“Of course, we pray for victory.”
This response came in answer to a series of questions from Christianity Today to the Houston Astros Spanish-speaking Chaplain, Juan Jesus Alaniz. The article ran during the 2017 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers that the Astros eventually won in the 7th game.
After that particular comment, the interviewer asked Juan directly, “So you pray that they’ll win?” He responded, “Oh yeah. We’re more than conquerors in Christ Jesus.”
“Should we pray to win?” Just as with Juan, this is a common question asked of Sports Chaplains, athletes and coaches who declare themselves Christians, or anyone who is in Sports Ministry in general. I want to take a stab at this question and, in doing so, reflect on what can happen if we don’t pray and what can happen if we do.
What if we don’t pray for wins?
Any athlete or coach is competing because he or she wants to win. That person may or may not want to win at all costs, but the heart desire of competitors is to be honored for their skill. This reality is shown by our longing for trophies like the one that went to the Astros.
With this in mind, if we don’t pray for the win, I would question how well we are acknowledging the desires of our heart. I would wonder just how honest we are being with ourselves or with God about what we really want.
If we do acknowledge this desire to win but don’t pray, we may be closing the door on the possibility through this prayer for God’s transforming power to change our hearts. This is significant. The Story of Redemption tells us we were made for glory and honor but lost that glory when we turned from God. Since that day, our hearts have been searching for glory, apart from God, seen so clearly in the realm of sports and our thirst for championships. Even when a person turns to God in response to his offer to redeem and restore them to glory in Christ, we still struggle with establishing this glory on our own.
Our prayer for winning may be an expression of that struggle. We may find through our prayer just how badly we want to win. Our prayer may actually expose the self-centered nature of our desire to win and of our request. This realization could open us to our need for turning away from that self-centeredness to God and the pursuit of his will rather than our own.
If we don’t pray, we may miss the opportunity for this needed transformation.
This exposing nature of prayer is one of the reasons the Scriptures has verses like the following:
“Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication,
let your requests be made known to God.” Philippians 4:6
Notice, the writer speaks about WHAT to pray. “In everything” includes the game that is about to be played.
He also speaks about HOW to pray. “By prayer and supplication” implies a worshipful asking. Worshipful would include coming to God believing he hears our prayers and cares about our prayers. Asking would, in that faith, offer what is on our hearts to him, including our desire to win.
If you don’t pray, let me ask you, “Why don’t you pray to win?”
I have asked others this question and their answers typically boil down to two:
- “God doesn’t care who wins anyway so why pray.”
- “It is too risky to open up that desire. God may deny, even squash it.”
If you resonate with the first answer, I would ask to think about how you know he doesn’t care and point you to a larger treatise of this subject in Chapter 2 of the book Does God Care Who Wins?
If you resonate with the second answer, I would ask you to consider your view of God in light of the above verse and the one immediately following it:
“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:7
When the writer mentions the “peace of God” and guarding your “hearts and minds in Christ Jesus,” he wants us to see the heart of God for prayer. Prayer is designed to bring us face to face with God, with the result being peace and deepened connection, not fear and distance. Not praying about winning removes us from that audience and the transformational nature of it.
What if we do pray for wins?
If we pray for the win and win, we ought to be free to embrace the win but careful not to let it establish something about our identity. God doesn’t answer the winners’ prayers because they are more deserving of the affirmative answer than the other team’s prayer. God answers these prayers because the wins and the losses are a part of his will, his kingdom coming to “earth as it is heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)
With this in mind, winners are free to acknowledge God’s sovereignty over all of creation, including the game, and accept His will with grace and humility embracing and enjoying the glory that comes from winning. At the same time, they should also acknowledge the win as undeserved and just a taste, an echo, of the real glory promised us in Christ, received at the consummation of all things. (Colossians 1:27 – Christ in you the hope of glory.)
This perspective is important because of the temptation for the winners to let the win establish something about their identity or the quality of their prayers. If we are honest, we can admit an awareness of that temptation and even our succumbing to it by thinking we prayed better or are better when we win. This reality lies deep in our hearts even though it is wrong and is a great distortion of the gospel of Jesus Christ (For a further exposition of this idea, see Chapter 3 of the book Does God Care Who Wins?)
The opposite side of this reality is just as prevalent. If we pray and lose, we can easily think God didn’t answer our prayer because there is something wrong with our prayer. Or worse, there is something wrong with us! Both of these ideas of deserved defeat are just as much a distortion of the gospel and God’s ways for his children as the distortion of deserved victory.
If we pray and lose, we are instead called to acknowledge God’s sovereignty over all creation, including our game, and trust that God had a higher, better purpose in answering our prayer the way he did. We can accept God’s will with grace and humility, allowing the disappointment to be real and owned. We can acknowledge and allow that disappointment to move us toward longing for the undeserved glory that will one day be ours in Christ at the consummation.
Should we pray to win? Absolutely.
How we pray to win matters. We should pray with an open, humble heart, willing to submit to God’s work of transformation of our hearts and our prayers and God’s good, acceptable and perfect will for us whether we win or lose.