Should I pray for my team's victory?
My dad was a runner. He won cross-country races at school, and relished the training he got during his national service. His mother, however, thought he was wasting his time.
A staunch Brethren woman, she regularly quoted the Bible at him: “Bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things” (1 Timothy 4:8). In her eyes it was clear; Christians should invest in spiritual things, and not be distracted by worldly things like sport or fitness.
Over the centuries Christians have not had a positive view of the body, teaching that what really counts is the soul. We’ve picked up the idea that we are burdened with our bodies while here on earth which tempt us to do all kinds of evil things. Our goal is to escape the limitation of our physical lives when our real self, our soul, gets promoted to heaven. However, that view has more in common with Greek philosophy than with biblical Christianity.
Plato believed that the soul was sacred and separate from the body while being imprisoned within it. In contrast, the Bible says that the essential human being is a body into which God breathed life (Genesis 2:7). We don’t ‘have’ bodies, we ‘are’ bodies – holistic human beings who are physical, spiritual, emotional and intellectual with no part more important than any other. Paul reminds us that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and we should honour God with our physical selves (1 Corinthians 6:19). Eric Liddell’s discovery that when he ran he felt God’s pleasure resonates with Christian sportsmen and women everywhere. So a good starting point with this question is to affirm that God created our bodies, and we thrive when we use them well. Sport is part of God’s good creation.
And if we change the question slightly to ‘Can I pray for my team’s victory?’, then I think the answer is an emphatic ‘Yes!’ God is our loving heavenly father who cares about every detail of our lives (Matthew 10:29-31). Paul encourages us to bring every situation to God in prayer, presenting our requests to him in confidence. (Philippians 4:6)
But it’s worth digging a little deeper and exploring our motives for wanting our team to win. Cycling is my favourite sport and every year I’m glued to coverage of the Tour de France. Last year I was ecstatic that Mark Cavendish won the green jersey and gutted that Bradley Wiggins had to drop out with a broken collarbone. Many sports fans have a strong sense of identification with the team or athlete they support. The victory of our team becomes a kind of personal achievement; our sense of worth gets a boost not through anything we have done, but vicariously through the exploits of others. In contrast, God invites us to have our identity firmly rooted in who we are in Christ (Ephesians 1:4-14) which is secure regardless of our achievements or those of our team.
And Jesus was very clear about the upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God, where the first shall be last and the last first and God’s generous grace is lavishly given even to those who least deserve or expect it (Matthew 20:1-16). I think applying those verses to sport to claim that God is not into competition is a misuse of the Bible, but I do think they change our perspective on success and victory. In the Kingdom of God, the widow who gives two small coins is commended for her generosity (Luke 21:1-4) and a child is the model for those who want to join in the work of God (Matthew 19:14). Often we learn most about God in our experiences of loss and desolation where we are more aware of our need for God, rather than in seasons of success. Jesus modelled a servant leadership that did not lord it over others or glory in status, but that did the lowliest tasks with love (John 13:1-5).
Finally it’s worth thinking about our priorities in prayer. Although we can pray about anything, as we mature in our faith I think we pray less for life to turn out exactly as we want and more in line with God’s priorities for his world. Paul faced incredible hardships in his ministry, but his prayers were for his fellow believers to grow in their faith rather than for his life to be easier. (Col 1:9-13)
So enjoy the rich sporting opportunities that this summer will provide, get active and enjoy the incredible body that God has given you and ask God to show you His priorities for your prayer life.
Jenny Baker is a marathon runner and cyclist, and works for the Church Urban Fund.