The Super Bowl, arguably the biggest sports spectacle on the planet, will be played on Sunday, and the football game will actually be a relief from the two weeks of buildup that preceded it. While folks have been talking incessantly about "Deflategate" and what Bill Belichick and Tom Brady knew and when they knew it, whether or not Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch will speak to the media, or whatever loquacious Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman has to say, my attention has been focused on another game-related topic, and it involves God. Yes, God.
Let me set the stage for those of you who haven't been watching.
The National Football Conference championship game was a great game to watch if you are a Seahawks fan or someone who likes close and exciting games. Seattle played a horrific game for most of the contest, but the Green Bay Packers, who clearly had control of this game, decided to play not to lose rather than play to win, and a desperate Seattle team fought back to take the game into overtime. The Seahawks eventually won on a dramatic 35-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Russell Wilson, who had thrown four interceptions in the game, to Jermaine Kearse, his intended target when he threw those four picks. It was a stunning, dramatic finish to a game the Seahawks should have lost and the Packers should have won, and the emotions on both sides were immediately apparent, the Packers stunned and the Seahawks elated that they were going to their second Super Bowl in as many years.
Russell Wilson, who is an openly devout Christian, was weeping while he clutched hands with a few of the Seahawks players and, interestingly enough, at least one Packer, and prayed to the Lord. After the prayer, a reporter asked him about the emotions he was feeling, and through his tears, he declared, "God is too good all the time, man. Every time." He went on to say:
"Just making the plays at the end. Keep believing. There was no doubt, I just had no doubt. We had no doubt as a team. The funny thing is I was on the sideline right before we went off that last drive and I told (offensive coordinator Darrell) Bevell, 'be ready for the check', for the play that we just ran through the touchdown. I said 'I'm gonna pull a touchdown and win the game'. And sure enough man. I just believe that God prepared me for these situations. God's prepared our team too as well. Like I said, I'm honored to be on this team. I'm going to the Super Bowl again."
Wilson's emotions were understandable; he had played one of the worst games of his young career, but somehow led his team to the biggest comeback in the history of the NFC Championship Game. As a Christian, it's also understandable that he would praise God after overcoming much adversity to achieve a great victory. The next day, he elaborated on his post-game comments:
"That's God setting it up, to make it so dramatic, so rewarding, so special," Wilson said regarding the sudden transformation from horrible performance to incredible performance. "I've been through a lot in life, and had some ups and downs. It's what's led me to this day."
The quarterback for the losing team, Aaron Rodgers, when asked about Wilson's comments on his weekly radio show the day after the game, offered that "I don't think God cares a whole lot about the outcome. He cares about the people involved, but I don't think he's a big football fan."
Wilson was mocked in some circles for his words. One reporter's statement sums up most of the reaction to Wilson's faith-based comments:
"Apart from assuming that God cares about who wins a sporting event, Wilson's theory assumes that God also wants to inflict extra misery on the team that mistakenly thought for more than 55 minutes of game time that God wanted that team, not the other one, to prevail…I personally choose to believe that God exists, that He loves the members of both teams equally, and that He has far better things to do than fix NFL games."
One derisive sports headline blared, "Russell Wilson: I Blame Those Four Interceptions On God". I refrained from reading the comments posted with the articles, because I knew they would be mocking Wilson's faith and the notion that God has a rooting interest in sporting events.
At the Super Bowl Media Day, however, Wilson steadfastly defended his position, saying, "I think God cares about football…I think God cares about everything he created." He said that God was responsible for placing him where he is, that he's going to give Him the glory and honor for being at the Super Bowl, and that he's "never going to shy away from it."
Russell Wilson, for all his passion, is not a theologian, and neither am I. I do, however, understand his conviction, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, "that God Governs in the affairs of men."
Let's break it down like we're watching film of an opponent's plays, shall we?
First of all, if you don't believe there is a God, then what I'm about to say will have as much meaning for you as "flip right double-X jet 36 counter naked wagglet seven X quarter" (that's an NFL offensive play call, for those who don't follow that sort of thing). You may as well return to your regularly scheduled program. If you do believe in God, however, it gets more interesting from there.
Do you believe in a God that created heaven and earth, and then left creation to evolve on its own? Or a God who intervenes, but only for the big or important things? Or a God who is orchestrating everything, and who has a plan that is guaranteed to play out exactly as He intends, regardless of what we do or don't do?
The latter describes the God of the Bible, and that is the God that Russell Wilson believes is guiding the events in his life in accordance with a divine plan. Jesus said:
"Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows" (Matthew 10:29-31).
What Jesus is saying is that the God who created the infinite vastness of time and space, yet whose "eye is on the sparrow", to use the words of the old hymn, is so intimately involved in every detail of our lives that He knows precisely how many hairs are on our heads! Moreover, the Bible says, "For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Ephesians 2:10). This is one of my favorite declarations in the Bible; it encourages me to know that I was created specifically to fulfill a list of divine tasks which was drawn up for me prior to me even coming into earthly existence. My charge is to determine how and for what I was designed, because finding that place is finding God's purpose for my life.
Finally, the apostle Paul declares, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28)." Note that he said "all things" and not just "good" things. If we have decided to follow Jesus, we are to have faith that everything that happens to us is working toward His purposes, and that includes our pain and suffering. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Christians, especially here in America, somehow think that their faith should bring with it a promise of prosperity and happiness, and that bad things shouldn't happen to them, or at least if they do, they're manageable and easy to overcome. When we consider that even Jesus, "God with us", lived a hard life, was persecuted despite his innocence, and died a horrible death, how Christians came to think that their lives should be easier because they believe is a puzzle to me. Maybe it's because the culture has persuaded us that the lack or avoidance of pain equates to a good life, because none of the saints in the Bible had easy lives, and God certainly didn't promise them ease or comfort.
Jesus didn't stutter or qualify his statement when he said, "In this world, you will have trouble" (John 16:33). In the Beatitudes, when Jesus describes to us who the "blessed" are, the roster doesn't read like an All-Pro team:
- The poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3)
- Those who mourn (Matthew 5:4)
- The meek (Matthew 5:5)
- Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6)
- The merciful (Matthew 5:7)
- The pure in heart (Matthew 5:8)
- The peacemakers (Matthew 5:9)
- Those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake (Matthew 5:10)
Jesus even says you are blessed "when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me" (Matthew 5:11). Whether we realize it or not, signing up for Jesus' team is a guarantee that life will be difficult, although that difficulty is not without purpose. If all things work together for the good of the believer, then we are tasked to learn and grow from the hard times in our lives, and come out better for them so we can fulfill our purpose. The story of Joseph in Genesis is very instructive for the believer; God promised greatness to Joseph at an early age, but he wasn't ready for it until he endured 13 years of slavery, unjust accusations, imprisonment, and neglect. Only then could he rise to be the most powerful man in Egypt other than the Pharaoh, and only then could he forgive his brothers who had wronged him, saying, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives" (Genesis 50:20).
When Russell Wilson spoke of God's goodness, the world was focused on the great victory he had just won, but he was thinking about the difficulties of getting there, both during the preceding season and in the very game he had just completed. Looking back, he could see clearly how those difficulties made him and his team better, and that is what led him to praise God. Romans 5:3-5 says:
"And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us."
In football, as in life, we get better through overcoming adversity, and in overcoming, we eventually find victory. In the same verse where Jesus promises us we will have trouble, He immediately declares, "But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).
What about the Christians on the losing side? If their faith is strong, they will take whatever lesson God has for them in defeat, and they will become better for it, and more prepared for the plan God has for their lives. Sometimes the plan is not what we think it is. If being a Christian was all it took to achieve football stardom, Tim Tebow would still be playing right now! But as his profile rises as a media personality, it seems that God's plan, although different from his own, is the better one. We have to be willing to find the lessons in the struggles, and build on them.
There was another less obvious moment this month when a prominent athlete praised God publicly, and I'm not surprised it went unnoticed. Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota of Oregon was walking off the field after a decisive loss in the first-ever College Football Playoff Championship game, and in the midst of the confetti and pandemonium of the victors' celebration, the camera caught him for just a moment as he looked up to the sky, pointed heavenward, and then lowered his head as the pain of the loss overwhelmed him. Mariota is an intense competitor, and I'm sure he badly wanted a championship to cap off his stellar college career. It was not to be, however, and yet he still acknowledged the Lord. That's mature faith.
So will God be watching the Super Bowl tomorrow? Seeing as how His children will be playing on both sides of the ball, I'd say there's a better than even chance that He'll be watching, and He'll be rooting them all on to victory, maybe not the one they envision, but victory in life as they learn and grow from the good times and the bad. And I wouldn't worry about the game distracting Him from more important things, because He's a big God. The good news is that He's big enough to care about everything that happens to every one of us. Now that's worth cheering about.