Only God Can Judge Them

Another NFL season has come and gone, and if you’re a woman like me, you’re pretty excited you no longer have to fight your husband for the remote every Sunday afternoon (which was a running joke on The King of Queens and also MY LIFE because that gender stereotype is 99% true. I’m sorry. But it is.).

Generally, I don’t care much for the NFL, because keeping up with another sport means I have to smash a bunch of information into my brain. All the rules and the teams and the stats and the ever-changing playoff scenarios. And the fantasy football. Ugh, the fantasy football.

But, I love championship games, events that involve good food, and Beyonce, so of course, I was very excited for yesterday’s Super Bowl. My favorite part of the Super Bowl – or really, any championship event – are the human interest stories. I honestly can’t even tell you what constitutes pass interference, and the term “unnecessary roughness” mainly just makes me think of this, but I can tell you all about Colin Kaepernick’s upbringing and can venture a good guess as to which Harbaugh brother is Jack and Jackie’s favorite. (It’s John).

I like to watch great athletes, but it’s even more fun when you know their backstories – when you know something about their personalities or their families, it makes watching the game more fun.

And one of the biggest personal areas we talk about – specifically, that Christians talk about – is the faith of the athletes. We dissect every word that Tim Tebow, Jeremy Lin, and in the case of yesterday’s game, Ray Lewis, say about God. Not only do we talk about their faiths, talk about how THEY talk about their faiths, and scrutinize their off-court/off-field moves to judge whether or not they live up to our standards – we also bet on faith-related things. Seriously, there was a prop bet this weekend about how many times Lewis would say “God” in his postgame interview.

I’ve noticed that a lot of people – Christian and non-Christian alike – get annoyed at athletes who thank God after winning big games. Sometimes we think it’s wonderful, but I’ve heard many people sigh or make a joke as soon as an athlete kneels down after catching a touchdown pass.

Some of the reasons I’ve heard, read, or sensed for this frustration with outspoken athletes are:

  • “God doesn’t care about this game. There are starving people in the world, and you think God is spending his energy caring about this game?” (nevermind that terrible theology that God has limited energy to give) The problem with this is that we fail to differentiate God actively choosing a team versus God simply caring for every area of our lives – and we tend to think we can understand every nuance of what they’re saying, and figure out their theology based on a 5-second soundbite. A soundbite said when they’re on the brink of exhaustion and have been slammed to the ground for the past three hours.
  • “So-and-so swears in the huddle and was arrested for [fill in the blank]. He’s a hypocrite.” Well, sure, but if you judged my faith by how often I swear after a “fumble” in my workplace (ie forgetting to save a document I’ve been working on for an hour), you’d call me a hypocrite too. And you know what, I am! So are you!
  • “He’s dumb.” (which, OK, if we’re talking about football here, there’s a decent probability that’s true) “He doesn’t even understand the meaning of that scripture tattooed on his arm. He’s making Christians look dumb.” This one makes me laugh, because, we’re worried that athletes are making us look bad? There are a lot of things that make Christians look bad, and “overzealous, not-Biblical-scholar football players” ranks pretty low on that list.

So, why do these athletes thank God? I think there are many reasons:

  • They just genuinely love God and are overflowing with thankfulness. (I call this the Tim Tebow Reason.) Look, they might not have an agenda – maybe they just sincerely are grateful for their ability to wake up every day and make a good living doing something they love.
  • They realize they’re in the public eye, and they want to maximize their opportunities to make Jesus known. They might not naturally be so bold in talking about their faith, but they feel like, as long as millions of people are watching them, they should talk about Jesus.
  • They have a bad reputation and their publicist told them to do it, to seem Godly.
  • They have a bad reputation and sincerely have turned their lives around by God’s grace, and want to share with the world.
  • They aren’t Christians, but they’ve looked around and seen the far inferior bodies of mere mortals and thought, “dang, there must be some higher being because HOW ELSE AM I SO GOOD AT THIS SPORT.”

I’ve noticed that a lot of Christians – including myself – have an opinion about how athletes talk about God… we argue about whether or not athletes should even talk about God, and if so, how they should talk about Him.

I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot, but I haven’t come down on either side. Some Christian athletes tattoo verses all over their bodies and pray after each touchdown and yell “thank you Jesus!” in postgame interviews, and some don’t do any of those things but live in quiet ways which reveal their beliefs.

And I don’t think one way or the other is right or wrong.

On one hand, these men (I’m speaking of football players only) get paid to have 300-pound men run full-speed at them and knock them to the ground. Call me crazy, but if they want to say “thank you Jesus!” after a good play, then by all means, they should be able to do that.¬†Personally, I should thank God more often for the ways he has created me to do my job. I should walk out of meetings and thank God for giving me the mental capacity to contribute to my organization in meaningful ways. And then I should spike my notebook on the ground and yell “thank you Jesus!!!” (Maybe I shouldn’t do that last part, but I do think it’d feel good.)

On the other hand, there are Christian athletes who aren’t so outspoken about their faith, and I think that’s fine too. They may have an affect on their coaches and teammates and others that we, the average viewers, may not see – but that doesn’t matter. Because, for the LOVE, Christians – we don’t need to be in control of everything!

I have wavered back and forth on the question of, “how much can you speak into someone’s life if you don’t personally know them?” but now am pretty solidly on the side of, “don’t do that.”

So if a Christian athlete is thinking critically about faith, and asking God to use their words and actions, then whatever the outcome might be is just FINE! Let’s all lay off them.

Derrick Rose has a tattoo on his bicep that says, “Only God Can Judge Me,” and first of all, DAMNIT DERRICK, YOU STOLE MY TATTOO IDEA/LOCATION, but secondly, I think the fact that he has this tattoo perfectly sums up my feelings about outspoken Christian athletes.

We shouldn’t judge them. We shouldn’t judge them if they kneel down in the endzone, or thank God after the game, or put a verse on their eye black. And we shouldn’t judge them if they live quietly and never quote scripture in an interview.

Instead of nitpicking and judging, let’s live like we think grace is a real thing.

If a football player achieves a dream and his first reaction is to thank God, and our response is to mock him or roll our eyes, that probably says more about our faith than the player’s.

So let’s give some grace.

And if you want a really radical read about this subject, please don’t miss Jon Acuff’s convicting post about how his reaction to Ray Lewis made him realize he doesn’t believe in grace.


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