By Selwyn Duke
Major issues can rise from minor things, and so it is with the Masters golf tournament of a week and a half ago. The winner, unheralded Zach Johnson, stood down blustery winds, benumbing temperatures and the closest thing to a force of nature in golf, Tiger Woods, to win the first major tournament of the year. What raised both my estimation of him and the eyebrows of some ever-offended secularists, however, was his mention of Jesus’ name during his post-event remarks. Said an exuberant Johnson,
“Being Easter, my faith is very important to me. I felt Jesus, I felt my grandfather, my family, everybody. So it was awesome.”
“Regardless of what happened today, my responsibility was to glorify God. Hopefully I did.”
It’s not unusual for athletes to credit God after victories. It’s always fitting to credit your Maker, but it seems as if flowing adrenaline and perhaps endorphins contribute to a spontaneity that makes one more likely to bear his soul.
But secularists taking exception to it is also not unusual now, and upon perusing the commentary of the faithless, I found a common theme. Dripping with sarcasm at best and contempt at worst, many derided Johnson for, as they perceive it, claiming that Jesus ordained his victory. “Why, God has bigger things to worry about than golf. And why would He prefer you to other players anyway?” ask many. Illustrative of this attitude is a comment Bill Maher made years ago while complaining about such athletes on his TV show Politically Incorrect (I’m paraphrasing):
“What about when they lose? How come they never say, ‘You know, Jesus, you really let me down out there today’?”
Maher was expressing his idea in a comedic fashion, but it really does exemplify the incredulity of many secularists upon hearing godly gratitude. But in their effort to demean people of faith and paint them as simpletons, their own lack of depth is betrayed.
G.K. Chesterton once said,
“You say grace before a meal, all right, but I say grace after I dip the quill into the ink.”
His point was that a true Christian is thankful for all blessings, great and small. Everything is a gift, and this is his perspective because he is humble enough to accept that he deserves nothing but damnation – something, I should add, he does not have to be visited with because of God’s mercy, which is the greatest gift of all.
Among athletes (although this can pertain to any endeavor) of authentic faith, this understanding breeds a certain mindset. Such a person won’t pray for worldly success but for what is more important, such as peace of mind and, as Johnson said, the grace to be a good witness for Christ. Sure, he will certainly thank God when he wins, but if that is the only time gratitude is visible it’s only because that’s when the cameras and microphones appear. He may also thank God when he loses, perhaps for the opportunity to be playing a game; for his abilities; for his competitors; for the capacity to remain calm and enjoy the blessing; for the ability to carry himself in a dignified manner and set a good example for others; and, if he is an especially enlightened sort, for the happiness that was granted to the one who vanquished him.
As to this, I have a little personal anecdote. In another life I was a professional tennis player and, even after dispensing with my tour ambitions, played competitively on an intermittent basis for a time. Well, I was in a sectional event and in the latter part of a tough match with a young player, and I was struck by a profound thought and feeling. In a very visceral way I realized that my happiness was no more important than my opponent’s in the eyes of God. After all, God certainly wasn’t rooting for Selwyn Duke simply because he was Selwyn Duke. (I’ll add that the only conceivable way God might aid such a victory would be if it advanced His will in some fashion. God does work in mysterious ways, as they say.) Now, mind you, it’s not as if I hadn’t understood this intellectually beforehand, but there’s quite a difference between a cold, cerebral understanding and feeling something on an emotional level. This was the latter, was spontaneous, and brought great peace; there was no nervousness, no fear of losing. It was liberating, and I did thank God for it.
As it turned out, I did lose – a close one. But the attitude I was blessed with never wavered, and I ended up having a long, stimulating conversation with my opponent and his brother – about spiritual matters. And if that doesn’t sound like a storybook ending, it’s only because the worldly write most of the stories.
As to this, the worldly story about Zach Johnson concerns a Cinderella man who won a major sporting event, struck it rich, and was enough of a rube to effuse Christian utterances. The more important story is of a fellow who was humble enough to refuse to take credit for his crowning achievement. It’s about a player who rose to the occasion when many in his shoes would have folded and the true grace which yielded that grace under pressure. Would we think more highly of him if he had exalted himself? Do we no longer perk our ears when the righteous triumph and reveal their recipe for success simply because we prefer decadently to divinely delicious? If faith and humility are now thought vices, then no further commentary about Western civilization is necessary.
As for those who discard healthful recipes, I’ve heard them say religion doesn’t belong in sports. So, I have a question for the secularists: Where does religion belong? You say it has no place in the public sphere even though it has always been there, citing a separation of church and state that has no place in the Constitution because it has never been there; you say it shouldn’t be in politics; you say it doesn’t belong in workplaces; and now you say it shouldn’t be uttered by citizens within the context of sports. So, are you saying that Christianity is now tantamount to what prostitution was years ago, where it will be tolerated, if only barely, as long as it’s hidden away behind closed doors? Is it the only thing that should be in the closet, with churchmen being the new madams and parishioners the new Johns?
Secularists really need to examine their own consciences and biases and ask themselves why someone’s expression of faith offends them so. If they do, I suspect they’ll find a certain kind of bigotry in their hearts, one telling them that a certain segment of the population should be seen but not heard, all because of their own fears. After all, if Tiger Woods had prevailed and spoke of how Buddhist beliefs brought him peace down the stretch, would they react the same way? What about if an athlete spoke of the thoughts of his favorite philosopher? And what about Muhammad Ali, who always praised Allah after bouts and professes his faith unabashedly to this day?
Of course, there’s something else secularists can’t understand. Since they don’t consider the possibility that a faith can be an expression of Truth, they tend to view it as akin to a dirty habit, something that should be practiced discreetly, much like going to a certain kind of bathhouse. But if I didn’t view my faith as true, why would I sacrifice for it? And if it is true, why would I not want to proclaim it in all contexts? As I said about the notion that “faith is a private matter” in Faith in the Closet (Christian Music Perspective, Feb. 2007),
“Such an assertion implies that a faith that’s worth embracing, worth depriving oneself for and governing one’s life with, is not worth proclaiming.”
To believe this would be stupid . . . almost as stupid as the assumption that one who thanks Jesus after a victory is thanking Him only for the victory.
As for people of faith, we can learn something here as well. I once wrote a piece titled What Christians Can Do wherein I offered practical advice on combating the forces of secularism. I pointed out that we complain when elements of faith are stricken from our schools, courthouses, city seals, and other public institutions and symbols, but we need to look in the mirror. It should surprise us not a whit if we are willing to strike faith from our lips.
Not guilty of this are the Zach Johnsons of the world, who set the right example with their faithful proclamations. And we should be mindful of what the word “proclaim” implies, for if it isn’t stated publicly, it’s not a proclamation. It is then little better than a whisper, something only suited to the relation of secrets.
God doesn’t want faith to be kept secret. I’ll let you guess who does.