Note: This article appeared on this site in February 2017 as “Does God Care That the Patriots Won?”)
As sure as the annual competitions themselves, championship games repeatedly invite the question—at least among those who care about such things—“Does God care who wins this or any other game?”
The default answer, of course, is that God has better things to do with His time than concern Himself with the outcome of a game, and like so many knee-jerk responses to big questions, it sounds airtight and difficult to refute.
We Don’t Want Him to Care Who Wins
Antagonists to the idea of God meddling with game outcomes suggest the world would benefit much more from a God who cures disease, eradicates evil and brings peace to a broken world, rather than one who invests precious energy toward ensuring a particular game outcome.
This thinking hides a crucial interpretive lens that variations of this answer usually flow through—that God is like us, that His mind is just a better version of our mind, that His rationale in ordering priorities must be similar to what we would do if we were God.
We hold that some things should be worthy of God’s attention and some things should not, and though all of our lists may look different, we’re pretty sure games shouldn’t make the “Important to God” list.
We Want Him to Care Who Wins
At the same time, a 2014 Public Religion Research Institute Survey produced results showing that over half of American sports fans believe in some kind of supernatural interference occurring in the games they follow.
Like militants desperately cornered in a combat zone, fans become petitioners at precisely that moment when an intervention is most needed, usually late in a close game with time running out.
It isn’t called the “Hail Mary pass” randomly. Wisdom and experience say, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” but there aren’t many to be found inside the two-minute warning in a tied game either.
Does God Help the Good Folk Win?
Underneath the idea that God can be persuaded toward one team or another lies a predominant (though twisted) American value long ago absorbed into the sport culture itself: Winning is everything and losing is for losers.
Winning is the ultimate worldly good within sports culture; therefore, since God does “good” toward those who “do good,” the team reflecting the most “goodness” should win, or so the distorted thinking generally goes.
Though most people might cringe at the unsophisticated nature of this argument, a 2016 study revealed essentially the same numbers as the previous research—that 49% of Americans believe athletes of faith are rewarded with good health and success, with the number jumping above 60% for professing Protestant Americans regardless of racial background.
We assume that God will bless the righteous with scoreboard victories and leave the less righteous sorting through their own physical and spiritual limitations.
Christian athletes have probably fed this faulty theology in three decades-worth of postgame interviews in which the victor ignores the first question asked and instead thanks God or his “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” While subtly he may be thanking God for both the physical body and competitive opportunity to play, disguised instead in this shout-out to the divine is a cause-effect deduction: “Thank you God for loving me by being on our side and causing us to win!”
That we rarely, if ever, see an interview in the losing locker room follow the same course lends support to this idea: God supports the winner, God abandons the loser.
We don’t like to imagine God wearing a particular nation’s jersey during the World Cup or that He is somehow predisposed toward one major institution or another at the conclusion of March Madness. Even more crass is the notion that God acts like a Divine Bookie, sifting through point spreads and betting tendencies to handicap one team versus another.
Yet, though the default response says “Of course God doesn’t operate this way,” the numbers in the Public Religion study reveal at least half of the participants hold these views or ones similar to them, whether they are conscious of it or not.
What Does God Care About?
Even if God operated in this cartoonish way, even if we could put all the “righteous” on one team or another, God has a history of allowing His people to lose on the field so they can somehow win in the deeper, soul-centered regions of life.
A crucified yet victorious Christ should be proof enough that God doesn’t operate with the same definitions of winning and losing as humans.
But God most certainly does care who wins—just not at all in the same way we do and certainly not in the way implied by most post-game interviews.
He cares about everything that happens in the universe. His sovereignty extends to the atomic level, where every atom of every cell arranges itself in relation to every other according to His plans and purposes.
He has to care because it’s His nature to care about His entire universe and every decision that takes place in every sphere of life, but His cares related to game outcomes are very different from our cares.
We care because our identity and esteem get inordinately attached to scoreboards. He cares because games are an opportunity for the physical beings He created to enjoy play.
We care because we’ve replaced God with games, making them an idolatrous substitute for God Himself. He cares because game outcomes produce an opportunity for His people to glorify Him through their choice to keep the game second—regardless of outcome.
We care because we have no higher sports goal in life than to “win” for ourselves. He cares because every aspect of human history points toward the highest aim of celebrating His Son Jesus Christ.
So God cares about the game. He knows that game conclusions will put individual lives on very different trajectories, but also knows exactly how those trajectories fit into His plans for those same lives. Indeed, He is blessing both the Christian “winner” and “loser” with another opportunity to be rich toward God, to serve Him with their bodies, responses and general Christ-likeness before, during, and after the game itself.
He even uses outcomes to allow non-Christian players to realize their need, to experience the hollowness of both victory and defeat within themselves, and to nudge them toward a saving knowledge of Christ.
God jealously promotes His own glory. Everything that happens will ultimately point all things toward Jesus and His rule. He cares about the games and their final scores, but only as circumstances that contribute to His own final victory.