Steve Johnson catches passes for the Buffalo Bills. That’s his job. A few weeks back, he missed one in the end zone and discovered his inner Job.
The failure to connect cost the Bills the game and put Johnson, a star wide receiver, in a foul mood. Mostly he was mad at God.
“I praise you 24/7 – and this is how you do me?” he beefed to the Holy of Holies. “You expect me to learn from this? How? I’ll never forget this. Ever.”
Job, the long suffering gentleman farmer of the Hebrew Bible, knew how it felt to have his faith tested. As the story goes, God inflicts one calamity after another on Job in an effort to win a bet with the devil. The devil’s wager is that Job’s faith will crack as the disasters pile up. But Job remains a true believer and wins the bet.
Steve Johnson was less patient with his God. His words suggest that he believed God deliberately bollixed up the play. But whereas Job gave God the benefit of the doubt, assuming his divinely directed suffering had some hidden purpose,Johnson didn’t see his treatment as character building. He was angry.
Johnson’s outburst was a rare complaint by the many Christians who profess belief in a deity that gets involved in the details of everyday life to the point of micromanaging personal affairs. It is a popular idea based on a certain view of the Bible and as a projection of the way ordinary way people behave toward each other.
Lots of other Christians see things far differently. God, in their thinking, is available as spiritual strength and hope, but doesn’t interfere in job promotions or athletic defeats as object lessons.
The god of the more direct-action camp, however, causes individual twists and turns. Great moments such as being rescued from a raging river, daughter Stephanie’s acceptance by Stanford and Uncle Bert’s recovery from cancer, are celebrated as direct works of the Almighty.
In this way of thinking, though, the adversities become harder to handle. Some believers manage to blame themselves for failing to live up to their end of the sacred bargain. This is where the tough question of “why bad things happen to good people” bursts in. Praying, singing in the choir, anchoring the Bible study class, helping out at the soup kitchen – and, still, the roof falls in. What has the faithful one done to deserve this?
In that Christian world, Johnson’s complaint should perhaps be hailed as a moment of honesty and consistency. His hands might have missed the ball but he put his finger on the problem. If divine direction produces the 40-yard bomb that wins the game, Johnson level-headedly concludes, the same otherworldly director must have made the winning catch slide through and out of the receiver’s fingers.
Athletes are perhaps the most visible of the direct-access-god practitioners. A common sign of it is the gesture pointing of index fingers toward the skies after a home run or a touchdown. It suggests acknowledgement of mission accomplished. Nothing similar happens after a strike out or a fumble.
The luck factor is also grafted into sports. Rubbing rabbit’s feet, wearing the same tee shirt, eating the same breakfast before the game all testify to ancient habits aimed at disposing the fates toward personal success in competition.
The blend of religion and luck weaves in and out of all the rituals that athletes use to prepare them for competition. Millions of other Americans do that in a variety of ways. But in regard to religion alone, when things turn out poorly, not everyone is willing to hold the Creator accountable for the bad stuff. Steve Johnson is the rare one who did so, publicly.
My own experience indicates how blurry the line can be between seeing mysterious forces affecting outcomes and scoffing at such a notion.
For example, I’m happy to invoke the dogma of science and reason to dismiss the notion of divine intervention in life’s game.
But come a big game involving my favorite teams, I might well avoid watching it on television, on the superstitious suspicion that my attention could hurt their chances.
Ken Briggs is an adjunct professor at Lafayette College and former religion writer for the New York Times. He has written several books on topics of religion and church affairs.