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"Lord, I don't ask that I should win, but please, please don't let me finish behind Akabusi."

Innocent Egbunike's prayer at the 1988 Olympics

Praying to win

Ask and it will be given to you. Matthew 7:7

One day this week the main picture on Page 1 of The [London] Times was of Indian cricketers celebrating their victory over Pakistan in the Cricket World Cup. The newspaper editor obviously thought that was the most important thing happening in the world that day! Sometimes there is a sporting contest that somehow grips the world.

What really took my eye was an article on an inside page under the headline “Pakistani prayers not enough”, which reported that “Special prayers were offered in mosques for the victory of the national team” in Pakistan. The prayers were, apparently, not answered.

A few years ago, an academic published a paper: “Prayers for assistance as unsporting behaviour”. Is it cheating or gaining an unfair advantage (like taking drugs) if you pray to win?

A football club chaplain in England once told me, he was watching his club play a vital game when a man behind him, leaned forward and said, “Reverend, pray!” The chaplain replied that he did not think that prayer worked like that. But, he told me afterwards, “In case I was wrong, I prayed!”

During a recent major sports event, where there was a multi-faith religious centre, all the chaplains met together one morning. One of the Christian chaplains told his colleagues that he thought it was important that none of the chaplains promised victory to any competitor who came to the chapel. He felt that an athlete who was unsuccessful after seemingly being promised success in the name of God was likely to turn his back on God. I thought it was a helpful and brave stance to take.

The use of Matthew 7:7 is deliberately provocative. Does God care who wins? Can we claim victory on the sports field just by asking and believing? Is sport a proper application of Matthew 7:7? We will reflect on these questions later.

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