Bronco fans cringed when their team got clobbered in the Super Bowl. Using post-game bragging rights, Seattle Seahawks’ fans declared God rubberstamped their pick.
The game started badly for the Broncos, looking like divine fate had decided the outcome before play began. The Broncos center snapped the football to quarterback Peyton Manning. It sailed over his head for a safety on the first play of the game. Two-zip in favor of the Seahawks, whose winning ways piled on a final 43-8 score.
Bronco fans, in turn, felt their prayers partially vindicated when their team clipped Seahawks’ wings in a preseason win. Their prayers for victory no longer felt spurned.
Did God bet on the Seahawks in the Super Bowl and then switch loyalties during the current exhibition season?
Many NFL fans ask God to bless their team with victories. “As Americans tune in to the Super Bowl this year (2014), fully half the fans — as many as 70 million Americans — believe there may be a 12th man on the field influencing the outcome,” reported Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute.
“Significant numbers of American sports fans believe in invoking assistance from God on behalf of their favorite team or believe the divine may be playing out its own purpose in the game,” adds Jones. No wonder Denver-based religious leaders spice sermons with Bronco illustrations. Some exchange pulpit robes for Bronco Orange. They dress for success. Doesn’t the team’s hard work on the field, mixed with divine approval, add up to wins?
Should fans who pray for football victories punt instead of exercising this option? What if your friend hit you up in most conversations for a favor? Wouldn’t you quickly tire of a buddy who used you to get winning freebies? Aren’t “Super Bowl prayers” like those offered when we desire to win the lottery — full of fervent hot air?
Prior to the Bronco/Seahawk Super Bowl, the Washington-based Public Religion Research Institute reported many fans believe the score is directly tied to the number of prayers passed to God. In a Jan. 8-12 selective survey representing a national pattern, 1,011 Americans responded that they ask God to give their favorite football team a winning edge. White evangelical fans (38 percent) pray for God’s blessing on their home team. A third of white mainline Protestant suppliants also pray for divine favor on their team.
They sound like the fisherman in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” He hooked a mammoth catch, “the biggest fish that he had ever seen and bigger than he had ever heard of.” Needing divine aid to land this fish, he was tempted to prayer for God to reel it in for him.
“I’m not religious,” he said. “But I will say 10 Our Fathers and 10 Hail Marys that I should catch this fish, and I promise to make a pilgrimage to the Virgen de Cobre if I catch him. This is a promise.”
The Apostle Paul wrote centuries before Super Bowls were played. He seemed to cover all of life’s events when he instructed, “ … in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:5). Are the old man’s fish-wish and Super Bowl requests for victory included?
What’s faulty about asking God on game day to deliver a home-team win?
Prayer isn’t like a genie in a bottle, a magical device to get what we want. Rather, it’s conversation with God, a way to stay in touch with divine energy. We ask for coping strength to handle challenges, rather than hoping for an easy life marked by our team winning the Super Bowl. Don’t treat prayer like a crowbar to pry open a wish list. It’s heart-to-heart conversation with God, like talking to a friend who helps us cope when life on the scrimmage line is brutal.
Dutch ethicist Henry Stob reminds fans in the stands who pray for victory that they misuse prayer as a form of magic. Magic shortcuts logic we need to use in difficult circumstances. It ignores our human effort to persist when we feel like losers.
Stob deems football fans silly who seek God to notch a football win. “Prayer is not magic,” he warns. “It is not a way to put God at my disposal. It is a way to put myself at God’s disposal” (“Prayer and Providence” in Theological Reflections).
Moreover, what kind of screwed-up world would we live in if our prayers were constantly answered as we prefer? Responding to a topsy-turvy world where every prayerful wish is instantly fulfilled sent theologian Gilbert Meilander’s mind spinning. “I can’t even imagine it,” he declares. “For it would be a world without any order or regularity. We would depend on nothing, since we’d never know when God would be cutting the cards again. I don’t disbelieve in miracles, but almost by definition, they have to be rare. Otherwise, life becomes impossible.”
And boring. Imagine praying the Broncos to victory. Games played would be predictable exercises with predetermined outcomes. A white-knuckled field goal try as the clock winds down would disappear because our prayers guaranteed victory before the opening kickoff.
Magic precludes sheer drama in sport, when the outcome hangs on a completed pass in the red zone or a last-second field goal. God isn’t “a magician at our beck and call,” writes Meilander. “And the course of the world should not be rearranged every time we want things different ... ” (from a Bronco Super Bowl shellacking).
“Hail Mary” prayers don’t count in God’s playbook.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.