Perhaps you know the story: Adrian Peterson, who suffered from an injury that was to alter his career (tearing his ACL), returned the next year and had such a good season that he was named the NFL’s most valuable player. Players who tear their ACL usually don’t bounce back very well or very quickly, let alone win MVP awards. But Peterson is now on track to break Emmit Smith’s all-time rushing record. This is remarkable, and Peterson’s recognition is extremely well-deserved.
Anytime a star athlete overcomes adversity and succeeds, the sports world basks in the celebratory glory along with the triumphant player. We, as sports fans, love to see our favorite teams/players do well, especially after they’ve been down-and-out. We all love a comeback. I remember when Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway (NBA point guard in the ’90s) suffered from multiple injuries and all of the horror that surrounded them. Penny never played the same after his injuries. Currently, Hardaway is actually more known for his Nike shoes than his basketball career. Which is another way of saying that Peterson’s story is very much the exception, not the rule.
In si.com’s most recent “10 Things I Think I Think” by Peter King, Adrian let us into his world, opening up about the injury, recovery and MVP award. Number 2 on Peterson’s list in the article is the following:
I think the one thing I’ll always remember from the field last year happened in Detroit, early in the season. One of the linebackers came up to me—I don’t want to say who it was—and he said, “Adrian, what are you taking? What juice you using? I gotta get me some of that.” I said, “I’m juicing on the blood of Jesus. Faith is what got me to to this point.” So the Lions came to Minnesota later in the season. That same linebacker came to me and said: “I appreciate you saying that. You opened my eyes.” That was pretty cool.
Peterson, who is a professing Christian, does what most Christian athletes do–they give recognition or thanks to God for their accomplishments. We’ve heard it so many times, we’re almost expecting it/conditioned to hearing it: “First of all…“, the Christian athlete says, “I just want to thank God/give glory to God for this victory.” This is what they do, and it’s all too familiar. While there’s certainly something to be said for publicly acknowledging your faith on a platform like theirs, comments like Peterson’s–and other Christian athletes of the day–can be quite misleading and even problematic.
They are problematic because they imply that being hopped up on Jesus juice somehow results in triumph–a modern day example of the theology of glory, and a mentality that has always found serious purchase in the sports world (and beyond!). Since success is so easily quantifiable, measured by wins and losses and other accolades, glory stories always get the most recognition. But let’s be honest, the majority of us are not professional athletes, let alone NFL MVP’s. In fact, the chance of having an MVP experience, in everyday contexts/circumstances, is out of the picture for the majority of society. For your average Christian, Peterson’s words are not only misleading, but discouraging and potentially depressing.
Picture a vulnerable young Christian, who attends youth group every week and hears testimony after glamorous testimony from their peers/leaders/favorite athletes, meant to encourage them. Those stories may be well-intentioned, and they may very well reveal something of the glory of God, but what happens when the young Christian’s own experience is anything but glamorous? Perhaps their wounds aren’t healing, their insecurities haven’t abated, their “struggles” have started to consume them, etc. When our lives don’t follow the same trajectory as those of the celebrity faithful, the shame and guilt often cause us either to hide or deceive ourselves. Whether you’re a pimple-faced youth group kid or a star running back in the NFL, you will experience failure and suffering, and if your faith is directly correlated to not experiencing those things, you will run into trouble, to say the least.
In the sports world (and elsewhere), stories in which an athlete experiences grace/comfort in the midst of failure/failing are a rarity. The magical Jesus juice variety sells a lot more magazines. But the wonderful paradox of the cross is that God’s grace meets us in failure and suffering. For the Christian, grace isn’t a “supplement to our human willpower and strength” (Gerhard Forde) or accomplishments or accolades, it’s for the “weary and heavy-laden.” Thank God, ’cause the majority of us would be out of luck otherwise.