Playing games with God

  • Question from CB, United Kingdom

    Many sporting teams declare allegiance to Jesus and employ ordained staff to minister to their needs. Is it Biblical and/or ethical to pray for victory over another team in sporting contests? I ask this knowing that as a fan of Shrewsbury Town your only hope, at times, must be of supernatural intervention.

    For those regular visitors to freelance theology from overseas, it is worth explaining that Shrewsbury Town are a soccer team currently residing in the fourth tier of the English league and this year finishing quite near the bottom of the division. Jon the freelance theologian spent a proportion of his childhood in Shrewsbury and supports the ‘mighty Shrews’, hence the way this question is phrased.

    The question about whether it’s ethical or Biblical to pray for divine help is a good one. In many ways it is no different to the prayer of an earnest believer that they will get a job or promotion at the expense of other candidates, or that their project will find success. There are of course numerous Biblical examples of people committing their plans to God and receiving blessing as a result. In some ways, however, sport is frivolous and even the most die-hard enthusiast will be forced to admit that whatever sport is being played is ‘only a game’. Socially the rise in organised sports is a sign of indulgent affluence and increased leisure time and it could be argued (in fact it has been) that involvement in sport detracts from more important things and wastes the limited amount of time any believer has available to achieve something of eternal significance.

    Having said that, sociologists have often commented on the way organised sport takes the place of tribal warfare in civilised societies. It can also be argued that some sports recreate primitive tribal religion – with the chosen few totemistically representing the tribe and warring against evil forces, represented by the ‘other’ (the outsider; those who do not belong to the tribe). The communality and shared ecstatic experience are also of interest to the student of religion as the emotions and experience bear similarity to charismatic religious experience. Sport therefore meets an emotional need in the same way that religion can, even though it does not provide the philosophical or moral insights provided by more advanced religions. The morality of sport is often to win at any cost. Playing ‘fair’ is regarded as important, but many fans will turn a blind eye to their own player’s indiscretions, while any perceived injustice in favour of the opposition will be greeted by accusations of cheating.

    Christians will often be drawn towards sports because, in a way, they are usually naturally inclined towards religious activity. The question of whether you can bear allegiance to a football team and bear allegiance to Christ is one worth asking. The hate-filled chants that echo around European soccer grounds emphatically do not tally with Christ’s ethical teaching about how we should regard our enemies. The arena of sport does provide Christians with an opportunity to talk to people who are already selflessly engaged in something bigger than themselves, with some sort of religious experience (even if they are not aware that it is such an experience), so it can prove fertile ground for discussions about the meaning of life, belief, hope and faith. A non-Christian Shrewsbury Town fan will understand more about the concept of hope than an ardent materialist who never thinks beyond their own situation.

    Praying for victory is perhaps unethical (although the good news for supporters of lowly teams is that the God of the Bible firmly favours the underdog). Praying for the safety of the players, that the match officials and referees will have a good game and that the best team will win leads to no ethical issues. Praying that the best team will turn out to be your team? You have to decide whether you can pray that with a clear conscience.

    Thanks for your question, CB.

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