Like most Vikings fans, last night I watched our hopes of Super Bowl glory fade away into a familiar void of despair. It's happened so often in my lifetime that it has become a familiar feeling: the Vikings will do well during the regular season, and then dash themselves against the rocks in the playoffs. Even my son, at the tender age of 10, chose to play Minecraft on the computer rather than watch the game because, according to him, "They're just going to lose." Such is life as a Minnesota sports fan (actually, if you're looking for a bandwagon to jump onto, check out the Timberwolves, who are having a great season).
Last week's "Minneapolis Miracle" that led to a spectacular first-round win against the Saints was the stuff of legends. I was pleasantly surprised by the commentary of several Vikings players last week who, after the improbable win, gave glory to God: "It's probably going to go down as the third best moment of my life," Case Keenum said, "behind giving my life to Jesus Christ and marrying my wife." Keenum preceded that sentiment with a huge smile and said, "God is SO good!"
The first words out of Stefon Diggs' mouth were "Glory to God, because without him, nothing is possible, and I wouldn't be here." I was glad to hear Keenum, Diggs, and several other players glorify God for what he has done in their lives.
But...there's a problem when we conflate God with professional sports, and that problem is when you get blown out by the Philadelphia Eagles 38-7 a week later.
After the "Minneapolis Miracle" took place, and after hearing from players like Keenum and Diggs, I couldn't help but wonder what the Christian players on the Saints team were thinking: were they giving glory to God after just losing what was possibly the biggest game of their lives? Were they giving glory to God after their almost certain victory was snatched from their hands in a matter of mere seconds? I doubt it. There probably weren't very many "All glory to God!" exclamations in the Saints locker room. I don't know for sure, but I would guess that the same was true of the Vikings locker room after yesterday's blowout loss. Case Keenum and Stefon Diggs probably weren't thanking God for all that he had done for them.
That's the problem when we associate God's activity in our lives with only the good things that happen: we begin to see God as someone who is only active in our lives when life is going well. Too often we think that God rewards us with good things in life, or that our life will be free from difficulty or painful football losses. We forget that God is sovereign over all things - the wins and the losses. God is not in the business of handing out football wins to those who give him the most glory. The reality is that all glory goes to God whether you win or lose.
Have you ever prayed a prayer that goes like this? "God, if you (fill in the blank), then I will (fill in the blank)." For some reason we are tempted to try to strike deals with God in order to get what we want, or to think that our good behavior will somehow garner his reward of a smooth, prosperous life. But then, when things go wrong, we are also tempted to blame God, and we can't possibly see how he could be glorified in our disappointments and failures.
The reality is that the Bible never guarantees that true faith in God will lead to a pain-free life. We live in a fallen world where suffering is unavoidable. Sometimes the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper - that's just the way it is. But not only is that the way it is, that is the way God has ordained to bring the most glory to himself. It sounds counterintuitive, but that's what the Bible tells us: that God can even use our disappointments, failures, and suffering to bring about his good purposes for us.
Nobody knew this truth better than Joseph (Genesis 37-50). Time after time, Joseph does the right thing and follows God, and as a reward he gets thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, and thrown into prison. At every turn, Joseph does the right thing, yet God allows bad things to happen to him. Compare that to how we often think that if we do the right thing, then good things will happen to us. But that's simply not always the way it works in God's plan. God is big enough and strong enough to even use our disappointments and failures and times of difficulty to accomplish his purposes.
Too many Christians have the false idea that if God is with us, then nothing bad will happen. We have a tendency to think that God is with us during the good times, but not during the bad. He's with us when we win the football game, but not when we lose. We think of Bible verses like Romans 8.31 that say, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" as if they promise us a life without adversity. But we leave out the verses that say we might experience suffering, famine, nakedness, peril, and many other obstacles (Romans 5.35-39).
We are tempted in the tough moments to question if God is with us, but the Bible assures us that he never leaves nor forsakes his people (Joshua 1.9, Deuteronomy 31.6, Hebrews 13.5). Our hope is not in a God who keeps bad things from happening to us, but in a God who is with us in life and death, and who sees to it that nothing separates us from his love in Christ Jesus (Romans 8.38-39). No suffering, no disappointment, no failures in our personal lives can remove us from the reach of his grace or disrupt his eternal plan.
Imagine for a moment that you are one of Jesus' disciples, standing at the foot of the cross. All of your hopes and dreams are nailed up there on that cross. There's absolutely no way that you could ever imagine something good coming from having your Savior nailed to a cross. But that was not God's plan. God's plan was to use the horror of the cross for good, and so he did. In order to rise from the dead, Jesus had to die; in order for him to be exalted, he had to be brought low; in order for him to be vindicated, he had to suffer.
The difference-maker is that we know that God is sovereign over all aspects of our lives - even failure, disappointment, and suffering. And God promises that he will use all things to carry out his plans and purposes, even those things that are very painful in the moment. Your sadness and disappointment and pain are not in vain; they are not meaningless; God can and will use them to carry out his plan.
Let's face it: disappointments and failures are coming in your life. Don't fall for a fake Christianity that says that God is not in those times, or that he can't or won't use them for your good. You have a Savior who suffered before he lifted up, who died before he rose. And he said that those who follow him would suffer like him. But even in the midst of that disappointment and pain, we can rejoice because we know that God uses all things for his glory and our good.
So even if something hard happens in our lives, we can say with confidence and sincerity, "All glory to God!" because we know that he will use this difficult thing for exactly that purpose. And not only that, but we have the promise from scripture that God will use difficult times for our good - to shape us more into the image of Jesus.