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“Why can’t you do something like that?” My friend jokingly posed that question to me while we were waiting for a church deacons meeting to begin.
Several of us had been talking about Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow throwing for exactly 316 yards in the Broncos’ overtime playoff win against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Not only was it a career high for Tebow, it apparently stupefied many because of the apparent correlation of the number 316 to John 3:16, the biblical reference Tebow used to etch on his “eye black,” to avoid sun glare, during his days as QB for the Florida Gators.
The Bible verse, Tebow’s favorite, says, “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
Tebow, easily America’s most popular Christian athlete, has had a close public association with that verse.
The 316 total passing yards was not the only 3:16 connection. He also threw for 31.6 yards per completion. And there’s more: During the final quarter of the game, the TV rating was 31.6. And one final association with the John reference: Tebow works for two men, both of whom have the first name, John.
Can you hear the background music from the Twilight Zone?
Then again, for more rational thinkers — maybe not.
In answer to the question, “Why can’t you do something like that?” I rejoined, “Tim Tebow only had to look at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense, not a bunch of ornery Baptist deacons.” (They really can be ornery, but I didn’t say that.)
In all seriousness — since some people do take these numbers seriously, maintaining that the statistics point to John 3:16 as a divine affirmation of Tebow’s witness — what do we make of this?
I’ve long believed God uses a variety of ways to draw attention to his good news. And if statistics can be used as an opportunity for that discussion, then believers can use it in a positive way.
But they also should be extremely cautious when it comes to reading messages from God into football statistics. As Josh Tinley (Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports) observed in his blog, two numbers cited in that playoff game were 31.6, not 3.16.
Why not look for a book in the Bible that has a 31:6, like II Chronicles 31:6, which says in part, “The people … brought in (their) tithes.”
Besides, many Bible passages other than John have a 3:16. How do we know that those statistics don’t refer to one of them?
Then there is the matter of other football players, who like Tebow, are Christians. For example, Colt McCoy, QB for the Cleveland Browns, is active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Why not see if any of his statistics connect with a Bible passage he has publicly quoted at some time? What would that reveal?
Or, what if an athlete was of another faith, say Islam? Would evangelicals be disturbed if some of his statistics connected with a passage from the Koran?
The point is, we can substantiate all kinds of beliefs — some true, some erroneous — when we gaze long enough in the tea leaves.
Michael Shermer, a religious skeptic, uses this truth to challenge the very essence of religion. In his book, The Believing Brain, he maintains that the brain is “a belief engine,” which looks for and finds confirmation for beliefs in patterns; we naturally find meaning in connecting the dots, infusing those patterns with meaning, which only serves to reinforce the beliefs with which we began.
So, perhaps believers would do better to practice “tebowing” (so named after the way Tebow kneels in prayer on the sidelines) and remember the words he often speaks, “First and foremost, I just want to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He’s done so much in my life.”
Having done that, leave the statistics to the people in the press box. After all, those stats are only numbers.
And, so much of athletic success — and, yes, even some so-called miracles — is all in the numbers.
David B. Whitlock, Ph.D, is pastor of Lebanon Baptist Church and teaches as an adjunct professor at Campbellsville University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.