Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy has had a difficult year following the suicide of his son on December 22, 2005. He missed only one game as coach, but it certainly affected him and the team for some time after that. In a rambling post-game comment after the Colts lost to the Steelers the next month in the playoffs, Dungy spoke of how proud he was of his team, how God had helped them through this difficulty. In part Dungy said, “I really thought the Lord’s hand was on this team.”
Some used this quote out of context as if Dungy had said he thought God would give them victory, but didn’t. In context that’s clearly not what Dungy thought. Dungy thought God’s hand was on his team for emotional support, to get through trials. Scoring points was up to the players. UCC minister Dwight Hein added a complete fantasy to the above quote, saying that Dungy was, “in total disbelief that they lost”. No, that’s not true. I watched the comment at the time on TV. It’s also clearly not the case from the longer quote. People are so primed to believe their prejudice over reality.
I can try to understand why people are so primed to believe that someone is claiming God controls victory or defeat in sports. Receivers thank God for touchdowns. Baseball players point to the sky on crossing the plate with a home run. What does it mean to thank God when I’m happy about something that’s happened?
Sometimes God tells me that I’m thanking Him for something He didn’t do. He’s always right. I do often thank God where I know it’s doubtful that He did anything. A light stays green. Something I need is on sale. I quickly find which of 917 hiding places I used the night before for my glasses when I don’t have time to search many of them. God tells me He’s not responsible if I just get lucky.
He doesn’t say that when I’m sure it was God, when I ask for His direction, strength or comfort and get exactly that. I do feel some guilt that while I’m grateful for God’s help in these ways, and I’m sure there’s no way I could create these mental miracles without God, I wish there were more. I also wish reality were sufficient. Yet I understand the peaceful fatalism that comes from believing God controls everything. So even if a family member dies, some will say God must know what He is doing. Tony Dungy was speaking like that this past summer about his son James’ death.
Only there’s no way God even allowed James to commit suicide, much less controlled it. I asked God again about that. He says there is rarely anything but tragedy in suicide. He would stop almost all of them if He could.
There is a choice to be made in theology. Did God make us free? Did nature make us free? Could the latter be true even to a degree that it frustrates God?
It depends how one defines God. If one defines God as being in control of everything or at least responsible in the sense of having created everything, then of course God made us free, directly or indirectly. It makes sense to direct every “thank you” about that freedom to Him. But what if God is something else? I know God best as the one who answers if I pray, “God help me!” It may be very complicated who and what God is, even as simple as theologians and philosophers pretend they know God to be.
I am satisfied that I cannot penetrate the depths of who and what God is, nor can any other human being. I can know what comes to me, including that I want to thank God, even to excess sometimes. I know what God tells me about His desires. He freed me from some of the tyranny of our culture, where almost all rhetoric is false, be it politics, religion, or even sports. I didn’t need Him for freedom that comes naturally to most of us, to walk, to talk, even if I have thanked Him for both of those more than once.
God would reign in much of the freedom we have to hurt each other. He would do it today, with an armada of His spaceships, if He had any. Only He doesn’t. So our cultural evolution and spiritual evolution proceed quite slowly. People say many foolish things. Some are because they don’t care about the context of a quote. They just want to use the quote to push a pre-existing agenda. They have the freedom to do so, not from God, but from nature. Both liberals and conservatives can thank nature and a liberal democracy for being able to say whatever they damn well please. God would use lightning bolts to criticize such speech if He could. He can’t.
He says there’s no need to thank Him for things He can’t do, like hit a home run. If people want to, He doesn’t mind. It puts them in a better frame of mind to reach for things He can do that people generally don’t let Him do, to guide them, to strengthen them, to comfort them. James Dungy couldn’t figure out how to get enough of these from God for his life to look better than suicide. God tells me He doesn’t know why. God wonders if it was His fault, if He should have tried something else on James, but at the same time God knows the suicide wasn’t His choice. He can accept Tony Dungy finding comfort in believing the opposite, but some of us need to know the truth, for God’s sake.
God could do much more for us than He does, but it is a cooperative effort. People didn’t find their ultimate way to God thousands of years ago. They don’t know what they’re doing today. It’s not that God will be different in 500 years. It’s that people will discover how hollow old ways are. That drives many people into new fantasies, but among all this that is false, there is a real God, a God who can be approached from any direction. It takes patience, honesty, open-mindedness and willingness to hear Him, but He is there and can give us things for which He earns our gratitude. He is there whether anyone believes my words about Him or not.