Reconciling Tim Tebow’s Ability to Inspire With His Public Demonstrations of Faith

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.

11 thoughts on “Reconciling Tim Tebow’s Ability to Inspire With His Public Demonstrations of Faith

  1. Great piece, you guys. I feel the same way about a lot of these issues regarding Tim Tebow. By the way, Tebow is also a humanitarian… something a lot of people do not know about him. He helps out a lot with poverty and the school systems in the Philippines where his parents are either missionaries or used to be missionaries. While I like what he represents on (and off) the field, I think it’s important to see that there are things he does in privacy (or as close as he can to privacy) that he doesn’t let everyone know.

    Great stuff, guys, great stuff.

  2. I was just thinking the other day about the possibility of you writing about this.
    It’s funny because sometimes I cringe when he does it, and I’m a Christian myself.
    Every time he does it, over and over and over and over again, it comes across, TO ME, as forced and in a way like he’s hoping to get “attaboys” and pats on the back from God, family and friends, which I GUARANTEE YOU HE DOES.
    I’m not claiming to know his intent, but like you said, it’s our heart and actions that matter, words are so cheap.
    Tebow DOES back it up and maybe, just maybe, he should stick to that.
    I like what Cutler said about thanking Christ after every hand off. LOL! There’s something to be said for that.
    Winning the Super Bowl, completing a great season, being accepted into the Hall of Fame… those are BIG defining moments where Christ deserves credit for how he’s come through in your life but the constant pagentry shouldn’t be what Christian life is about. The Matt 6:1 reference was great.

    Kurt Warner’s comments were excellent, too.

    I have an acquaintance on Facebook that had pictures taken while he and others collected toys for needy kids… making sure to post the dollar amount they spent, too. IT MADE ME SICK and took quite a bit of effort on my part not to speak my mind. What benefit could come of that other than others patting them on the back and making them look like such caring, great people? Will the kids benefit more from the bragging? They made sure they brought a camera and took pictures with them next to all the carts filled with toys. Uhhhggg….

    It’s human nature, Christian or not, to desire to receive praise for the good things we do in our lives. Whether we are giving praise to God after a win or bragging about how giving we are, the only true way to reel in our selfish attitudes, I believe, is through humility and a selfless attitude. If you’re a believer, you realize it’s all about God and SERVING Him… you’re just being obedient and why should you deserve praise for simply doing what God asks of you? Our reward is in Heaven, right?

    Both of the examples above (Tebow and Toys) have some sort of selfishness involved, IMO. Some of it is strategically hidden but it’s there.

  3. Great thoughts, Ian. Really charitable and balanced. I think Kurt Warner summed it up well, too. Hopefully we will see a maturing of Tebow, with an undiminished zeal that is more wisely channeled.


    • Thanks Steve. I appreciate it- I took some flack for this post over on Tony Campolo’s site which seemed odd to me because I thought I was being moderate.

      Warner’s comments hit right on the mark, agreed. “Hopefully we will see a maturing of Tebow, with an undiminished zeal that is more wisely channeled.” Perfectly said. Peace in return!

  4. I really am amazed at how well you write your articles. Your very good and you use enough research with your own opinions that its refreshing and a better different.

    In my personal opinion I do agree alot on your points and what your saying, but I do have a different perspective on why Tebow does “what he does” in references to showing his faith.

    I have no doubt that Tebow does in fact “have love” for the Man upstairs. I know he’s grown up with it, I’ve seen it and I believe that it is sincere and a true part of who he is. To me though, I don’t really believe it is to be flashy or showy so he can give himself or have anyone else give him pats on the back. I would definitely agree that probably takes place quite a bit but I have a different perspective. If you ask me, I believe he is trying to in his own way bring God back to the forefront of society. Let’s face it. You’ve said it yourself. These are very dark times and everyone is lost whether its on the economy, sexuality or what is the next stop in our society. As far as the mainstream goes, I don’t really see God as being a part of it. I think Tebow is just trying to show that God is indeed good and it would kill America to see that someone out there doesn’t seem very “lost” at all. He carries a very good confidence about him & it doesn’t seem to change whether he’s just lead another 4th quarter come from behind victory, or takes a rare ass beating (in particular, the loss from detroit).

    I know it seems flashy and I’m not afraid to say I could be wrong. But to me it seems a lot more like he knows he has the ability to get thru the tv screen and the forefront of society and figures I can maybe get people to start thinking about God again. Either way, I personally think its a hell of alot better than showing off his new custom made Nike shoeline. And we’ve seen plenty of athletes do that without anyone blinking an eye.

  5. Its amazing how much Tebows faith has gotten him attention. I know nothing about football or the athletes involved, but I have sure heard his name alot lately.

    Thank you for sharing your insights.

  6. I thought it particularly fitting that after the Bronco’s were blown out by the Lions (typical Christians thrown to the Lions) Tebow (and God) went on this tear as if to tell RS to shut it’s ignorant pie hole. I don’t really think it is that simple but things were set in motion long ago and if the Denver/Tebow streak is part of it so be it. I just like seeing secular humanists eating crow, especially when they belittle anothers beliefs.

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