January 11th, 2015 and January 15th, 2017.
Those are two days that embody two examples of what I wanted to chat a bit about today. They are days that will live in infamy for other reasons I’m sure, but the reason they will be remembered by me (in both cases) are for the American football games that were played on both days.
January 11th, 2015, was the first post-season (Playoffs) match-up between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys since 1967.
It was a massive deal, being the first time the Cowboys had won a playoff game in a five years, against the Detroit Lions the prior week (their previous playoff win was in 2009, and prior to that it had been over a decade). And that was after a steamroll season record of 12-4. It was a terrifically entertaining season and really made fans (read: me) hope that this was the turning of the ship towards the greatness of the mid 90’s again. Everything that happened that year (relying on Tony Romo being his elusive ridiculous self and relying on DeMarco Murray being his consistent self, as well as the other host of characters like Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, etc) could definitely be repeated, so good things were on the way.
But this was the time for the ‘Boys to make their trip to the Super Bowl. No one in their path was terribly fearsome, everyone was beatable by the Cowboys formula to winning 12 games. And against the Green Bay Packers on January 11th, 2015, I watched them lose. And it was heartbreaking in that way that only sports fans can really understand. Heartbreaking not because it really matters (It’s a sport and doesn’t directly impact me in any actual way) but because it was hard watching the team I rooted for fall to another team. And no, I’m not going to talk about whether Dez caught it. (He totally did.)
Then the following year, the ‘Boys were dealt blow after blow to their team, with tons of big name big importance injuries. The following were premier starters that were injured and missed at least two games: Tony Romo (QB, 12 games), Dez Bryant (WR, 8 games), Lance Dunbar (RB, 12 games), Orlando Scandrick (CB, 16 games). This team was incredibly injured and basically non-functional for the whole year. I won’t regale you with how crazy it was that by Thanksgiving, when Romo was able to return, they were still not entirely out of the Playoffs yet, but he was injured again and it was done. Crushing year, 4-12 record (mirror of the prior year). The only benefit: a terrific draft pick for a team that just had awful injury luck.
But, 2016 was looking up. The Cowboys went for it and drafted a terrifically promising young Running Back (Ezekiel ‘Zeke’ Elliott) and a few other interesting players (a potentially amazing defensive player who would be out for a year with a known injury, a terrific young cornerback, and a potential prospect quarterback that a lot of teams had passed on).
Zeke was just as amazing in game as he was on paper. That young cornerback was terrific. That defensive player might come back in 2017 and be just as amazing as expected, and you probably have heard of Dak Prescott, that quarterback that blew everyone away.
But the only reason Dak had a chance was because Tony Romo, the oft injured QB who I loved to root for, got hit wrong in a Preseason game (these games don’t matter at all and are used only to get the starting lineup solidified and given a bit of experience, while helping to weed out the potential prospects and those who just won’t make the team). And Romo ended up being out for a long time. He didn’t come back and make a pass until literally the last game of the season. He could have played earlier (not much earlier) but Dak was honestly historically good.
Cowboys fans were split on whether to be overjoyed that Dak was playing so amazingly well for a ‘cheap’ rookie QB (usually the best quarterbacks are taken in the 1st round of the draft, and this one was a 4th round pick), but also saddened that it was likely that the Tony Romo era was over. (Spoiler: it is over and Romo is now a CBS sportscaster).
Dak and Zeke led the Cowboys to an improbable 13-3 record, and roared into the playoffs ready to light the NFL on fire. There was all the makings of a Cinderella story in this team: Rookie QB leading younger team with amazing Offense and surprisingly good Defense against the stalwarts (Green Bay in front, a lot of others behind). It really was almost too good to be true.
But in comes January 15th, 2017. The first playoff game for the Cowboys (they had a first round playoff ‘bye’ because they had the best record in the NFC, one of the two conferences of 16 teams in the NFL), and in the second round of the playoffs, they would start their post-season journey in a rematch against the Green Bay Packers. It was time for payback. Time for retribution. Time for the wrongs of January 11th, 2015, to be righted. Time for that win.
And in a terrific game, from start to finish, with no ‘did he catch it?’ shenanigans, the Packers won. There were a few referee calls that were questionable, but it was on both sides, so it’s sort of a wash. And the final drive for the Packers that ultimately ended the game, included one of those ‘NFL Highlight Films’ moments where Aaron Rodgers threw an absolutely amazing pass to Jared Cook, making an amazing catch. It was a heart-stopping moment for Cowboys fans. They just knew it was over. And it was, again. Just like that.
So where am I getting at with this history lesson on two very frustrating days for Dallas Cowboys fans?
Why did I talk for 1,000 words about American Football games before getting to the point of this post? Because on those two days, and many days prior, I said some prayers. I said prayers that the Cowboys would get a 1st down (and retain the ball as they worked toward more points). I said prayers that they would score. I said prayers that the Packers would not get 1st downs, and would not score.
I said many many prayers on those days because I wanted my team to win and the other team to lose. I wanted so desperately for my team to advance to the next round of the post-season in an ultimately (for me) meaningless contest of physicality that I prayed for my team and for the game and for my outcome to be the outcome.
Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
– Mark 11:24 (ESV)
I had decided in those many moments that I would use my voice, my line to the Creator of the Universe, to the God who I thank for my salvation and look to for how to live my life, to please let my team win this game.
I don’t know that it was wrong to do that. I don’t know that there is any verse that specifically talks about prayers about dumb things angering God. Maybe there is one, maybe there’s a study I need to read and dive deeper into some verses or so on. I know there isn’t a verse about God intervening so that my sports team can win the contest and I can have a smile and cheer and all of that. (I mean, except for the Cleveland Browns, maybe.)
But I do know that I was hoping that, in that moment, for that situation, that my prayer for the Cowboys to win lined up with God’s will in the moment. I won’t categorically say He didn’t have a will related to that game, but I honestly have to wonder how far and how specific that will is. Does his will extend to specific plays and outcomes of specific plays? Does his will extend to specific stats on specific plays? Does his will extend to how many bugs will be stepped on or swatted during specific plays in that specific game?
You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
– James 4:3 (ESV)
I mean, I know the Bible talks about making sure you aren’t asking for wrongly motivated things. But, where is that gray area that seems to exist in so many verses? In this case, the gray area says: I didn’t want any harm to come to anyone, had no financial gain tied to the win or loss, and would not be sinning or caused to sin by a win. I could keep listing things, but praying for the Cowboys to win did not make me anymore of a sinner than I already was.
So was it wrong? I don’t know. But that’s not really my point in this post. My point is this: prayer is really freakin’ complicated.
That image above is exactly how I envision prayer, when I really think about it, especially in the context of anything that has multiple potential outcomes.
At the very center of that image is the beginning of the January 15th, 2017 match between the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers. Let’s level the field for simplicity: everyone is fully healthy and rested on both sides.
Now let’s talk about differences in factors which could make (or not make) a big difference:
- Time of the day
- Percentage of team fans for each side
- Amount of bugs in stadium and on field
And that’s just the beginning, and just a sampling. Listed above are six factors which could make a massive or minor difference in the game, or even compounding over time, make all the difference in the world. Every degree cooler or warmer could be the difference in sweat being a factor or muscles being tight or the being too hard or having to wear different shoes or more covering for exposed skin, etc. Differences in wind affect temperature, how the ball flies, smells, and much more. Sunlight (or lack thereof) impacts how well the field is lit, if it’s in players eyes, just like cloudy days could do the opposite. The time of the day (when the game is played) could have huge impacts on a variety of other factors too, just like how many fans are in the stadium or even a small as how many bugs are in the stadium or on the field.
And the ball hasn’t even been snapped yet.
Woah, we’re not quite there yet. Let’s take it back a notch, stressed image person.
So, continuing on to next things that impact a game, even before it starts.
- Were the jerseys washed correctly or in non-allergic-reaction-causing-things?
- Was the field appropriately taken care of during pre-game prep?
- How about the food that players ate pre-game? Warm-up drinks and such?
- What about non-football stuff to stress about, like contract status, home-life, public perception, and even political or religious stuff weighing on the mind?
There’s another million factors right in those four bullet points to add. Now, I won’t so much refer to the fourth because I feel that one gets tricky, but you know that players are humans too, and they can have non-football stuff on their minds.
But the other three bullet points represent additional spots where things could wildly change a game. Just like (once the game starts) the following:
- Opening kickoff, reception, return
- Opening play (offensive and defensive)
Well, that’s … let’s stop right there.
So in the opening kickoff, you have 11 players on each side on the field. But what if one side has 12? Penalty! (Either impacting the kicking team or receiving team). How about 10? Embarrassing and stupid but not a penalty, and could really impact the kick. Then the ball is kicked, and what if it’s not kicked far? What if it’s kicked too far? Too far in one direction (right/left) or not far enough?
Now what if the player receiving it doesn’t catch it? What if they have to adjust to catch it? What if they don’t catch it and another player has to? Or another misses it and it bounces out of the endzone?
During the return, what if a player gets injured in a collision and can’t make a tackle? What if another player does make the tackle but doesn’t succeed? What if the returner doesn’t get hit and runs it in for a touchdown? What if there is a penalty that nullifies a long return?
Now it’s opening play, what if there’s a pre-snap penalty? What if the QB hikes the ball early, or doesn’t catch it when hiked, or misunderstood the play or misread the defense? What if he decides to audible and the other players miss it? What if a route is run wrong? What if the defense players mess up a play and don’t line up right? What if they cover the wrong guy? What if someone is hurt because they have to cover the wrong guy or try to chase down the right guy?
I mean, this is literally just the first play of the first drive of a game that typically has around 130 plays, and up to 106 total players on the field.
None of those millions of little aforementioned factors take into account other things, things relevant to making my very big point:
- Referees (so many factors there)
- Electricity (see Super Bowl XLVII)
- Situations that exist prior to the game (injuries, lack of sleep, drama)
- Communication problems (headsets, tablets, etc)
And more and on and on and more. And the point I’m making is: for just one 60 minute (598,723,874 minutes if you include commercials) NFL game, there are probably a million (and that’s honestly not really an exaggeration) factors which can minorly or majorly influence the outcome of a game.
Where’s that overly stressed guy?
There you go.
So I’ve explained the intricacies of an NFL game and the factors (at least some) that could impact the outcome, and now let’s take it to the next step.
Every time I prayed for something related to that NFL game (or any NFL game, or any game at all) I was praying that some factor or combination of factors would go the direction I wanted to result in the outcome I wanted. I prayed that Aaron Rodgers’ throw goes bad (was it a physical reason, like strength or injury? Wind, or sunlight, or a bug gets in the way? Was it a bird distracting everyone? Or was it a problem with the ball? The receiver? Was the receiver covered? You get the idea.) and that they do not continue their progress to scoring again. I also prayed that the Cowboys would make a good play, either intercepting the ball or something like that.
And it’s basically a guarantee that every time I am praying for something like that, sometimes more specifically than others, that someone else (maybe a lot of someone else’s) are praying for or against the very same thing.
And I’d wager there are times when players themselves might be praying. Praying that they make an important catch, or reach an important milestone, or not forget some important lesson they learned. It could be to keep providing for family, to preserve legacy, to retain a job, or to make up for a mistake / embarrassment.
So when two people are praying for an innocuous thing like the outcome of a play in an American Football game, which side is heard and matches up with the will of God? What if that number is ten people? Or 100 people? 1,000?
What if, out of 100 people:
- 50 want it to be a catch but don’t care otherwise
- 25 want it to be a catch and a first down
- 15 want it to be incomplete
- 5 want an interception
- 5 want a touchdown by either team but don’t care
That’s a smattering of options showing potential prayers from 100 people wanting the game to go 4-5 different ways, none of which are necessarily in conflict with biblical ideal, but only one of which can actually happen.
So who does God hear?
Pictured above: two people calmly praying about the outcome of an American Football game to God. (Probably).
“Any concern too small to be turned into a prayer is too small to be made into a burden.”
– Corrie ten Boom
So let’s take this out of American Football and into other arenas of similar complexity.
- You interviewed for a job you desperately need and are praying that you will get it. The other 12 candidates are praying too. So is everyone’s families. So is the hiring manager, praying to get it right.
- You are driving to work and praying for green lights the whole way there because you are running a bit late. Other people might be praying for red lights so they have a minute to catch their breath before a big meeting or important thing they don’t want to go to. Other people going opposite directions may also be praying for green lights — which will mean yours are red.
- You are praying that you are able to get a pre-order of that game/movie/cd you desperately want, or a ticket to that movie/concert/game you absolutely have to see. And so are dozens, hundreds, or maybe millions of others. Including the people selling the products/tickets, and those producing said products/tickets. All potentially praying for different or similar outcomes.
- You are praying for a good deal on that new/used car, or on car repairs, while the dealer/mechanic is praying that they can make enough money off of sales/repairs to keep feeding their family and keep the business open.
- You are praying for your/your family/your friend’s safety in a military conflict, while other people are praying for other soldiers — not necessarily on the same side of the conflict. Lives, families, communities — many people impacted and praying for different results.
- You are praying for a particular political candidate to succeed in their mission/aspiration/goal/intention, while others are praying for them to fail or for someone else to succeed, and while their families and friends may be praying for the same or wildly different outcomes for wildly different reasons.
Jesus Himself prayed and talked about prayer, meaning it’s definitely of paramount importance. He instructed us to pray specifically and in a particular way, so as to make sure our hearts could start to (or continue to) align with God’s, in desiring His will for our lives and those around us.
But prayer is big and important and complicated and messy. It permeates everything and everything has a million outcomes that all could be in conflict. Your prayer and mine over something trivial could be completely and totally different from 98 other people praying for the same thing — but different outcomes — and none of it wrong. But it is complicated.
It’s complicated because it’s hard to know in the trivial moments where God’s heart is. It’s hard sometimes to know in the important ones what God’s will is. It’s hard to know whether or not to even pray sometimes because it doesn’t always seem like He is listening or hearing us or answering prayers.
And I guess the whole point of this whole post and big long diatribe about infinite possibilities and perspectives is this:
God is always listening and will always answer your prayers.
And it will always be one of the following: Yes, No, or Not Yet.
And one answer over another doesn’t mean you prayed wrong or are a bad person or weren’t heard. A ‘yes’ for you might mean that you get the job, but it means a ‘no’ for someone else. It also might even mean a ‘not yet’ for someone else who might one day replace you (or you might hire).
Every answer to a prayer comes with a million similar answers to similar prayers of different positions and perspectives. It’s important to consider that when praying, and important to remember that even if the answer isn’t what you really wanted (whether in a gray area or not), it doesn’t mean it wasn’t heard and it doesn’t mean you were wrong for praying.
So keep praying, for the trivial and the important things, and everything in between. Keep chatting to God because He loves to hear from you. Keep asking for outcomes (and constantly checking your heart against His will and what the Bible says our hearts should be pursuing).
And if you ever end up in a place of darkness over a prayer you feel didn’t get answered or was answered in a way you didn’t want — try to imagine how incredibly complex that situation really was, and remember this:
You would do what God did, if you knew what God knows.