because God is not a thing, we are not competing with other things for God’s attention, love, or care. It’s no sweat for God to be intimately concerned about the smallest details of each of our lives—not that winning or losing an Olympic event should even count as a small detail!

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