Does God care who wins?
Missouri theologians offer answers
By Lee Warren
February 22, 2005
JEFFERSON CITY — You see it at almost every sporting event—whether it’s a pitcher who throws the perfect backdoor slider at the knees to ring a batter up to end the inning, or a quarterback who hits his receiver in stride with a touchdown pass that didn’t look like it had a chance to make it through the sea of defenders. As the athlete leaves the field, he points his finger to the sky.
Christian athletes usually do it to glorify God. To acknowledge that he couldn’t have made that pitch or pass without the ability that God gave him. Other athletes generally do it in remembrance of a deceased loved one. It’s a glimpse into a private moment between an athlete and what he considers most important. As Christians, we are often moved by such gestures.
But we get a little nervous when we hear a Christian athlete imply that his team won because it was part of God’s plan. Five seasons ago, the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) basketball team was playing East Carolina. Bo Jones, a player from VCU, heaved a shot with 1.3 seconds remaining in overtime from close to three-quarters court. The ball went in, VCU won, and Jones said this after the game:
“I just caught it and threw it…and when I saw the net go up, I couldn’t believe it. God blessed us tonight.”
Does God bless one team or athlete over another with victory? Does He care who wins athletic contests?
“I don’t see God’s sovereignty operating in the outcome of athletic contests,” said Rodney Reeves, dean at The Courts Redford College of Theology and Church Vocations at Southwest Baptist University, Bolivar. “Does He know what will happen? Yes. Does He care about the outcome? Only as it relates to the individuals involved. God uses events in the life of a follower of Jesus to mold him or her into the image of His Son. For unbelievers, as well as believers, God uses events in their lives to get them to see their need of Him.”
Some theologians believe that God is sovereign over the outcomes of athletic contests, not because He cares who wins, but because He uses the outcome for sanctification.
“God’s priorities for human beings have never changed,” said Robert Bergen, professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages, and chairman of the Christian Studies Division at Hannibal-LaGrange College, Hannibal. “From Adam onward, God’s desire for people has been that each person loves Him with all their heart, soul, and strength, and that each one of us loves our neighbor as ourselves. God sovereignly uses athletic contests—and every other experience in life—to help us conform to His will for us.”
Some theologians believe that God is sovereign over the outcomes of athletic contests, but that we shouldn’t try to understand why He ordains the outcomes that He does.
“The sovereignty of God is exhaustive: He ordains all things, ranging from the number of hairs on our heads to the rising and falling of nations,” said Thor Madsen, vice president for Academic Development at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City. “Therefore, He would have to ordain such things as the winning and losing of ballgames. That follows logically.
“However, we can say all of that without suggesting that God cares about such matters just as He cares about the advance of His kingdom through soul-winning. Consider the case of raindrops. God’s sovereignty would extend to where they fall, or so it would appear. But we can say that without affirming that He frets about each raindrop’s precise point of impact. That gets decided in the wake of the near-infinite number of events that constitute the progress of daily life and of history.
“Accordingly, we should avoid trying to discern the criteria whereby God might direct one athletic team to outscore another one, just as we must not ask of each raindrop’s falling, ‘Why here and not, say, an inch to the left or right?’”
Perhaps it is acceptable to think through some of the ramifications of wins and loses without trying to discern why God may ordain wins and loses in specific instances. God’s ways are certainly higher than our ways and to think that we could determine why God might ordain specific wins and loses seems a tad bit arrogant.
For example, when a team has a winning season, their revenue stream usually increases. Consequently, the owner is able to keep the majority of his or her team intact for a longer period of time. Those players befriend people in that community. Christian players evangelize in that community. All players spend money in that community. Some donate money to that community. Lives are impacted and changed based upon how well the team performed.
For the individual athlete, his on-field performance also has ramifications. When he wins, he is compensated more than when he loses. Wins bring platforms, book deals, endorsement opportunities and interactions with people that the athlete wouldn’t have otherwise interacted with had he or she not won on the field.
But the converse is also true. When a team has a losing season, its revenue stream often slows. They lose high-performing players to other teams who can pay better. New players are signed and begin the process of interacting with people in the community and the cycle begins again. Lives are changed. And the players who move on to other teams and communities do likewise.
We know that God is intricately involved in the lives of people—even those with hard hearts. We willingly accept that God ordains the specific circumstances that lead to each new job that we take, each new home that we move into, and each relationship that we participate in. We don’t always readily see the circumstances leading to those changes as positive, though. Getting fired hardly seems positive—unless we believe that God was in it.
Maybe winning and losing on the athletic field is like that. Maybe God orchestrates wins and losses because both have a place in His plan.