It seems that wherever you look these days there are sports stars confidently declaring their Christian faith. NFL star Tim Tebow puts “John 3.16” on his eyelids and 90 million people Googled the text, golfer Bubba Watson gives God the glory for his 2012 Masters victory and professional footballer Fabrice Muamba says God protected him after being dead for 78 minutes.
The success of these outspoken sportsmen has caused many to ask, “Is God helping them win? Does he tip the game in favour of those who claim his name? What happens when they lose?” It is an intriguing question and is essentially the same issue at the heart of Book 4 of the City of God. In this chapter Augustine seeks to address the underlying reasons for the growth of the Roman Empire. He argues that God actually promoted the growth of Rome because he endorsed the principals upon which it was founded – their passion for glory based upon merit, rather than deceit. He essentially sees the rule of Rome being a force for good in the world, establishing justice and promoting peace.
While many at the time were blaming the Christians for the downfall of Rome, Augustine turns the argument on its head. He seeks to explain that the expansion and victory of Rome was actually due to God’s providence, rather than Pagan gods, or the fate of the (celestial) stars. Augustine saw God’s hand raising the Roman Empire to the heights of glory and success it achieved.
So the question remains, are those who make their faith explicit and wear their commitment to God on their sleeve supported by God in their actions? “He who honours me, I will honour” God said to Samuel and it was with this verse ringing in his ears that Eric Liddell won the 400m Olympics and set a new world record. Does God help his servants win? Whether that be in sports, in elections, or in battles – is God the critical unseen factor endorsing his celebrity athletes and military generals? If he does, then what about at the national level, does God take sides for nations? On which side of the war on terror is he? Is he for flying the flag or burning it? Does he have favourite nations that he backs, or is all our divinely-soaked imperialism an assumed support too far?
This debate goes right back to David and Goliath – the little guy with the big heart, against the big guy with little respect for Israel’s God. There is no doubt that God fought alongside his people in the Old Testament. They were to be his nation and he would endorse their faithfulness by guaranteeing their success. Indeed, since Augustine, many have seen this religious imperialism as a natural consequence as God’s Sovereignty over all of life. Their reasoning went along the lines that, as there was no domain outside God’s rule, from the individual to the family to the church, to society each spehere should and could be under his rule. The assumption being that those who followed his rules, at each level of hierarchy, would receive his blessing.
However, the nature of the Kingdom of God dramatically changed with the coming of Jesus. It moved from being national and local, to personal and global, and ultimately, Augustine goes too far in this chapter. For in his confidence that God would restore the fortunes of Rome, he betrays an over-emphasis on nationalism. In effect, he soaks his national fervour in religious principles – a mistake too often made since the BC turned into AD.
If we are willing to listen to our Founder who said “my kingdom is not of this world”, we cannot extrapolate from the individual to the national. So, why is it that those who claim the name of Christ are often seen succeeding? I think there are a few principles that can guide our thinking about the connection between success and faithfulness:
- Christian principles all promote (but do not guarantee) success in whatever field they are applied (e.g. the old “Protestant work ethic”, good old fashioned values such as honesty, integrity and diligence).
- God may intervene directly on behalf of his people, or may not (e.g. the fiery furnace – Shadrach et al accepted and were resigned to whatever would happen).
- God does not take sides – he is no respecter of persons, there are no favourite nations, people or leaders (and he often disciplines his chosen leaders e.g. David and Moses)
- It is good for the good to rule – for the good of mankind in general God may raise up leaders who follow him for the benefit of all (e.g. Joseph sent by God to provide leadership in time of national disaster). Its important to note that this also applies to leaders of moral courage and principles that are not Christians (e.g. Churchill).
- Even the best role models will fail at some point – let’s not make the mistake of elevating anyone, no matter what their gifting, so that their fall brings us down. In the end we are all servants of the same master.
- God is in control of all of life – even refereeing decisions and the bounce of a ball are down to his decision (e.g. Proverbs 21.31).
- All success is ultimately short-lived – our bodies age, our glory fades and our name is remembered no more, what really matters is our relationship to God.
Sport-stars come and go, empires come and go, God uses people and they pass away into history. Yet through it all the purposes of God are fulfilled. We should not strive to be famous but focus on being people of merit. God may choose to use our faithfulness to promote his purposes in the public sphere, or he may not. But if we are focussed on integrity, devotion and a passion for his glory, then no matter what, our lives will have been worth living.