(This is the second installment in a series called The Greatest Showman, Story Sanitizing, and the Bible. Reading Part 1 in which I focus mainly on Jeremiah 29:11 will help bring some of what’s below into context.)
This post was supposed to be the low-hanging fruit of the series. I was going to just riff for a bit about how Americans take non-Biblical liberties with Philipians 4:13 all the time. Talk a little bit about Time Tebow, maybe sprinkle in some Lolo Jones, explain what the text really means, yada yada yada, and I leave satisfied. I’m still going to do some of that, to an extent, but it didn’t come as easy as I thought it would. There’s a bit more to it than just yada yada yada. There always is.
After Part 1 of this series in which I explained the context of Jeremiah 29:11, I received some loving push-back. To quote my mother, “I totally disagree with you.” I thought about it for a while, but remain pretty strong in my opinion. Not only that, but as I thought about it more I came to realize I left out a pretty strong point.* But when people I love and respect offer their opinion, I listen, even when I disagree. I’ll never grow if I don’t.
My biggest challenge with this entry arose when I began to do some research about Tim Tebow. I’m not a college sports fan. I grew up in New England- in the Boston area. There are no fewer than 145,298,306,304 colleges and/or universities in the Boston area, so picking one to follow is difficult. Also, most of the NCAA Div. I teams stink at sports other than hockey so rooting for them if you’re not an alum just isn’t compelling. Finally, Boston always has a professional team who has a legitimate shot at winning a championship. So for most Bostonians college athletics rides in the back-back of the family station wagon. As such, I’m not all that versed in Tim Tebow and his accolades.
It’s fitting that Tebow is a person of strong, Christian faith seeing as he was a god of college football. While it’s debatable whether Tebow is the greatest college football quarterback of all time, it’s not a very long debate because his record is pretty superb. To quote the Bleacher Report, “ In his four-year career at Florida, Tim Tebow didn’t just make a fantastic case as the best quarterback in football history- he made a case as the best all-around player in college football history.” From a college football perspective, he was easy to love.
It very well may be the case that you first learned about Tebow because of his faith. He is the posterboy of the evangelical scene. But here’s the thing- if the very word evangelical gives you an ulcer, Tebow is the Pepto Bismol to ease your pain. The guy is just easy to like. If you don’t like him because he’s an evangelical Christian, you’re projecting your hurt from other areas. Because Tim Tebow hasn’t hurt anyone with his faith. Except for maybe Jeremiah and the Apostle Paul. Maybe, but I’m not sure…
Let me quickly explain.
When Tebow was playing for the Florida gators he began writing Bible references in his eye black as pictured at the beginning of this entry. The verse he first used, Philippians 4:13, is another favorite for people struggling to live the American dream. It reads as follows:
I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.
Here’s my gripe, in short-
This verse is part of a letter from the Apostle Paul who, while sitting in prison, is thanking friends for sending him a gift. Concerned for his physical health and spiritual well-being, they have sent him things to help ease his time in prison. For sure, Paul was enduring real, physical, and emotional hardship. He may have been facing a death sentence. It is understandable why his friends sent him a gift. But Paul was comforted knowing the suffering he was enduring was all for the sake of Christ. His message back to his friends was, Hey, thanks for the gift! And please rest assured I’m ok with whatever happens. Here’s why…
You’ll note the translation of the verse I used above reads, “I can endure all things,” as opposed to the often quoted “I can do all things.” The hardships he was enduring were specific to the work he was doing for God. I don’t even get the sense he had an ultimate goal in mind like he was going to reach X amount of people by the time he was 70 or something. He simply was sharing a message with however many people he could. He believed it was God’s message, and he would be able to endure any suffering knowing what he was doing was God’s will. He knew Christ endured suffering on the cross, so Paul could endure his suffering and relied on Christ for strength.
This is quite different from preparing for or competing in athletic competition. Frankly, this has been said before, and much better than I can. See the video below…
Or here’s an article about misusing the verse…with Tim Tebow as the example. Seems I’m not the first person to pick on him. Shocker.
And so now we’re back to to the trouble which arose when I began to research Tebow…here’s the thing…
I can’t help but look up to Tim Tebow. The only thing he’s better at than college football is bringing joy to everyone he comes into contact with. The dude is a legit awesome human being. He takes his faith seriously and I get the feeling he spends more time reading his Bible than I do mine. I have a hard time criticizing him for taking scripture out of context. I’ve got to be missing something. Perhaps I am…
During my research, I found this little ditty about how Tebow actually does understand the context. It quotes Tebow as saying, “When you’re a Christian, [you can] be content because God has put you where you are.” Or this more recent piece laced with satire but with the same point on Tebow’s understanding of Philippians 4:13. To be honest, I might understand God’s sovereignty in a different way than Tebow- I don’t believe God is in the habit of placing people in difficult circumstances- but this is a different issue. I think Paul probably did, and as far as I can tell, so does Tim Tebow. From all appearances based on what I found doing a bit of research, he understands the context and perspective. So what’s my beef?
From what I can tell, Tebow doesn’t have all that difficult of a life. His professional sports career was a flop- at least the NFL version. He’s currently in the minor leagues for the New York Mets baseball organization and there’s been speculation that he’s going to do OK. I don’t know. I hope he does. I’m rooting for him. But I don’t think his difficulty experiencing success as a professional athlete compares to Paul’s situation in prison almost 2000 years ago. So I guess if I was having coffee with him- I assume he’d drink decaf- I’d have to ask why he chose to display Philippians 4:13. What circumstances was he or is he in that make him need to profess how he endures hardship? Because the hardship I see in the Bible is significant. Paul chose to take it on. Later, when the apostle Peter was fleeing persecution in Rome, he decided instead to return to Rome to face it. According to tradition, Peter was crucified by Emperor Nero. Paul served to the point of death too, eventually being beheaded.
The feedback I received after the first installment of this series was in relation to people believing it’s OK to go to the Bible for reassurance. I think so too. I just think it’s critical to understand not every verse in the Bible we use to make ourselves feel better is actually applicable to our lives. Paul said what he said in his letter to reassure his friends of his well being and to emphasize to them where he was getting his strength. He was enduring 1st-century prison flogging, food, “toilets”, , etc…**
When quoting the scriptures we need to be careful our use of the text doesn’t do a disservice to the author. We need to be sure we understand what we’re quoting. I wonder what the conversation would sound like if Paul and a suffering athlete were to meet up. There’s Paul telling them all about prison and ending his story with, “…but it’s ok, I can endure anything with Christ providing me strength.” Then the athlete replying, “Me too. Lifting weights is so hard. And signing autographs? That takes forever. Oh, and staying late to train harder than my competition? It’s just brutal!”
See what I mean? There are people in this world who are suffering due to their faith. They can quote Paul in agreement that their hardship is in direct result of their faith in Christ. And here is where I develop even more of an appreciation for Tebow. If you look through his twitter feed, it is filled with photos of him and terminally ill patients- usually children. I find that I’m moved to tears when I watch a story on TV or Youtube or wherever about a child with terminal illness. My tears flow and I’ve never met them, hugged them, developed a relationship with them, looked into the eyes of their loving parents. I don’t have any connection to them. But Tebow does. I can’t fathom how difficult it is to see such tragedy over and over again. Tebow gives and gives of himself to bring light to those experiencing pain and always has. Knowing what little I do about him, I believe Tebow does this because his faith in Christ propels him. And when it gets difficult, Philippians 4:13 may bring some comfort.
I find it helpful to remember this when reading the Bible: it was written by a minority group who were never in the seat of power.
The stories and the messages in the Bible are very old and are written by people of the Jewish faith. (Luke, who was Greek, is a possible exception.) Even the followers of Jesus were still considered Jews at the time. The story of the Jews begins in Egypt as slaves, spends a short period building their nation before being repeatedly invaded, routed, and exiled. They had a purpose both for the authors and for the people receiving the messages. As a white, American male, I have a difficult time identifying with the role of the underdog. The difficulties I face pale in comparison to the difficulties the Bible addresses. I think sometimes we tend to project our view of the world into the story and in doing so miss some of the original intent or message. It happens with Jeremiah 29:11 when we’re looking for direction in our lives, and it can happen with Philippians 4:13 when we’re faced with life’s hardships.
The last point I’d like to make overall is that as a Christian, we might expect things to get difficult for us. Paul is a great example. He was a Jew, but he was a Jew that sat in a seat of comfort. He had authority in the temple as a Jewish leader, and he had safety as a Roman citizen. Everything changed when he converted to being a Christ follower. Formerly he had persecuted Christians, so he knew how he would be received by his people, and it wasn’t going to be pretty. But it didn’t matter.
We don’t do pain well. We try to avoid it. We don’t do danger or peril well either. If something threatens us we take action to avoid or even fight the threat. I’ve done this in the past, and I’ll probably do it in the future. Problem is, I don’t see Paul, or even more, Jesus, doing this.
I wonder if the point of the Jesus story is to accept pain- even pain to the point of a torturous death- when it will benefit the world.
Which leads me to my next post in this series.
Next time I will discuss a piece of the crucifixion story I believe is too quickly glossed over. It’s not something quoted like the verses discussed above, but misunderstood and taken too lightly. Jesus knew what he was doing when he went to the cross. He knew what he was going to have to endure and he was willing to endure it, convinced of God’s will. His death was deliberate and unavoidable. But at a key moment the people had a choice- a choice to choose the way of Jesus or another way. Next time I’ll discuss the choice of the people and the way of Barabbas.