"What do you think about athletes thanking God?" A discussion with a friend.

Hey Dr. P!

With the NCAA and NBA playoffs happening and the recent Boston Marathon win by Meb, I've noticed that a ton of athletes mention God in their post-game interviews. While I'm supportive of people trying to give glory to God for accomplishments, I'm uneasy whenever I hear this happen. I've tried to figure out exactly what it is about this that bothers me, and I've had a difficult time pinning down any one thing. 

I suppose the biggest reason I feel uncomfortable is that the statement appears to assume that God directly altered events and caused certain events to happen so that the person or team could achieve whatever it is that they did. (On a side note, this is a very similar uneasiness to people claiming "God has a plan for your life" by which they mean He has a specific chain of events laid out for your life that you have no choice but to live through.) Coming from the free-will camp, I do not believe that God programs us like robots and that the apparent sense of the ability to freely make choices is not some divine trick. 

I guess I have two questions from this: 1) What do you think about athletes thanking God for winning games? 2) What is your understanding of "God's plan" (does God actually have a plan for everyone's life, whether its a specific plan or a general plan, or is that idea a gigantic misinterpretation of Jeremiah)? 

P.S. Whenever I type your name into the search bar to send you a message I always type "dr" and have to remember to search for "Pendergrass". You should consider changing your Facebook name to "Dr. Pendergrass"!

Great questions. I'm typically bothered by that too. A few thoughts:

On the one hand, I'm glad they're at least acknowledging God (rather than Buddha, etc.). On the other hand, I'd rather they NOT do that when they just came from some overtly sinful act (like maybe Katy Perry humping the stage then thanking God for something -- not that she did that, but that kind of thing happens all the time; or with rappers!). At least athletes didn't just hump the stage.

(1) If athletes mean (whether or not they could articulate this belief) that they believe God caused them to win the game, or if people think that's what they meant, then I certainly don't find that compelling. Why? For philosophical reasons and value reasons. The philosophical reasons: For the exact reasons you specified. The value reasons: That's just silly for the Christian understanding of God. The Triune God certainly couldn't care less which entertainment industry (and that's ALL the whole thing is) "wins" or "loses." Perhaps their "god" cares about such a thing; but the biblical God doesn't. 
So, I wish they'd stop saying it or at least, nuance it every time. What nuance? Something like: "I thank God for being the source of my hope and strength in this business. He gives me the phenomenal opportunity to work in an industry that pays for all my bills and allows me to give an enormous amount to charity AND it gives me many chances to share the gospel to my athletes and to my fans." So, if they mean something like that, then they're just saying what any Christian person who has a job could say (with nuances).
(2) Great question. I do think God has a plan for the whole creation, including humans (e.g., Romans 8; 1 Cor 15; Rev 21). He has an ultimate goal or end in mind. I also think that God has a plan in some sense for each person: viz., to act and be just like Jesus.
Does God have plans for us to work at certain places and marry certain people? I call these kinds of things, "God's tasks." Yes, God can give humans specific tasks. This is like God giving particular commandments/inspirations so that He controls the METHOD of how His ENDS will be accomplished. I think He especially gives humans “tasks” when we're Christians and ask for His direction (though, of course God can and does inspire certain non-Christians). 

What kind of tasks? Again, I think of “tasks” like God’s methods of accomplishing His end in mind. I think God can inspire us to do certain things to further His kingdom (e.g., inspire us to work at a certain job so that God's “end” desire of having two co-workers come to Jesus will be accomplished because He knows that you will talk about Him). I don't think God inspires every task we do (which would have to include when we bathe and when we sneeze, etc.). So, God invites free-willed persons to fulfill certain “methods/tasks” which help His guaranteed “end” that He will accomplish.

So, in my reading of the Bible, God most certainly does not make us do something. Instead, God knows each person's character and desires such that He will inspire people (= “fill with His Spirit and influence a person’s desires and decisions”) who submit to Him to further the Kingdom of God. I'm not giving tons of Scripture here to save time. 

It's like being a parent. Imagine that I want their rooms clean by a certain time. So, the “end” is a clean room; the “method” is how they accomplish it. I don't force their method (= tell them what precisely to do; or give them certain tasks to be completed every second of their work). I might inspire their methods; i.e., give tips. I encourage them to keep going. I give consequences and rewards for their completion, etc. I give them access to me when they're scared or want advice.

Did I MAKE them do it? Someone might say "yes" because my end desires were made known and they were held accountable. Was I the "cause" of their actions? Not at all. They had complete freedom to clean the room how they wanted. In fact, they could have rebelled and left the house! I would have either cleaned the room myself or had someone else do it. The point being, NOTHING will prohibit the end result that I want. There would be consequences for the child who chose not to do what I wanted; but what I want WILL be accomplished. Why are there consequences? Because I'm the boss. I'm the King. I have complete moral authority to hold them accountable for being STEWARDS of MY house. And in cleaning their rooms, they are developing character traits that I want them to have. And by coming to me for inspiration and encouragement, they are learning that I am loving and safe. You see the parallels I'm sure. . .

[The verse in Jeremiah is all about one simple thing: Israel in exile returning to Palestine. It has nothing to do whatsoever with any other human in the history of the world. That promise was because Yahweh made a COVENANT with a PARTICULAR people group in a particular time. (The immediate silliness of applying this to all humans is seen in applying it to Hitler or Stalin or any other sinner for that matter!)]
OK. Enough for now. Good questions! Dr. P