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the ache of defeat

When Sport And religion Don't Mix
Being a sports fan probably doesn't help you in your faith in God. Here's why…

May is the month of tension, where sports fans obsess over the winter season’s end. There are big finals and play-offs, bringing to a dramatic conclusion what began the previous summer. For those still challenging for trophies, the outcome is binary: you win or you lose, there is no in-between.

Given that only one team lifts a cup, it is surprising there are so many loyal fans of the clubs which never win silverware. Logically, there is little point in supporting most teams because they always disappoint in the end. But sport is not a rational pursuit. In the experience of a lonely, fragmented and seemingly purposeless world, supporting a sports team offers a sense of belonging, identity and meaning. The journey from the start of the season to its end is sufficient, bringing a modicum of success along the way – wins as well as losses.

Neuroscience has shown that the happiest fans are those with the lowest expectations, as the amount of dopamine we release is directly related to how much we expect an event to occur. As Eric Simons, author of The Secret Life of the Sports Fan has put it: ‘the best way to be as a fan is to have the maximum emotional investment in a team but the least expectation of success’. This probably explains why I feel contentment as a fan of Blackpool FC, provided you don’t remind me about its ownership.

Most sports fans would identify with this. They prefer to imagine losing a game so they might be pleasantly surprised when they win. This option is not open when your team contests a cup final, however, where the stakes are so high that you cannot contemplate losing, highlighting the unique stresses of May for some. It also demonstrates the risks of perpetual success because the fans of some clubs expect to win and become unhappy quicker when their team loses. This explains why boos can sometimes be heard ringing round some big grounds like Stamford Bridge after losses which other fans would take in their stride. No wonder fans of big teams fear the moment of decline and obsess over the evidence; it is painful to adjust your expectations.

So it seems to be best not to expect things in life. Except the Christian faith suggest otherwise. In Hebrews 11:1 it says that ‘faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’. We are called to visualise and expect God to be at work powerfully in our lives. Having low expectations of what God might do is in many ways self-fulfilling, as we limit him like the people who grew up around Jesus, about whom Matthew said: ‘And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief’ (13:58).

High expectations of God moving in power are called for but are sometimes surprisingly lacking among the faithful. Perhaps it is the British trait of being downbeat, of expecting second best. Our cultural expectations are increasingly being formed by sport and some fans may have learned bad habits from the love of their club.

Those with high expectations of what God will do are likelier to see his power at work, but they should always strive to develop a theology of ‘failure’ – those times when it feels like God is absent or when he has obviously chosen not to answer our prayers as we hoped for. Those who fail to develop this line of thinking may otherwise become like the fans that are quick to boo when their team loses or, almost as bad, like those who find trite reasons for losing, like a missed off-side or a dodgy penalty, but who convince few in their pleas. When people suffer and evil prevails, we should avoid shallow explanations in an attempt to justify God. There are things we can say, but there are also silences we should keep. Faith is dignified when we understand the relationship between the two.

So the moral would seem to be: keep expectations of God high and expectations of club low. But best not to pray for success when the final goes to penalties. Sometimes sport and religion don’t mix.



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