Mark Richt and Tim Tebow have much in common. Both are admired by evangelical Christians. Both have had great success. And now, the ability of both is under question. After a complete and total loss by the Georgia Bulldogs to Boise State, even fans who have been long loyal to Mark Richt are questioning if he can turn the team around. Tim Tebow is struggling to adjust to being a NFL quarterback. Evangelicals enjoyed the success that the two men have had and the platform it has given them for sharing their faith. However, as their careers have stumbled, how should we as Christians look at it?
Personally, I think both men could turn things around. With a win over South Carolina this weekend, the same sports columnist from the Atlanta Journal Constitution who wrote that it looks like the end for Richt will write how great a turnaround it is and how far the dawgs can go. Sports columnists are not great at analysis, but they are pretty good at telling us which way the wind blows. Tim Tebow could still adjust and make it in the NFL. So, I am not saying that they are washed up. But, they have hit what is more than a bump in the road.
For some evangelicals, this is too much with which to deal. Sports writers who have criticized Tebow often get angry letters from people talking about how good Tebow is, both morally and athletically. He has a strong following that doesn’t want to see him fail or be criticized.
How we look at the success of failure of these two men says a great deal about our priorities and our understanding of how God works in the lives of believers. That leads me to some things that I want to say about how our faith and sports intersect.
The things I have to say may shock the very core of many of you. Before you read further, I suggests that you sit down. Are you ready? Sure about that? OK, here it is. The success of your favorite team or athlete is not very important to God. Your team is not the cosmic embodiment of good and their rival is not the embodiment of evil. The New York Yankees are not demonic minions of Satan, and Steve Spurrier is not the antichrist. God isn’t really paying more attention to the Dallas Cowboys, and I am pretty sure while He watches over all His saints, it doesn’t mean the New Orleans Saints have a privileged position. The success or failure of your team is not near as important to God as what is revealed in your character when you respond to their success or failure.
Believers are not guaranteed success by God in sports. If they succeed, He wants Mark Richt and Tim Tebow to glorify Him. If they fail, He wants them to glorify Him. The same applies to all Christians in all endeavors. God is not obligated to make sure that Mark Richt remains the head coach at Georgia. He is not obligated to see that Tebow gets playing time in the NFL. They have to do the work to prove their capabilities, just like any of us. Yet, we can have faith that whatever happens, God is shaping their character.
Through their success and failure, we also see how those outside our evangelical sub-culture view our faith. While winning, they tolerate our faith, even admire it. In losing, they blast it or at best, misunderstand it. The common criticism of Christian athletes is that they don’t care if they win or lose or how poorly they performed. They will just say, “It was God’s will.” I would like it if someone can actually point me to a Christian athlete that ever said anything like that.
However, what a Christian says or does in the face of defeat is often misconstrued. If Tim Tebow says, “I’ve prayed about being a quarterback in the NFL, and I believe God is going to help me,” there will be some sportscaster somewhere who will construe it to mean that Tim Tebow thinks God wants him to be the starting quarterback no matter how poorly he plays. If after a loss, Mark Richt doesn’t say something like, “It was the greatest tragedy since Pearl Harbor,” fans will think that he just doesn’t care.
And that brings me to my last point. It could be that men who have been overseas, seen utter poverty, walked through orphanages in Eastern Europe, and worked in health clinics where good health care does not exist may have a better understanding of what tragedy is than the person who knows nothing unless he saw it on ESPN. What appeals to me about Richt and Tebow is that in success or loss, they have modeled what godly men should be and have acted with godly priorities. That is the lesson we as Christians can learn from sports. Have fun, but keep things in their perspective. Learn to succeed and fail in a way that honors and glorifies Him.
A couple of last words: Go Dawgs!