December 1, 2013

When Athletes Pray

The Mount Tabor High School (Winston-Salem, No...
The Mount Tabor High School (Winston-Salem, North Carolina) baseball team prays before a conference-championship game against West Forsyth High School. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When an athlete prays before a game, privately or publicly, what does he or she pray for? Does the athlete ask for the strength to play well and to perform his or her best, or does the athlete ask for a certain outcome (i.e., "Please let us win"). It seems to me that the athlete who prays for something other than victory might differ in some important ways from the one who prays for victory. Such an athlete seems to expect far less from his or her god than the individual who prays for victory. Take the example of praying for the strength to play well. Why would someone do this instead of praying for victory? Could it be that such an athlete understands - perhaps not consciously - that there aren't any gods out there to grant victory? Praying for the strength to play well almost seems more like meditation than prayer in the sense that one is almost calling on oneself to summon strength from within rather than asking for divine intervention.

The athlete who prays for victory seems different somehow. Such an athlete seems more likely to be a true believer, believing in the sort of god we hear the most about. And I suppose that makes some sense. If you truly believe in the sort of god who takes a genuine interest in human affairs and is susceptible to influence through prayer, why wouldn't you pray for victory? Are we not told that through prayer, all things are possible?

Naturally, some will object that the athlete who prays for victory is treating his or her god as some sort of genie and that gods don't work this way. Why not? In the Christian bible, we read about a god that regularly intervened in human affairs and was often responsive to prayer. Where is this god today? Did it die, cease to care about humanity, or does it simply not find athletics a good enough reason to act? And if it is the latter, I wonder why so many athletes continue to invoke it.

And if you will allow me this brief tangent, may I also ask why this god does not appear to value human life any more than it values athletics? It isn't like this god ignores athletics to devote more time to answering prayers about health and illness, our ailing economy, harming the enemies of Christians, or converting atheists. Aside from sending the occasional storm to punish us for being overly tolerant of "teh gay," this god appears content to ignore humanity. It is almost as if no such god exists!

Time to get back to the subject at hand. Are the athletes who pray aware that their opponent likely does so too? If they pray before the game and they win the game, then they may conclude that their god favored them over their opponent. But what if they lose? Did they not pray hard enough or in the right way? Was their belief insufficiently strong? What does it mean that their god might have chosen their opponent over them? Is this just dismissed as "mysterious ways," or does any more thought go into it?

I have often heard it said that the athlete who prays for the strength to play well has a more mature sort of faith than the one who prays for victory. This sounds good until one begins to question why an athlete wouldn't pray for victory. It seems a bit like he or she might not have much confidence that his or her god is listening or cares about the outcome. The prayers for strength do not sound all that different from how an atheist athlete might try to psyche himself or herself up before a game. Nothing supernatural here.

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