“O, Lord, please help us win today…”
How many times have you said that prayer, either under your breath or out loud? How often have we asked the Lord Jesus to intervene in the course of human history so we could get a win? When you watch post-game interviews after a Super Bowl, World Series, World Cup final or NCAA Championship game, have you ever thought about the statements made by Christian athletes who offer thanksgiving to the Lord for the championship? Do you ever wonder about the faithful, Christian competitors on the losing team? Were their prayers less effective than those of the winners? Maybe it was a numbers issue. If there were more Christians praying more effectively on one team, maybe the Lord was obligated to help them defeat the team with fewer, less pious Christians? Does the Lord care at all who wins and who loses a game? If not, why should we pray at all before competition?
Before I dive in, I fully admit to you that I still have many questions about these things. I’m not sure that I have great answers to them, but there are ways to consider the Lord’s view of competition and the role prayer plays in it. Concerning sports, what can we pray for?
The world, and often the Christian community, is obsessed with winning. But does the Lord even care who wins and who loses? Are there other outcomes that are more important, but less measurable?
In the 19 years I’ve served as a sports chaplain and mentor, I’ve seen a number of different approaches to game-day prayer. I’ve seen players and coaches treat the chaplain like a good-luck charm, thinking, “If that guy prays for me, God will bless me, and I’ll play better.” I’ve seen teams treat their pre-game recitation of The Lord’s Prayer like the rubbing of a lucky rabbit’s foot. I’ve looked players in the eye and known they were bargaining with the Lord. I could hear their hearts saying, “Lord, if You will give us this championship, I will give You the glory as I talk with the media, sign endorsement deals, buy new cars and date beautiful women.”
I’ve also seen my own approach to game-day prayer change over these years. My prayers for coaches, players, game officials and even our opponents have undergone a good deal of transformation as I have learned to hear the Lord’s heart for sport and those involved in it.
I remember being a mediocre high school wrestler and praying before matches for the strength to win that day’s match. That prayer seemed to be about 50 percent effective. I imagine I would’ve had about the same .500 record without those prayers. I was often foolishly disappointed in the Lord for His inability to get me some of those wins. I remember reminding the Lord of Mark 11:23-24—“…whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (v. 24, NIV)—and thinking that Scriptural promise would result in my pinning a far superior opponent.
During my 20s, as a high school wrestling official with a little more mature faith, I still prayed prior to and sometimes during wrestling meets. However, at that time I was praying for God’s strength to do my job well. I prayed for the competitors and the coaches, for everyone’s safety from injury and for wisdom and favor in dealing with people. I was much more comfortable with those prayers than with my previous selfish attempts to get the Lord to ensure a successful result.
My ultracompetitive heart has undergone some radical transformation in the last 46 years of life in Christ. I’m still enthralled with competition, whether it’s a round of golf with my son, an aggressive game of racquetball or a Saturday-afternoon college football game. I desperately want to win! Losses are still painful. But I have learned to seek the Lord’s counsel about what is most important in this process. I’m still learning how to control my competitive and sarcastic tongue. I’m seeking the Lord’s wisdom for my relationships with players, coaches, trainers, equipment managers and officials. This growing view of faith and sport leads me to pray.
With that in mind, I’ve come to realize that there are a few things we don’t have to question regarding prayer in sports—things we can be sure that the Lord wants us to address with Him.
- Pray that each athlete competes honorably. We’ve all seen competition bring out both the best and the worst in people. Let’s pray that we honor the Lord with how we compete, communicate and relate to all participants. (1 Corinthians 9:24-25)
- Pray for matters of the heart related to the game. Pray for Christ-honoring attitudes, wisdom, insight and teamwork to be evident in the players and coaches. (Galatians 5:22-23)
- Pray for the Lord’s purposes to be accomplished in the athletes and coaches. I pray every game day for each player and coach. I pray for them by name and according to their responsibilities with the team. I also pray for their lives beyond the sport, as I know that the Lord desires to see each one become the person He created him or her to be. (Philippians 1:6, Acts 13:36)
- Pray for all those involved in the competition. Along with the players and coaches, pray for the support staff, the game officials and the fans. I pray for wisdom and Christ-honoring excellence that benefits the Christian competitors and transcends the scoreboard. (Psalm 90:17)
- Pray that those who compete experience the Lord’s pleasure and presence. Had I prayed this way as that mediocre high school wrestler, I’m sure I would’ve had a more pleasurable, less frustrating experience as a Christian in the sport. I would have had the freedom to experience joy and fulfillment, win or lose. (Psalm 16:11)
Simply said, I do not know that the Lord cares who wins or loses any particular sport contest. What I do know is that He cares deeply about how we compete in pursuit of the win. Our character, which will certainly be revealed by competition, is always His concern. If that is the case, then a Christ-honoring competition that results in a loss can ultimately be more satisfying than a dishonorable win with all its accompanying guilt and shame.
This is my challenge to you: commit to praying about the things that burden the Lord’s heart, seeking to become more like Him in excellence, integrity and love, and let the game take care of itself.
This column was written by Roger Lipe, who has served with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Southern Illinois since 1994. He also serves as a chaplain or character coach to teams, coaches and individual competitors at Southern Illinois University and to the Southern Illinois Miners of the Frontier Professional Baseball League. This column originally appeared in the April, 2008 issue of Sharing the Victory, which is now FCA Magazine. It has been slightly edited to allow for updates to lengths of tenure. And, while the original piece is more than five years old, it is every bit as timely today as it was when it was written. It also appears in Roger’s book, Free to Compete.
– FCA.org –