Tebow, Calvin, and the Hand of God in Sports
Two days ago on NBC's "Sunday Night Football" telecast, announcer Bob Costas spent two minutes weighing in on the most exciting---and polarizing---phenomenon in sports right now: the Tim Tebow Magical Fourth-Quarter Show, accompanied by the Denver Broncos players and staff.
Costas, one of the most eloquent and thoughtful voices in sports, suggested that Tebow's recent string of performances was "approaching, okay we'll say it, the miraculous." Many have made similar comments in recent weeks. Costas switched to a more controversial track, however, when he went on to suggest that the God Tebow worships has no interest in influencing the outcome of games. I quote at length from the full transcript:
Again today, Tebow did next to nothing until the waning moments, and then, down 10-0 with two minutes left, he throws a touchdown pass, and the Broncos tie it at the gun on a 59-yard field goal. And then win it in overtime on a 51-yarder. The combination of Denver's continuing late heroics, and today, the Bears' otherwise unexplainable errors, is enough to have some at least suspect divine intervention. Except that Tebow, whose sincere faith cannot be questioned, and should be respected, also has the good sense, and good grace, to make it clear he does not believe God takes a hand in the outcome of games.
Most of us are good with that. Otherwise, how to explain what happens when there are equal numbers of believers on either side? Or why so many of those same believers came up empty facing Sandy Koufax? Or hit the deck against Muhammad Ali? Or why the Almighty wouldn't have better things to do?
Is Bob Costas right? Does God "take a hand in the outcome of games," or does he "have better things to do," as Costas, a moral but not notably religious man, seemed to suggest?
God's Providence and Your Hair Follicles
The question, currently debated in countless American bars and gym locker-rooms, is surprisingly theological and biblical. The historic doctrine of God's providence teaches that nothing happens outside of God's purview and ordination. John Calvin, the great 16th-century French reformer, wrote straightforwardly in the Institutes of the Christian Religion that God "directs everything by his incomprehensible wisdom and disposes it to his own end" (I.16). Over against a more deistic philosophy---a system of theology that many adopted in Europe following Calvin's Genevan tenure---Calvin argued that "God so attends to the regulation of individual events, and they all so proceed from his set plan, that nothing takes place by chance" (I.16).
Calvin taught from biblical texts that suggest the very same. In a discourse on the need to rightly direct natural fear, for example, Jesus taught that God superintends even the death of a sparrow: "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father" (Matt. 10:29). Without the Latin terms or the footnotes, Jesus was teaching the doctrine of God's general providence. The Lord God oversees and brings to pass all that takes place on this earth, whether unseating kings or precisely placing follicles on our heads (Prov. 21:1; Matt. 10:30).
The breath-taking nature of tsunamis and earthquakes naturally disposes us to see, even in our sin, the hand of God in such events. But the Scripture speaks with equal clarity to God's involvement in the finer points of life. "The lot is cast into the lap," we read in Proverbs 16:33, "but its every decision is from the Lord." Every decision, not just the big ones. God is God of the small even as he is God of the great.
This does not mean, however, that God's work of providence should generally be understood as one long string of what is called "primary causation," or direct, miraculous involvement. The kind of everyday superintendence that we have just covered owes more to "secondary causation," or God's normal directing and upholding of all that transpires according to his wise counsel. Sometimes people get hung up on this kind of technical language, but it's really just a helpful way of saying that sometimes God intervenes in a special way---say, the miraculous causation of the virgin conception (Luke 1:30ff)---in a way that he did not, for example, when Jesus grew from a boy to a man in normal human fashion (Luke 2:40).
Reclaiming Romans 8
Having sketched these biblical parameters, the Word is yet very clear that the Lord directs believers' destinies with specific, comprehensive providence. In Romans 8:28, the apostle Paul reminds his audience of just this point: "We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose." All things, not just the big things. Because God takes special delight in guiding his elect children, we can work and labor and play and rest for his glory and in his strength. We must not allow prosperity-gospel types to hijack the biblical truth that God has a plan for our lives, a plan of great importance and beauty.
Instead of living each day for our own glory, Paul urges us to adopt a theocentric way of life: "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31). We might sometimes wonder whether the details of our lives are too small to bear cosmic significance, but Paul's mention of eating and drinking silences such a perspective. All of life matters to God; all of life, for the Christian, is God's.
The Hand of God in the Field of Sports
We return, then, to our friend, Tim Tebow. Does God, to use Costas's phrase, "take a hand" in his comeback victories? Working from the biblical and theological resources we've briefly mentioned, we're positioned to answer a question that, as we can see, requires more care than your average drive-time call-in show may give it.
God oversees and ordains all that comes to pass. This includes, as surprising as it may initially seem, football games. The outcome of every football game ever been played was planned by the all-wise, all-seeing mind of God. But this is not saying what some might think. God has also planned every haircut you've ever had, and every shopping trip you've ever taken. He is lord of football, and he is lord of produce. Nothing happens outside of his sovereign direction.
We err, though, if we equate his general superintendence of this world---the falling of sparrows, the numbering of hairs---with the special working of his kingdom. This is what Costas seems to be protesting, and in a much fuller sense than he understands. God has a special interest in promoting his gospel and building his church (John 3:16; Rom. 10; Eph. 1). This is not to say that he is uninterested in the ordinary things of the world, but rather to note that the mission of salvation begun after Adam's fall holds preeminence for God and, by extension, for his followers.
We must also say that for Tebow, the way he plays football is necessarily a matter of God's glory. In the same way that God gains glory through the work of a faithful accountant, a sacrificial, sleep-deprived mother, and a repentant cellist, God gains glory through righteous athletes who work hard in his name and seek to be a light in dark places. God directs the life and exploits of Tim Tebow, football hero. But he also directs Owen Strachan, Boyce College professor, or my friend Colin LeCroy, a Dallas lawyer, or my friend Emily Duffus, an Atlanta schoolteacher. Tebow may reach more people in his work, but we are all working for the glory of God, who directs and blesses our work so as to magnify his name.
Most Important Story
Is, then, the recent string of Denver Broncos victories a work of "primary causation," God's direct and miraculous intervention, in the same way as creation ex nihilo? I am not convinced it is. Costas and other cultural commentators are on roughly the same page as many of you in making this point.
But is the life of Tebow directed by the hand of God, in the same way that the lives of Tim Keller and Christopher Duffley and Elsie Dennison and every other believer are directed by God? Yes. Every Christian exists for the praise of God. Every Christian draws breath because God gives it. Every Christian serves God as a priest, offering acceptable service in the kingdom of his gospel through the power of his Spirit (1 Pet. 2:9). As with every other believer, God's hand is leading Tebow's life, blessing him as he applies Christian character to the task before him. God moves in mysterious ways. As previously stated, I do not have biblical grounds for seeing Tebow's fourth-quarter heroics as an outworking of God's direct causation. But I do know that God often delights to spurn the wisdom of the world by the efforts of his people (1 Cor. 1:20).
And I know, lastly, that the most important story here is not that Tebow and the Broncos are winning in dramatic fashion, but that the Lord seems to have worked in this man such that, though faced with unbelievable fame, major wealth, constant attention, and the classically all-American success story, Tebow seems only to want to talk about the gospel.
That, my friends, is the real miracle, and the work in which all of us---whether church planter, pipe-fitter, or homemaker---may participate.