God told Tim Tebow to tell me to write this.
In a recent talk with a friend, the subject of the great Tim Tebow came up. No, no, not his amazing football season this year. I don’t pay attention to football, so trying to talk about the mechanics of the game with me would be a fruitless endeavor.
Instead, the conversation was about religion in sports, and the amazing amount of attention Tim Tebow has been able to bring to his chosen faith, Christianity, by being a sports superstar.
It’s not a problem to me that Tim Tebow uses near-cultish amounts of Christian rhetoric when he communicates with his teammates or the media. In fact, I think it’s kind of gutsy, and I can appreciate his zeal. It’s not a problem for me that he likes to sing praise songs during the game or remain in constant communication with his divine coach.
It’s kind of a problem that he tells people God is going to make certain plays happen, but I can get over that, because, well, it’s not like he’s saying the end of the world is nigh, or drink this punch with me or anything.
Tim is obviously enjoying his right to religious freedom to the fullest extent and I don’t, personal evangelical choices aside, begrudge him one bit. The ubiquitous presence of the camera has a way of blowing out of proportion any personal quirks, religious or otherwise.
What I do have a problem with is the continuation of the celebrity importance cycle our culture is so well known for. This idea that because something is associated with a very successful person, then it must somehow be superior. I know this happens with brand names and workout routines, but I hate it when it happens to religious choices.
If you’re a Christian, you might look upon what Tim Tebow is up to and praise God for it. And go ahead if you want to—a fellow believer is out there in the public eye telling the world that God is responsible for all of his success. How on Earth, you ask, is this a bad thing?
But that’s just it. Tim’s message is so inherently linked to celebrity success and the platform that it brings that people are not hearing an objective message about faith. They are hearing that God is the way to get to the same celebrity threshold if they make similar religious choices.
It’s really no different than a faith and prosperity preacher saying that the path to riches is through his or her teachings, except that a religious preacher’s message made him popular. A sports star’s message is almost always related to his on-field production.
Sadly, these facts are not what most evangelicals hear. In fact, I’m willing to bet that right now, as they are reading this, there are people already thinking of scriptures to rebuke me with. I concede that Tim using his platform to spread the word of God is good, but for far too many, that word is only relevant because Tim is an icon.
Think about it. Think about walking down the street of your local town, and there on a street corner is a guy telling you things like, “God told me ______.” You’d think he was nuts. You’d tell him to get help. You’d say to your buddy at church on Sunday, “Why do people think that ambushing folks with the word of God is the way to evangelize, don’t they realize that stuff just makes people think we’re all crazy?”
Oh, but you protest and say, “The wisdom of God seems foolish to those who do not know Him.” No, what is foolish is, if you put that same street corner wacko in a sports uniform, under bright lights, with muscles and career-high stats—tada—he’s a prophet. He’s an icon, a regular religious superhero.
What changed? Was it the heart of the person, the zealous desire to serve God? Or was it the situation and our willingness to listen?
I’ve played with lots of Tim Tebow types in my day. I’ve even been a Tim Tebow type myself, shoehorning Jesus into postgame interviews, telling teammates I’d never throw high and tight because that’s not how Jesus would pitch.
I proof-texted, Bible-bashed and fire-and-brimstoned until everyone on the team simply hated me and my religious agenda. I didn’t have a platform on which to reach the masses with my sermons, so I had to keep them to myself and learn how to be a quiet, caring and patient friend.
Other super Christian players, however, didn’t stall out in the minors like I did. They rose to the top, and once there, the resistance to their message was gone. They were, after all, on top. Who would dare tell them the way they got there, be it God or growth hormone, was wrong?
It’s like in the movie "Bull Durham," when Crash Davis busted Nuke Laloosh for having fungus on his shower shoes, “If you win 20 in the Show,” said Crash, “you can let the fungus grow back and the press will think you’re colorful. Until you win 20, however, it means you’re a slob.”
I don’t want this to be a true statement for Christians because it means a lot more negative things than positive. For starters, it means that those Christians who are not superstars are somehow less impactful for the kingdom of God. It means that though we say we are not of this world, we obviously care about the same things the world does enough to dictate our faith-based values.
Then, there is the fickleness of fame and fans. Tim is winning now. What happens when he does not? Did God leave him? Is God fickle? Is he only as relevant as a sports hero’s production? Lord, I hope not. I haven’t done much in my career in the last couple of years and I’d certainly like to think that Jesus still loves me just as much as he ever did. Is Tim one arm injury from evangelical impotence?
Some might say that God is using Tim. I would say absolutely, but not more so than He uses any of us. Tim simply has a large platform to work on. A ridiculously over-hyped, overvalued, over-relevant platform that at any time could pop like the 2008 housing bubble and leave people so disenchanted with the faith they’ll rue the day Tebow ever claimed Jesus as his own.
Finally, ask yourself: what if Tim was Muslim? Then what kind of reaction would you have to all of this, my dear evangelical friend? Would he suddenly be a vessel of the devil? Would this terrify the country? Would his success give credence to the radical agenda? Would Focus on the Family start, out of love of course, a slandering ad campaign?
God does not favor the popular. He does not give preferential treatment to the celebrity. If he did, he would not be the God He is today. He humbles the proud, he lifts up the meek and he loves us all, sinner, saint, and sports hero the same—yesterday, today and forever. That is why he is an awesome God, not because Tim Tebow throws touchdowns for Him.
There are people with a heart for the Lord, just like Tim’s, around us every day. And there are people who are quiet and meek and content with thankless service as well.
As fellow believers, let us not continue some temporal media spectacle focused on production and sports celebrity. These things can evaporate like dew on morning grass.
Instead, let's focus on the same boring, consistent, and yet oh-so-exciting promises that have always been in front of us—that God sent his only Son into this world to die for our sins so that through his death we might have peace with God and new life. If that doesn’t get you pumped up, nothing any sports star can do will.
Dirk Hayhurst is a pitcher most recently in the Tampa Bay Rays organization, and the author of the New York Times bestseller The Bullpen Gospels. His new book, Out of My League, is available for pre-order now. Visit his website at DirkHayhurst.com.