I’m really into sports. Even though I’ve long given up the dream of playing in the NHL, I enjoy playing almost all sports (yes, even golf and curling). As a kid, I looked up to athletes, especially those who claimed to be Christians. I can still remember the times our youth group went to watch the Toronto Raptors. We had a great time, even though the Raptors weren’t the most dynamic team back then. After the game we would be invited to go down to the court with all the other youth groups that came that night. They had games, prizes, and two or three of the Raptor players would give their testimony and talk about God.
The intersection of sports and faith has been an interesting one for me, but one that I haven’t quite figured out. It seems like we sometimes use Christian sport heroes as a way to reach young people, hoping that if they hear their favourite athletes talk about faith, it might make them interested as well. I remember going to a charity banquet in high school with Michael “Pinball” Clemens (former player and coach of the Toronto Argonauts) as the keynote speaker. He was great, and whenever I see him on TV I always think of that night. But there’s also another way that we have intertwined sports and faith. Let me give an example.
At the beginning of the 2011/12 NBA season, the name Jeremy Lin was pretty much unknown. He was a decent substitute player for the New York Nicks. But because of the injury of another player, he got the chance to come off the bench and play. He did not disappoint. In fact, he was amazing. He was an underdog who shocked the world and soon became a household name. He sparked the term “Linsanity.” It seemed like everyone, including me, was captivated by his play.
Oh yeah, and one more thing, Lin is a Christian. Very quickly, Lin became the new poster child for Christians to claim that God does reward good Christian people and that Lin’s success was a sign of God’s plan. There was a book written about his story entitled Linspired (I know, enough with this cheesiness) which became the next "must-have" Christian book.
Now, I don’t want to take away from Lin’s story or his faith. I have no doubt that his story may have brought other people to know Jesus. But there’s a funny dynamic among Christians when we see our fellow believers become successful. We quickly claim them for our side and use them as a display of our power and correctness. It’s hard not to feel a sense of pride and validation.
But the question is, where is Jeremy Lin now? Well, after his break through season, things didn’t go the way we all hoped. He became an okay basketball player, highly criticized, was traded and plagued by injury. He is currently out of commission. But how could this happen? Wasn’t he a Christian? Wasn’t God on Lin’s side?
There are several verses in the Bible that we like to pick out to give us guidance in life, such as:
“For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” - Jeremiah 29:11
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. - Proverbs 3:5-6
If God is for us, who can be against us? - Romans 8:31b
These are verses that I love and have given me comfort throughout the years. But we have used verses like this to spin a narrative that God is in charge of every detail of our lives and that if only we do the right things, we will be blessed with success. After all, God is on our side, right? Didn’t I get that job rather than the other person because I follow Jesus? Didn’t that light turn green just for me because I go to church? Didn’t I get the exact shirt I wanted at 50% off because I love God? Didn’t I make it to the NBA and become famous because I have faith?
The first problem with this micromanaging view of God is that we think God cares about things He really doesn’t care about. Does God really care about a basketball game or who wins the Super Bowl? Does God really care that you got a good discount? Does God really choose who will get what job and who won’t?
The second, and more difficult, challenge with this way of seeing God is that we only have answers for the positive things of life. When something good happens to us, we thank God for working out His plan in our lives. But what about when things don’t go our way? Was Jeremy Lin’s fallout God’s plan? If you didn’t get the job, was that God’s intervention? If someone dies when they are not supposed to, was that God letting it happen? If God micromanages every detail of every life, then His plan for a lot of His followers sucks.
One of the big problems in the church today is that we often use God and claim Him for our own agendas and battles. The example of God wanting our sports team to win is trivial. But this kind of attitude is persistent in our church culture. We believe that God is on the side of our church and that our church should succeed as compared to the other church down the street. We claim God to be on our side of arguments, especially when it comes to contentious issues like sexuality. Scarier yet, we believe that God is on the side of our nations or political parties, justifying us to go to war, oppress, or colonize.
No where in the narrative of scripture do we find this idea that choosing to follow Jesus means that we now have God on our team, whatever that team may be. The exact opposite is true. God calls us to join His team, leaving all else behind, dying to ourselves, and submitting to His will. In fact, God welcomes us into His kingdom, which is far different and far better than anything we might claim to do. God is God. He doesn’t conform to our plans. Rather, He invites us to join His.
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” - Matthew 16:24-25
Now of course life has many joys, and of course God can intervene and work in our lives in powerful ways. But what we receive from God will often look different than success in this world. God offers us eternal and abundant life. He offers us relationship, reconciliation, and a place in His kingdom. There is nothing like it that this world could ever offer us. It’s revolutionary. It’s upside-down. And it’s the best thing we could ever experience.