Prayer and the Art of Sportsing

Well, we’re now officially 2 weeks into the NFL schedule and 3 weeks in on the college football season. I know these things, not because I had to do any sort of advanced research for this blog, but because I tend to be pretty well-versed regarding the world of sports in general. For example, if you really wanted, we could discuss the high likelihood of failure for the Browns’ third-string QB, Cody Kessler, and contrast that with the Patriots’ much higher likelihood of success with their own third-string QB, Jacoby Brissett, and how both of those things have little to do with the player and nearly everything to do with the organizations they belong to.

But, you don’t want that. And neither do I. You want to be a rabid fan of the teams you follow so adamantly. The rest doesn’t matter so much unless you want to grab some nuggets of knowledge with which to pummel your friend, who follows your arch-rival. And so, you watch, and you pray. And you watch. And you pray that your team has more believers who take the time to point generically up at the sky when they reach the end zone than your opponents do. And you promise that if your team wins, you’ll read your Bible every day for a month. And when your team wins, you proudly declare that not only did they win because God is a good God and you were praying hard, but that clearly your team is “God’s team”.

Squarely within our cheering and jeering, I firmly believe that we’ve completely missed the fact that our prayers for such matters are misguided at best, and may in fact even be idolatrous.

Unfortunately for us, the Bible is silent when it comes to football. But before we jump to any conclusions about it being as pagan as sacrificing babies, bathing in goat’s blood, watching R-rated movies, or playing cards, let’s take a look at a few key passages to at least get some context about praying and our desires.

James gives us a few thoughts:

If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do. – James 1.5-8

Ask for wisdom and it will be given to you. Make sure that your faith is in God alone or you’ll be unsettled in your divided loyalty and those people will receive nothing. Their loyalty is divided between…. whoa, wait, what?

“Anthony, I thought the context here was that we should have a ravenous affection for our colors and not split our loyalties to any other team.”

That may not really be what we say, but we show how much we think it by how much we live it. Their loyalty is divided between God and the world. If God gets to be God, guess which category football falls into? And before you start to argue, consider the implications of what you’re saying if football is your god, instead.

Do not waver in your faith (loyalty, belief, confidence) in God alone or the one thing you can expect is to not receive anything that you ask. Well then, you wonder aloud, how is it that I can effectively pray for God to deliver a win for my team? In short, you can’t. Were we to be praying for the right things, we would be asking for wisdom (as James begins this passage) and then be guaranteed an answer. Were we to be praying for wisdom, we would realize the folly in also praying for things as trivial as the outcome of a sporting event.

God doesn’t like my team better than your team. He does like His team and the more rabid we are in our loyalty to something other than Him, the more likely we are to be falling full-bore into idolatry.

Yes, that seems harsh. But consider the fact that the ancient temples were usually the largest gathering places in the cities, capable of holding thousands upon thousands of people who would all assemble for the purpose of cheering for, singing to, and banding together in the worship of a deity whose image would be represented not only in numerous places about the temple, but also in the paraphernalia carried by the people and the iconography worn on their clothing. The purpose of the gathering was to declare the undying devotion of the people to their gods in hopes that said gods would return the favor by providing some miraculous sign or wonder to show that they were worthy of that devotion.

And we mutter to ourselves about how that’s not true as we trudge into our 100,000 seat arenas wearing full body paint, or flip on our 60-inch televisions in high definition with food prepared like a feast as we gather with our friends to celebrate the momentous occasion of sportsing happening right in our living rooms.

Oh, the lies we tell ourselves to rationalize our own behaviors. The promises we claim when we believe that God must deliver a win for our team because He wants us to be happy.

King David addresses this in one of the most misunderstood and misquoted verses in all of the Bible:

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires. – Psalm 37.4

We love to get our heart’s desires, and so we do what we can to make God happy, hoping that, like Santa Claus, if we can stay off of the naughty list, we can get what we want. Except that flips this entire verse upside down.

Not only does that make the verse entirely about me (arrogant and prideful man that I am), it also emphasizes the receiving over the delighting. Let’s look a little more closely.

Finding some delight in Christ isn’t that difficult. Remembering what God has done for us is simple enough. But what we see asked of us throughout scripture is to find all of our delight in Him. And it should have absolutely nothing to do with what He’s done. God is good, regardless of how often He “proves” it to you. God is worthy of worship, and honor, and glory simply because he is God. And that should be the basis of our delight in Him. That He is creator, sustainer, redeemer, healer, father, and He is all of those things by His very nature.

Then, when our delight is solely focused on Him, and the person of Christ Jesus, we find our desires begin to align with His desires. Our wants become what He wants. Those threads of selfishness interwoven between desires to do what’s right- they begin to fall away entirely. And we’re left with a completely new perspective- suddenly what we desire more than anything is to find our delight in Him, not in the things of this world. Our loyalties are no longer divided. The seas of this world can no longer toss us about. We find the wisdom that we seek. And we realize that we’ve gotten everything we desire and more.

So, the next time you go to pray for your favorite team, perhaps instead, pray for their hearts (and yours) to be changed.

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