Photo credit: flickr/Jeffrey Beall
Tim Tebow has stepped in to replace time zones as the thing most likely to divide the nation. Say “Tebow” to someone, and you find one of two reactions- a fond smile, or a severe grimace. Only a few who know his name appear to view the NFL quarterback with any level of neutrality. And the reason for all of the divided opinions (aside from his unique and disputable style of play, and recent headline-making victories with the Denver Broncos) rests on Tebow’s decision to wear his faith in Jesus on his sleeve. Is Tim Tebow catching flack for no good reason, or are the calls for spiritual moderation warranted? I think there’s a bit of both.
Tebow is not the first athlete to make a showcase of his belief in God and he won’t be the last. Nor is it the first time that the culture has been polarized by the pray and play style. Bill Maher once said “Jesus doesn’t care who wins the game so stop thanking him. I never heard anybody blame Jesus when they lose” before concluding by joking “the other team out-prayed us at halftime!” Former Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer said of Tebow’s showmanship “I think that when he accepts the fact that we know that he loves Jesus Christ, then I think I’ll like him a little better. I don’t hate him because of that, I just would rather not have to hear that every single time he takes a good snap or makes a good handoff.” Matt Taibbi titled his Tebow piece in the latest issue of Rolling Stone ‘God Fumbles,’ writing “God must not know sh*t about football if Tim Tebow is his idea of an NFL quarterback.” While some of the criticism aimed at our more overtly religious celebrities does tend to wander into meanspirited territory, I don’t think Christians should dismiss the lesson buried in the commentary. In many cases, the seeds of truth inside the tomatoes being thrown at these performers are often closer to the words of Jesus than those words in support of such outward displays of faith.
A quick survey of the book of Matthew shows us that Jesus, whether talking about fasting, or tything, or praying, drew a connection through spiritual expression by giving a consistent and clear command to his followers: don’t be showy about it.
But football isn’t fasting. Or is it something similar? If Tebow implies by his heavenly-themed words and gestures that his way of playing is spiritually-driven or at least significant from a spiritual standpoint, I support him in part, because Tebow is just acknowledging God with the gifts he feels God has given him. But such honor should also be subject to the words of Christ, not only for Tebow, but for the rest of Christ’s followers as well. Matthew 6:1 records Jesus saying “Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.”
Some will push back, citing 1 Corinthians 10:31 which says “do all to the glory of God,” to which I would respond by noting that giving glory to God is not the issue here. How we give glory to God is a totally different, and important exploration because Christ himself explored it for us. Other athletes surely have relationships with God, and yet quietly let their faith inform their focus, perseverance, leadership, and celebratory spirit, without putting the motivating factor of faith itself on can’t-miss display.
I like the way veteran NFL Quarterback Kurt Warner put it when responding to the Tim Tebow phenomenon. Warner himself is known for his Superbowl success and also for publicly linking winning and Jesus. Warner seems to have matured spiritually from those days. On Tebow, he told the Arizona Republic “There’s almost a faith cliche, where (athletes) come out and say, ‘I want to thank my Lord and savior.’ As soon as you say that, the guard goes up, the walls go up, and I came to realize you have to be more strategic. The greatest impact you can have on people is never what you say, but how you live. When you speak and represent the person of Jesus Christ in all actions of your life, people are drawn to that. You set the standard with your actions. The words can come after.”
Ultimately, the connection that people try to make between personal victories and Jesus is unstable ground to stand on, because it suggests a spiritual hierarchy in which the fortunate are closer to God, regardless of how and why they got there. It is not unlike the prosperity doctrine which uses the Bible to justify worldly privilege and judge, however carefully, those who haven’t got as much. Detroit Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch performed the Tebow kneel and pray maneuver after sacking the real Tebow in a recent game. Point well taken, Tulloch, for if Tebow gets to celebrate Jesus when he is “winning,” then it’s open season for others to claim the divine and do the same when they prevail.
Having said all of that, there is something refreshing about watching a young athlete defy widespread cynicism by sharing such naked expressions of motivation, drive, gratitude, and enthusiasm, and maybe that is also part of the reason people either sincerely or playfully support Tebow. So, yes to actions that speak louder than words as well as less spiritual grandstanding, but at the same time, it’s worth acknowledging that inspiration is a rare thing in these dark times, and because of that, perhaps we can learn to celebrate inspiration even if it occurs clumsily.