The Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots 41-33 in last Sunday’s Super Bowl. While that result was a bit of an upset, what stood out to me most about the game was the inordinate amount of “Jesus talk” the game produced. As those of us who watch a lot of sporting events know, coaches and athletes often thank their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for helping them win. That has become almost commonplace in this day and age. But what was different about this year’s Super Bowl was the exceptionally high level the praising of Jesus hit. Most notably, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, and NBC anyalyst Tony Dungy stood out with their praising.
I’ll start with Pederson. When he stepped to the podium for his first interview following his team’s victory, the opening words out of his mouth were, “I can only give the praise to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for giving me this opportunity.” For the record, those words seemed thoroughly unforced and genuine.
Then there was Foles, the Eagles’ backup quarterback who was thrust into the starter’s role a month or so ago when starter Carson Wentz got hurt. Foles has been an NFL player for years, but until the lead up to this Super Bowl I had never heard anything about him being a devout Christian. Now I know, along with the world, that he is currently taking online classes at Liberty University, plans to go into the ministry when his football days are finished, and attributes all of his success to Jesus Christ.
Lastly, we had NFL Hall of Famer Dungy. He is a former player and coach who now works as one of the analysts on NBC’s pregame show, halftime show, and post-game show. On the post-game show (and later on Twitter), he commented that Nick Foles told him last week that Foles believed that God had Foles in Philadelphia for a “special moment.” Then he went on to say of Foles, “And he played like it tonight.”
Now, just to be clear, I certainly didn’t want Doug Pederson grabbing a microphone and saying, “I can only give the praise to my Lord and Savior Satan for giving me this opportunity.” Likewise, it didn’t bother me one bit to learn that Nick Foles is a Christian who plans to go into the ministry one of these days. To the contrary, I classified that as a pleasant surprise. And as for Tony Dungy, I’ve always found his zeal to promote Christianity to be quite bold considering that he is a celebrity. For that matter, you can count me as one of the millions who read his best-selling book Quiet Strength: The Principles, Practices, & Priorities of a Winning Life.
Still, despite all these qualifiers, my problem with the heavy Christian slant these men placed on the Eagles victory is that it left the masses with the impression, “Jesus favored the Eagles and so He helped them beat the Patriots.” Even if the three weren’t trying to leave this impression — and mind you I’m not saying they were — the impression got left nonetheless. How could the average person take their words to mean anything less?
You longtime readers of this blog know that this isn’t the first time I’ve written on this issue. In particular, my post Tim Tebow and Jesus still stands as one of my most read posts. That post addresses the “Jesus wants you to be a winner” mentality that has become so pervasive in America’s Christian culture. This mentality can be traced directly to the rise of the “prosperity gospel” that emphasizes health, wealth, and success and has become the singular core doctrine of so many Pentecostal, Charismatic, and nondenominational churches, not to mention the dominant programming on Christian television and radio.
Needless to say, when you couple that version of Christianity up with the “American way” of affluence and consumerism, you get a whole bunch of Christians claiming Philippians 4:13 — “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (N.K.J.V.) — as their call to success in any and all endeavors, including athletics. More’s the pity. It’s no wonder that pastor and theologian John Piper created quite a stir on Twitter several years ago when he tweeted:
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13), like go hungry, get cancer, be killed and go home.
Well, by now perhaps you are saying, “Geez, Russell, don’t you believe that Christian athletes, coaches, and analysts should bring their Christianity into the athletic realm?” Let me answer that with an emphatic, “I do!” God knows it’s a realm that can use all the Christian salt and light it can get. I just wish that we Christians would be more thoughtful (and dare I say scriptural) about how we express our Christianity. What I mean is, I’m sure there are some Christians among the New England Patriots’ coaches, players, organization, and fans. Doesn’t Jesus love them as much as He loves the Eagles? Didn’t He try to help them win too?
Just to show you that I’m not the only one who understands the problem, let me mention that Tony Dungy has come under considerable fire this week for his post-game comments and tweets about Nick Foles. There are numerous examples that I could cite here, but I’ll go with The New York Post, which ran an article entitled “Tony Dungy Under Fire For Saying Foles Played Well Because He’s A Christian.” That article’s opening line was, “How much credit does Jesus deserve for the Eagles’ Super Bowl LII victory?” Trust me, that’s not a question that paints Christianity in a good light.
To Dungy’s credit, he has sincerely tried to clarify the meaning behind his words and tweets about Foles. In one tweet, he said:
NBC pays me to express my opinion. And it was my opinion that Nick Foles would play well because his Christian faith would allow him to play with confidence. And that he’s a good QB. I think I was right on both counts.
In another tweet, he dove even deeper into Christian doctrine when he wrote:
Why would you find it hard to believe that the Holy Spirit could speak to Nick Foles just as much as a coach could speak to him? If he credited a coach for saying, “Stay calm and be confident” that’s good. But if he tells me Christ says that to him I shouldn’t report it???
You say, “Wow, those tweets sound like a pretty good response to the critics.” Perhaps they do, but they also leave the door wide open for writers like Kyle Koster, of the website http://www.thebiglead.com, to respond by asking, “Would Dungy have credited another faith for grounding a quarterback?” This is how the back and forth has been going since Sunday, and I think I’ve said enough about it now to give you the gist of it. So let me get back to my reason for writing this post, a reason that has nothing to do with whether Tony Dungy should have the right to use his job with NBC to promote Christianity. That’s another post for another time.
What I’m trying to do here is make the case that we, as Christians, really need to stop leaving people with the impression, sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle, that it’s all high times and grandiose experiences when you walk with Jesus. Let me put it this way: I don’t have a problem with what Pederson, Foles, and Dungy said about Jesus; what I have a problem with is what they didn’t say about Him. To illustrate what I mean, let me offer some possible quotes for your consideration.
What if Doug Pederson had walked to that podium and said something like this?
“The Jesus Christ who gave me this opportunity to win this Super Bowl is the same Jesus Christ who also gave me the opportunity to:
- not get drafted by any NFL team as a player coming out of Northeast Louisiana University
- play in the World League of American Football for a full season until I could drum up enough interest to get signed by an NFL team
- be a backup quarterback for 99% of my thirteen-year professional career as an NFL player
- suffer a broken jaw after throwing two touchdown passes in a game for the Green Bay Packers
- have my last game in the NFL ended by a hit that cracked a bone in my back, broke a rib, and tore a muscle from my side
- and begin my coaching career as a high school coach.”
Yes, Pederson has lived through all of that with Jesus. I checked his background. But unless you take the time to dig into Pederson’s past like, all you know is that Jesus gave him the opportunity to win the Super Bowl.
Along the same lines, what if Nick Foles had said something like this?
“The Jesus Christ who arranged things to get me to Philadelphia so that I could lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl win is the same Jesus Christ who was with me when I:
- transferred from Michigan State to Arizona after my freshman season in college because I wasn’t getting any playing time
- sat the bench for a while in Arizona because the coaches chose another quarterback to start over me
- sat out two games my junior season after becoming the starter because I hurt my knee in a game against Washington State
- lost my starting job in Philadelphia during my first stint there because I broke my hand in a game against the Washington Redskins
- regained that starting job and had an awesome season in 2013 only to follow that up the next season with bad play that ended when I suffered a broken collarbone playing the Houston Texans
- got traded by the Eagles to the St. Louis Rams in 2015
- played badly for the Rams and was ultimately benched in favor of another quarterback
- was released by the Rams in 2016 and signed by the Kansas City Chiefs, where I spent most of my time as a backup
- was released by the Chiefs at the end of that season
- and was signed again by the Eagles but only got the chance to play late in the season when the starting quarterback got hurt, a starter who will surely be back next season and is undoubtedly the future of the team.”
Yes, Foles has lived through all of that with Jesus. Again, a little research helps put Nick’s big day this past Sunday into honest perspective. But unless you take the time to dig into the man’s past, all you know is that Jesus brought him to Philadelphia to lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory.
As for Tony Dungy, what if he had said something like this?
“The Jesus Christ whom I believe had a special moment in mind for Nick Foles and helped him play calmly during the Super Bowl is the same Jesus Christ who helped me:
- not get drafted as a quarterback coming out of the University of Minnesota
- be forced to switch from playing quarterback to playing defensive back if I wanted to have an NFL career as a player
- eventually retire as a player and go back to the University of Minnesota as an assistant coach for one year to begin my coaching career
- devote the next fifteen years to putting in the untold hours required to serve as an assistant coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Minnesota Vikings
- become the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where I had several successful seasons until I was fired for not being able to get the team to the Super Bowl
- become the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, where I suffered several difficult defeats in the playoffs until we finally won the Super Bowl
- and get through the worst time of my life when my eighteen-year-old son, James, committed suicide in December of 2005.”
Yes, Dungy has lived through all of that with Jesus. His life is even more public record than Pederson’s life or Foles’ life. But unless you take the time to dig into Dungy’s past, all you know is that he believes that Jesus helped Nick Foles play well in the Super Bowl.
You see, Christian, when each of us gets right down to it there are no gaps in the resumes of our walk with Jesus. Yes, we’ve seen some good times, but we’ve also seen some bad ones. We’ve had our highs, but we’ve also had our lows. Our walk is real, our experiences are real, our faith is real, our life is real, our mountains are real, our valleys are real, and our salvation is real. We’ve all had the full course of training. Therefore, what we must now work on is taking the time to do a more thorough job of explaining to non-believers not only the ups and ins of our faith but also the downs and outs of it.
The simple truth is that what we have with Jesus cannot be summed up in a quick sound bite or tweet. It’s not something that only works when things are going great for us. Limiting it like that cheapens it and makes it come off sounding cheesy to skeptics. That’s why we mustn’t be afraid to bear our soul as Job did and admit that sometimes the Lord gives and other times He takes away (Job 1:21).
This, understandably, is the Jesus that a hurting world needs to hear about. This is the Jesus who knows how to minister to the losers, not just the winners. This is the Jesus who can relate to life’s soul-crushing experiences because He himself was despised, rejected, spit upon, scourged, and nailed to a cross.
This Jesus is not a cosmic Santa Claus. He’s not a spiritual sugar daddy. He’s not a genie in a prayer. He’s the one who wants to help you lay up treasure in heaven as opposed to laying it up in this life. He’s the one who understands that before He can bring His exquisite good out of the bad, He must first let you go through the bad. He’s the one who knows that human nature is such that we are far better equipped to learn from hard times than we are easy times.
Summing things up, this is the Jesus of the days, weeks, months, years, and even decades when the victory doesn’t come. This is the Jesus who walks in when everybody else walks out. This is the Jesus who abides when others abandon. This is the Jesus of the Bible. This is the Jesus who is right now seated at the right hand of God the Father in heaven. This is the Jesus we all need, whether we ever acknowledge that need and believe in Him or not.