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Why Tim Tebow makes me uncomfortable

January 11, 2012

I didn’t plan for my first blog post to be the 1 millionth article written about Tim Tebow.

In fact, I am growing weary of hearing about the Denver Broncos quarterback being held up as an icon for religious faith. But, like everyone else who was riveted by his performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers last week in the wildcard round of the AFC playoffs, I was drawn back in. Again. As I said on my Facebook page at the time, whether he is gloriously victorious or crashing in flames, I simply cannot turn away!

Unless you reside in a cave or simply have no interest in sports, you probably already know about the former Florida Gators star who is as aggressive with his faith as he is carrying a football. (And it turns out, despite reports to the contrary, he can throw the ball as well. Ask the Steelers.) I suspect that I have been tuned in because Tebow exemplifies two of my three great interests in life – religion and football. (The third is history).

Plenty of other athletes besides Tim Tebow openly share their religious faith in different ways, both on and off the field. And it has become somewhat of an eye-roller for sports fans and theologians alike who hear star players take the microphone after games and explain how Jesus helped them win (as if the Savior was working against the other team.)

But Tebow gets the credit — or blame — for taking this whole scene to a new level, suddenly dropping to a knee in his much-imitated prayer posture after scoring a touchdown, apparently oblivious to everything happening around him. His behavior has even sparked a cultural phenomenon.

I think he has to be given credit for adding to the conversation about faith in daily life. Too many of us who call ourselves Christians fail to embrace the fullness of the incarnation, choosing to put God in a “Sunday category” and trying to live apart from God and only to ourselves the rest of the week.

Tebow proclaims loudly and proudly by his actions that the God we serve in Christ is not confined only to the church sanctuary on Sunday mornings. Life is not about having a religious “side,” but rather that all sides of life make contact with the divine. I find that to be a biblical understanding of discipleship. Sometimes, it is overdone, as was hilariously captured in the “Saturday Night Live” sketch where Jesus shows up in the Denver locker room and advises his young follower to “take it down a notch.”

Some of Tebow’s fans may need to “take it down a notch” as well. There is a certain mindset among some evangelicals that cannot tolerate one of their key figures receiving criticism – especially the biblically based criticism that cites Matthew 6:5, in which Jesus warns against praying publicly to be seen by others. Like those who fear that if the Bible is questioned, their faith will collapse in ruin, some worry that a chink in Tebow’s armor will decimate the cause of Christ. I have read arguments this week that go to Olympic lengths to maintain that Tebow is really praying privately when he takes a knee on the football field. (Never mind the thousands of people in the stands and the millions of television viewers at home.)

This goes to main reason that Tebow makes me a little bit uncomfortable — Matthew 6:5 cannot easily be disregarded. Tebow has made his private prayertime a public spectacle. This is, of course, his right, but the fact that he does it is undeniable. Like others, he is free to pray at anytime to himself, but, for whatever reason, he has taken his prayers to the spotlight. We Presbyterians find this particularly troublesome since shunning of ostentation and the recognition of the human tendency to idolatry are imbedded in our Reformed tradition and our church constitution.

Of course, Tebow is not the first athlete to burst out of the prayer closet, but he has certainly done it with more style and flair than anyone else. And his penchant for bringing his team back from the jaws of defeat, as well as his now gaining the upper hand over critics who said he would never make it in the NFL (um, I was one of those) all contribute to the Tebow limelight.

I am still processing mixed feelings about Tim Tebow – some admiration mixed with my admitted discomfort. I guess, primarily, I worry about the seeds being sewn here in a culture that often confuses the Gospel with wealth and success. If the message that is being shared by Tebow’s evangelistic end zone prayer sessions is that God rewards the faithful with earthly victories, I don’t believe I can get on board. Faith in God is not a get-rich-quick scheme, or a means to achieving personal greatness in a cultural sense. In fact, the Gospel would seem to suggest that the Kingdom of God turns the world’s idea of success upside down. We live in a place and time that idolizes celebrities, fame, million-dollar contracts, good looks, the right kind of clothes and touchdowns. Yet Jesus said that it is the poor, hungry and the weeping who are blessed (Luke 6: 20-21).

I don’t know Tim Tebow’s motives, but I think it is probably a good thing that he has caused more people to enter the conversation about Jesus. In fact, the Apostle Paul said he could rejoice that Christ was proclaimed whether the motives are good or bad (Philippians 1:15). So maybe his motives don’t matter. Only God knows Tim Tebow’s heart.

Of course, Tebow, like anyone else, won’t be on top forever. He will lose again, sometime, and ultimately his football career will end, too. Many people feel that God is closest to them when they fail, not when everything is going right. Earlier this year, when Tebow’s string of wins was interrupted by a few setbacks and his fortunes went temporarily in decline, comedians quickly jumped on it, asking how God could have ended up as such a loser.

At first, I was annoyed by the shallowness of those comments — as if God rises or falls on the fortunes of a professional football player. And then I realized that maybe the critics had gotten it right. After all, God is all about the losers.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve Keck permalink
    January 19, 2012 5:36 pm

    Well said. Uncomfortable is an excellent choice of words. My thoughts on this issue are the same as yours. Clearly, Jesus Christ gave His followers our marching orders in the Great Commission. My belief is Jesus gave us ways to express our faith during the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings.

    I’m much more uncomfortable with issues like Public School Prayer. Following the instructions of Jesus as you quoted, He told us how to pray and how not to pray. I’ve declined to sign numerous petitions to allow Public School Prayer. As you said, nobody can stop us from praying anytime and anywhere we want. In my opinion, the School Prayer issue a much more egregious form of proselytism than what Tebow is doing. In the end, I’m glad Tim Tebow is on our side.

  2. Huntley Paton permalink
    February 8, 2012 5:02 am

    Matt, thanks for the post. To my reading, Matthew 6:5 warns against phoniness — against people who pray for the purpose of impressing people, who don’t know God. If you suspect Tebow is a phony and that he does not pray in his closet also, then you are right to be concerned. If on the other hand you feel he is sincerely a worshiper of The Lord Jesus Christ, then you can presume that his public bowing and praying is not even 1% of his sincere adoration and prayers to Christ. King David danced in public in joy to the Lord, happy to make himself a fool in his love for the Almighty. Jesus accepted worship publicly (Palm Sunday, anyone?) We all pray publicly in church. Jesus is not warning against people who love him and and pray to him in all circumstances. He’s warning fakers that they may fool people, but don’t fool God. To be “uncomfortable” with Tebow is to to fear him a faker. Personally, I don’t think he’s a faker, but I think that is the only question here, not whether it is “appropriate” to pray publicly. So far, I would have to say Tebow’s walk and public testimony are both glorifying to the Lord. I’m proud to call him a brother in Christ. Maybe the fact that I’m a Broncos fan doesn’t hurt either. (Full disclosure)

  3. February 8, 2012 5:23 pm

    Thanks, Huntley for reading this post and contributing your thoughtful comments. This is deeply appreciated. I don’t think Tim Tebow is a phony. However, I think the scripture cited is aimed at ANYONE who prays. The biblical writers repeatedly name idolatry as a chief concern. Human beings drift into idolatry. (This is a strain of thought that runs throughout the OT.) This is a particular concern in our culture, where our idols are money, fame, famous people, etc. So, I believe hypocrisy is only one of the reasons we are being warned about this (and hypocrisy is certainly concern for all, particularly committed, sincere Christians.) Idolatry is another reason. While I do affirm that we should be thankful in all things, again, we are warned against making a public spectacle of ourselves. Tim Tebow’s public prayer/worship is not really comparable to public prayer in church, which includes everyone and is for the benefit of all assembled. Tebow, on the other hand, is oblivious to what anyone else around him is doing, and the millions watching are neither included, nor do they even know what he is praying. I think Tebow is a committed Christian, and I would bet he prays regularly in his “prayer closet,” as you suggest. I could be wrong, but I doubt that he suddenly drops to a knee and “Tebows” while in a checkout line at the store or while watching a movie in a crowded theater or having a conversation with friends. If he does, that would suggest to me that he is not conducting a public performance with his end zone prayers. Of course, that would be a bit over the top and make me uncomfortable, too!  As I said in the post, I do admire him, but I have concerns whenever we hold up anyone as some kind of Super Christian. I certainly could have written something about the many good things he has done, and the many things about him that do NOT make me uncomfortable.

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