Last week I watched more sports on TV than I usually do. It seems that the rich harvest of medals by the Dutch participants during the Winter Olympics in Sochi aroused my latent nationalistic pride. The enthusiasm of the Dutch men and women on the Olympic podium made me temporarily forget the outrageous amounts that were spent to organize these games (some 40-50 billion euros) in a country where millions still live in abject poverty.
Amidst all the attention for the games in the media I was, in particular, interested in an interview in the Volkskrant with the pastor of the church congregation where Michel and Ronald Mulder, the Dutch skating champions, are usually to be found on Sunday. The pastor spoke about the important role of faith in the daily lives of the twin brothers. For some other media (as e.g. the evangelical television channel) this element also was an important item. When reading and watching such things one cannot help wondering whether Michel and Ronald owed their victory at least in part to the prayers they undoubtedly sent to their Lord during these eventful days in Sotsji.
Does faith impact on one’s results in top sports? The 29-year old Priscah Jeptoo has no doubt that it does. She is an active Seventh-day Adventist church member who won the New York marathon last November. After a little more than 2 hours and 25 seconds she passed the finish line, 49 seconds ahead of the competition. The pastor of the church that she attends told the press that all church members had prayed for her. Did this play an important role in her success in receiving the half million dollar in prize money?
And how does this differ from what I remember about the time—in the mid nineteen eighties—when we lived in the West-African nation Cameroon. After an important match of the ‘indomitable lions’ (as the national soccer team was called), we could here and there on the streets see the remnants of the chicken that had been sacrificed to ensure the triumphs of the ‘indomitable lions.’ The people are convinced that religion was a major factor for success.
However, let’s stay in the Christian arena. What can we expect from God? How does he deal with the millions of prayers that, audibly or inaudibly, are sent ‘up’ to him each day? (Let us forget, for this moment, the issue as to where God exactly ‘lives’). God receives many contradictory requests. Some want rain. Other are eagerly looking for sunshine. So, what prayer will God answer? Suppose that Priscah Jeptoo was not the only person for whom many people had prayed, but that others groups had just as intensely prayed for someone else in this New York race? How would God have dealt with that? And some of the competitors of the Mulder brothers may well have been just as religious, but they did not see their efforts rewarded with gold, silver or bronze. How do we explain this?
I cannot solve this problem. I remain convinced that prayer has great value. But how prayer ‘works’ remains a divine secret. How faith—or the absence of faith—influences results in top sport, I have no idea, except that it makes sense to assume that faith has a positive effect on motivation and inner balance.
Many questions remain. About one thing, however, I have no doubt. If faith cannot somehow be integrated in our daily activities, it cannot mean very much. Whether you run the marathon in New York or race around on your skates in a stadium in Sotsji—or fill your days as a retired church employee in Zeewolde—your faith must touch whatever you do.