Athletes do it all the time. Before a competition, whether gathered with teammates on the sidelines or in the quietness of their own heart, a simple prayer is offered to God. The words may differ but the ask is the same: “God, help me to win today.”
What does God think of a prayer like that? Let’s use the act of praying itself as a starting point.
Prayer brings glory to God. It exalts him as worthy by showing our dependence on him. Theologian John Piper explains that the process of prayer “displays his glory by helping rather than demanding help. The principle is this: We get the help; He gets the glory.”
When we thank God for the opportunity to play or for some success we’ve enjoyed, we are saying, “What I just experienced was a gift, and I want to recognize you as the giver of that gift. We got the help and you get the glory.”
But is there a limit on what we can ask Him for in prayer?
What does God want us to ask of Him?
I once asked a large group of Division I athletes if it was okay for athletes to pray that God would help them win or succeed. Every athlete predictably shook their head “No.” Regardless of whether or not they had done it, there seemed to be this inherent knowledge that it was wrong to do so. Here’s the truth: Every athlete wants permission to pray for a win or for a personal best performance, but often feels guilty doing so because they believe it’s beneath God or that they are somehow being improperly selfish.
But I’m ready to give you that permission. Yes, go ahead and pray for the win. Pray for success.
Is it ok for an electrician to pray that they do their job correctly and up to code? Is it ok for an accountant to pray that numbers accurately reflect their client’s business? Is it ok for any professional to pray for success in what they do? Hopefully, you would answer “Yes!”
We may be hesitant to put sports in the same category as a 9 to 5 job and see them more as “play” than work. But the purpose of the “play” for any competitive athlete is to win—and oftentimes there are benefits that come with the win.
Are there better things to pray for besides winning and success? Sure. Is the prayer for success fairly petty in the grand scheme of life? Maybe. Nevertheless, when we ask God in prayer to help us win or play well, it gives him glory—especially when our heart posture aligns with the following categories.
Awareness of His Presence
When we ask God to help us win or succeed in sports, if nothing else, we are acknowledging His presence in and over our situation—which is the first step toward being able to worship. The Apostle Paul encourages his listeners in 1 Corinthians 10:31 that “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
God wants to be at the forefront of our minds in whatever activity, job, or task is in front of us—even something as simple as eating and drinking—even something as simple as sport. One of the tragic mistakes we can make as athletes is to assume God does not care about our sport. If He cares about how we eat and drink, He very much cares about our experience as athletes.
Even if our motives are poor in wanting that glory for ourselves (which I will address later), the simple act of acknowledging God and inviting Him into our experience of sport is a good head start. But there needs to be more than a mere acknowledgment of His presence. If our heart posture does not progress towards deeper realities then we are simply using God as a lucky rabbit’s foot or like a genie who we hope will grant us wishes based on our obedience.
Awareness of Your Dependance
We also need an awareness of our need for Him—not just for success—but for everything. Think about it. When you pray, you are acknowledging that you can’t do it on your own. You are admitting that you need God’s help. When we pray to God for anything or about anything, we are showing our dependence on him and bringing him glory in the process. We show that we are sheep who lack the ability to get what we want and need without someone to help.
Jesus says in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
Apart from me, you can do nothing.
My two-year-old can’t put his shoes on. I get no “glory” when he sits in the corner and tries to do it on his own, but when he realizes he can’t do it himself, he carries them over to me, asks for help, and then patiently sits while I put them on for him. I get the glory when he looks up afterward and says, “Thank you!”
Similarly, we glorify God when the prayers we offer up about our sport include thankfulness, praise, and asking.
In a culture that looks up to athletes as gods, prayer becomes a simple way for us to confess this: “You are God, I am not, and I need your help. I need help not just to win, but period. Thank you for a mind and body that function well enough to compete in this moment, and thank you for giving me life.”
If you want to pray for athletic success, go for it. Seriously.
Telling the Truth of Where You Are
One of the amazing things about God is that He knows what is going on in our hearts, so we might as well be honest with Him about it. God wants you to come to him as you are, not how you think you should be. In other words, he wants honest prayers. At the same time, in coming as you are, you may discover that he changes your desires over time.
Priest and theologian Herbert McCabe once explained how this works in the book God, Christ and Us:
“When you pray, consider what you want and need and never mind how vulgar or childish it might appear. If you want very much to pass that exam or get to know that girl or boy better, that is what you should pray for. You could let world peace rest for a while. You may not be ready yet to want that passionately. When you pray you must come before God as honestly as you can. There is no point in pretending to him. One of the great human values of prayer is that you face the facts about yourself and admit to what you want; and you know you can talk about this to God because he is totally loving and accepting. In true prayer you must meet God and meet yourself where you really are, for it is just by this that God will move you on from where you really are. For prayer is a bit of a risk. If you pray and acknowledge your most infantile desires, there is every danger that you may grow up a bit, that God will grow you up. When (as honestly as you can) you speak to God of your desires, very gently and tactfully he will often reveal to you that in fact you have deeper and more mature desires. But there is only one way to find this out: to start from where you are.”
Did you catch what McCabe is trying to communicate? Yes, come to God as you are. If all you care about is winning, that’s fine. Pray for it. Keep praying for it as an extension of your conscience dependence on God. In the process, God will probably reveal to you that there is something even beyond winning that your heart desires even more.
But you will never know unless you start with where you are at this very moment.
Athlete, go ahead and pray for the win. Ask for success. But be prepared for God to give you something even greater—and watch Him give Himself glory through the whole process.
*This article has been adapted from chapter 5 of The Assist: A Gospel-Centered Guide to Glorifying God Through Sports.