I remember some things about the fall of 1987, but none nearly as vividly as our high school football team playing in the state championship. The whole city seemed caught up in the anticipation of what was happening. There was even a coach's quote that made it onto sweatshirts, bumper stickers and business signs: "never, never, never, never, never give up." Sadly, few in the stands wearing the shirts realized that they and the coach were actually quoting Winston Churchill. Nothing could deter our enthusiasm to cheer for our team! "NNNNNGU" was seen all over town.
In the semifinal game, as time grew short and our team found itself behind, the chants from the stands came raining down on the field. "Never, Never, Never, Never, Never Give Up! Never, Never, Never, Never, Never Give Up!" Our team rallied to win and advance to the finals. It was all very cathartic for an entire town caught up in the exploits of its players. Those players would later say that hearing the cheers from the stands gave them encouragement to play well, but the truth is neither I nor anyone else sitting in the stands that night had any effect on the outcome of the game. The players had to pull it off. In fact, on the other side of the field was a group of fans equal in size and voice to our side. They cheered just as hard and just as loud - and their team went home defeated. We did all we could, but it was up to the team to pull it off... and they did.
Even though we would go on to lose the state championship, this great memory is replete with human drama and the glorious unknown. It makes for good inspiration. However, it parallels a disturbing trend I've noticed among followers of Christ to take this storyline and its exhilarating mystery and apply it to our spiritual lives. If I may oversimplify, I see two predominant schools of thought regarding how God is active in our spiritual lives. The core of the difference is who is central in the story. We love to be the center of the story and the focal point of God's affection. But when it comes to walking in the Spirit, is God my cheerleader, the one shouting "NNNNNGU" and praising my performance... or am I His? It may seem inconsequential, but what you believe about the roles in this scene has an impact on how the characters relate to each other, as well as how life's day-to-day events unfold.
In a recent devotional, beloved Christian author Max Lucado somewhat gave voice to the "God-as-cheerleader" viewpoint. In an excerpt from his book, Let the Journey Begin, Lucado, seeking to encourage the downtrodden, says:
"God is for you. Turn to the sidelines; that's God cheering your run. Look past the finish line; that's God applauding your steps. Listen for him in the bleachers, shouting your name. Too tired to continue? He'll carry you. Too discouraged to fight? He's picking you up. God is for you. God is for you. Had he a calendar, your birthday would be circled. If he drove a car, your name would be on his bumper. If there's a tree in heaven, he's carved your name in the bark. We know he has a tattoo, and we know what it says. 'I have written your name on my hand,' he declares (Isa. 49:16)."
Now, obviously Lucado, who also authored a book titled It's Not About Me does not believe that we can find meaning by believing we are the center of the world. However, it sounds like Brother Max believes we can find value by believing that we are the center of God's affection. The logic would go something like this: Life is not about us, life is about God. And GOD is about us, so be encouraged. In this view, God's role in our life is as our biggest fan, perfect parent and consummate cheerleader. He wants your happiness even more than you do and he's cheering for it, so go out and get it!
To be sure, God has poured out His love on His children. He has loved us with an unfathomable love. He has demonstrated His love towards us by sending Jesus as our righteousness and our salvation. But whenever God occupies a grandstand in our lives and not a throne, we err terribly. At times (especially when time grows short and we find ourselves behind) we like to talk about God as our biggest fan. He cheers us on as we walk through life, telling us that we can do it - but ultimately having little to do with the final outcome.
It feels good and right to be the center of the story and the focal point of everyone's attention. When we think of all that God has done in Christ for His children, it is easy to see how we can think that God is solely focused on doing all He can to cheer for us. The problem with that logic comes in what we have to do to God to fit him into a cheerleader uniform.
In a curiously antithetical article, John Piper states the counter-argument, what we'll call the "God-as-cheered" viewpoint, this way:
"God is the one Being in the entire universe for whom self-centeredness, or the pursuit of his own glory, is the ultimately loving act. For him, self-exaltation is the highest virtue. When he does all things 'for the praise of his glory,' he preserves for us and offers to us, the only thing in the entire world, which can satisfy our longings. God is for us, and therefore has been, is now and always will be, first, for himself. I urge you not to resent the centrality of God in his own affections, but to experience it as the fountain of your everlasting joy."
He WANTS us to choose him, to follow him, to know that we are special to him but that it is up to him to make things happen, to order our steps. The result of God-in-the-stands, however, has some serious personal and theological effects. It's tough to serve a cheerleader God. If he is in the stands and on the sidelines and at the finish line, then how am I gonna get there? If he carries me only when I am too tired, can I just admit right now that I'm tired? Out here running on my own, I keep going in circles. I have no idea where I'm headed. If he picks me up only when I'm too discouraged to fight, can I just admit right now that, if I'm fighting and he's cheering, I'm gonna get handled... and quickly.
I think maybe I'm tempted to put God in the stands when things aren't turning out quite how I'd hoped. If God is cheering but I am the one running, then I can always blame it on me when things go bad - thereby absolving God of any possible egg on His face and paying the price for my own failure. You see the problem there, no? Relegating God to a fail-safe and fall-back will always get you to the same place, failing and falling again and again until you see that it is God who wills and works, God who makes alive, God who remembers based on His own choice, not your ability to perform.
For His own name and glory - God has created, worked, efforted, miracled. Now, needing fans, he has taken, among others, a washed up, tired, slow white kid named Jay and put HIM in the bleachers while placing himself on the throne of the victor. The race is over. The battle is won. The champion is seated on a throne... always has been. And, look at that, he does have a tattoo - only it's on his thigh... and it isn't MY name... it's his - King of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 19:16) - and all us tired cheerleaders in the bleachers are going WILD.
In the final analysis it's fair to say that there is something of a "both/and" thing going on here, similar to the quote from that sage Forrest Gump when he said, "Maybe both is happening at the same time." There is a time to know that God is your biggest fan, that he has all your successes and hopes in mind, that he doesn't want you to lick the trash can. Our name is written on his hand, and his greatness is written on his robe and thigh. But it truly seems from both general and special revelation that God has no bigger cheerleader than himself - and he has invited you and I to have a seat in the bleachers and join in the celebration.
Or, as a popular website reminds us these days, God is First. I am Second.
Jay Sampson is the Teaching Elder at Heritage Church in Shawnee, Oklahoma where he pastors literally tens of people every week. A father of three and aspiring fantasy baseball champion, Jay has been teaching at Heritage since 2007. Weekly podcasts can be found at www.heritageshawnee.org.
Original publication date: June 25, 2009