Did God help Gabrielle Douglas win? That was the question posed by Salon writer Mary Elizabeth Williams in a recent piece penned for the magazine and forwarded by fellow saint and sinner Irene Lin. It’s an interesting question, one that Williams poses with a bit of heartburn: the “clearly authentic image of a hardworking girl with strong values makes her a natural icon to her fellow Christians,” Williams concludes, “just as it makes the somewhat less faithful [presumably like Williams] uncomfortable.”
And to be sure, the sixteen-year-old U.S. gymnast Douglas, who is the first African American (not to mention American) to win team and all-around gold in the Olympics, is reportedly unbashful about attributing her wins to the God she knows and worships in Jesus. After her win last Thursday, Douglas was quoted as saying, “I give all the glory to God. It’s kind of a win-win situation. The glory goes up to him and the blessings fall down on me.”
There is something deeply moving here. A young, graceful athlete giving her Maker the credit brings to mind associations with another Olympic great. Eric Liddell, whose life inspired the film, “Chariots of Fire,” was one of my heroes. Whenever I heard the soundtrack to the movie, I, as a competitive, all-year-round swimmer growing up in southern California, would be stirred to endure more sore muscles and early morning practices. If God was on Eric’s side, God might also be on mine.
And here is where I think an answer to Williams’ query can only be at best speculative. Did God help Douglas win? Maybe. Quite possibly even. But this would also mean that God let other competitors, some of whom worship the same God in Jesus, lose.
And at first glance this is deeply discomfiting. Scripture only amplifies the discomfort. The God of the Old Testament, the God who the New Testament Jesus represents, is often invoked by God’s chosen people, Israel, in far uglier “competitions,” like near-genocidal battles between warring peoples. The whole “God-helped-me-win” refrain is a pretty common one in Scripture, often invoked by Israel after they have just violently trampled and mercilessly slaughtered their enemies. (Is anyone else getting heartburn here?)
But with the victories, there have also been the defeats. Just this morning, I was reading from Isaiah 39, where the prophet Isaiah warns King Hezekiah that Hezekiah’s descendants will be defeated and taken into captivity by Babylon- and sure enough, this is exactly what happens. Winning is not the only so-called “blessing” God’s people receive. So are captivity, humiliation, pogroms and most horrifically the Shoah, years later.
The thing that intrigues me most after reading Williams’ article is this: Williams admits to discomfort over a divinely orchestrated victory for Douglas, but I can’t help but wonder if Williams is actually more disturbed by something else- namely, that Douglas is “so, so, so into Jesus.”
And if this is the case, Williams is only giving voice to most of us. Most of us, I suspect, are comfortable with a “God of the gaps.” Whenever some national tragedy occurs, like the recent shootings in Aurora and Milwaukee, we are quick to go to our divine “emergency contact” with questions about why such terrible things could happen and with prayers for healing and deliverance. The soul searching and the prayer vigils are a manifestation of this turning to the God of the gaps.
And, this God of the gaps to whom we turn is the politically correct God. Even the most hardened atheists, I suspect, in crises that hit close to home, is programmed to pray these prayers of desperation. But when God, especially a personal God in Jesus, is publicly invoked in other times, not in the crises but rather in the celebrations and in the main of life, we naturally become uncomfortable. If a God like this is Douglas’ helper in the main of life, that means God might also be our helper- and most of us don’t usually want or feel like we need a helper.
There is another issue here that can cause discomfort, one that is difficult to disentangle from the possibility that there is a personal God invested in the main of life, not just the gaps. It has to do with how we talk about Jesus in the public sphere. I, too, become a bit uncomfortable when various athletes and celebrities prattle rather loudly on about their “Lord and Savior Jesus.” It is enough to become a bit nauseating actually. Giving Jesus the credit publicly is one thing; but I’m inclined to think that tooting the Jesus horn every time there is a sound bite opportunity, regardless of one’s authenticity, is not a very effective form of witness in the context in which we live. Building authentic, long-term relationships is better.
Did God help Gabrielle Douglas win? If an answer to this question will inevitably be speculative, what I’m more sure of is that God is on everyone’s side, both the winners’ and the losers’, and that God’s ways and God’s “blessings” are often inscrutable in real time. Often it is only in hindsight, looking back, that we really can see the blessings to be had- even, and sometimes more so, in losing.
I’ll be curious to hear what Douglas says about the God she worships the next time she loses.