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Four Spiritual Lessons From March Madness

Photo of Bob RussellBob Russell | Bio

Bob Russell

During his senior year of high school Bob realized a desire in his heart to enter the ministry. Soon thereafter, he enrolled in Cincinnati Bible Seminary where he graduated in 1965. At just twenty-two years of age, Bob became the pastor of Southeast Christian Church. That small congregation of 120 members became one of the largest churches in America, with 18,000 people attending the three worship services every weekend in 2006 when Bob retired. Now through Bob Russell Ministries, Bob continues to preach at churches and conferences throughout the United States, provide guidance for church leadership, mentor other ministers and author Bible study videos for use in small groups. An accomplished author, Bob has written over one-dozen books. Bob and his wife Judy of 52 have two married sons and seven grandchildren with whom they enjoy spending their time. Bob also enjoys playing golf and is an avid University of Louisville football and basketball fan. 

March Madness is huge in Kentucky. Traditionally, this region is well-represented in the NCAA tournament. For years, avid fans of the University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, Indiana University, and the University of Cincinnati have hoped their teams would be serious contenders for the national championship. However, this year, only two of those teams made it to the tournament, and none made it to the Sweet 16. Consequently, many of us have not been as consumed with March Madness as usual.

So, this year may be an excellent opportunity to pause and consider some spiritual lessons about our obsession with college basketball.

1. Life is unpredictable. Trust in God for tomorrow.

The American Gaming Association estimates that 40 million Americans take part in predicting the NCAA Tournament, with the majority submitting two different brackets. After the first two rounds this year, only 205 perfect brackets remained. According to the NCAA, there has never been a verified perfect March Madness bracket. An Ohio man holds the record for the longest streak of correct picks when in 2019 he correctly picked the first 49 games. With fourteen games remaining, his predictions fell short after incorrectly picking the winner of the second game of the Sweet 16.

Scientists suggest the odds of accurately predicting all 63 games is as high as 1 in 9 quintillion. The odds drop to only 1 in 128 billion for those with some basketball knowledge! In other words, no one can accurately predict the outcome of the NCAA tournament. Likewise, no one can predict what will happen in our own lives. If palm readers, astrologers, and futurists could genuinely foretell the future, they would make millions of dollars from prize money. Yet no one collects because the future is uncertain.

“According to the NCAA, there has never been a verified perfect March Madness bracket.”

The Bible reminds us of that truth.

“Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow, we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business, and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15)

Only God sees the future. Every day should be lived with an attitude of humility and trust in Him. We are not the “Masters of our fate” or “the captains of our souls.” God is. So,

Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” (Prov. 27:1)

2. There is hope when life seems hopeless.

Nearly every year, the NCAA tournament features some dramatic upsets when a Cinderella team with little chance of winning their first game can rise to the challenge and defeat a more notable team. And this year, many of us witnessed something that has only happened one other time in the history of March Madness.

Fairleigh Dickenson University was not supposed to be in the NCAA Tournament because they had not won their conference championship to qualify. Yet the first-place team in their conference was not eligible because they were new to Division 1 and thus ineligible to play in the tournament as a first-year team. Therefore, Farleigh Dickenson was granted the opportunity to play in the tournament as the Northeast Conference representative.

They defeated Texas Southern in a play-in game to become the lowest-seeded team (16th) in the East Region and face the 1st seed, Purdue University. Farleigh Dickinson was the shortest team of all 363 NCAA Division 1 teams in the country. The highly-ranked Purdue University Boilermakers featured a 7-foot-4 All-America center. But you know the story. Against 2000 to 1 odds, Fairleigh Dickenson shocked the basketball world, upsetting Purdue University 63 to 58.

“The Bible features several stories of underdogs emerging victorious with God’s help.” 

The Bible features several stories of underdogs emerging victorious with God’s help: David against Goliath, Gideon and his 300 unarmed men against thousands of well-fortified Midianite soldiers, and 120 Christians praying in the upper room against an unbelieving world. Jesus reminded His disciples, “With God, all things are possible” (Matt. 9:26).

When we face the worst that Satan can hurl against us—even death—we need not fear. The angel Gabriel reminded the virgin Mary, “Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). The odds may seem impossible and the foe intimidating, but Jesus promised,

“I am the resurrection, and the life, whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies.” (John 11:25)

3. There is shared celebration after a hard-fought victory.

Few experiences can compare with the rush basketball fans feel when their team hits a last-second shot to win an important game. People go crazy in celebration! Most have seen the replay of Coach Jim Valvano racing wildly around the court, looking for someone to hug after North Carolina State’s upset win over highly favored Houston in the finals of the 1983 NCAA Tournament. When a team wins on a last-second shot, the players, coaches, and fans explode in a celebration that often carries over into the streets of the University’s town and lasts for hours.

Imagine the joyful celebration that will take place in heaven one day when relatives and friends embrace and rejoice in the ultimate victory of eternal life. The Bible calls that the marriage supper of the lamb. The saved gather around the throne and celebrate victory over sin and death purchased by the Lamb of God. “To him be all glory, honor, and praise!” We can only imagine! We will all be looking for people to hug! The Apostle John reminds us,

“For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.” (1 John 5: 4)

“Imagine the joyful celebration that will take place in heaven one day when relatives and friends embrace and rejoice in the ultimate victory of eternal life.”

4. Sports can easily become your idol. Only God is worthy of worship.

Fans of 67 of the 68 teams in the year’s tournament end the season experiencing the agony of defeat. Even the team that wins one year will more than likely experience disappointment next year. Last year’s champion, Kansas, was defeated in the second round by Arkansas.

Basketball is a good pastime and a fun hobby, but it is a terrible god. Sports always let you down. If your primary hopes are in a sports team, you are destined for disappointment. The Bible says we are “without God and without hope in the world” (Eph. 2:12). On the other hand, if you trust Christ, you have hope that “can never perish, spoil or fade, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4).

“Basketball is a good pastime and a fun hobby, but it is a terrible god.”

Whether your team is experiencing an “off” year or making a run for the national title, this is a good time for all of us to reexamine our priorities. Ask yourself, “Is basketball too important to me? Does it dictate my mood or consume too much of my time and money? Am I worshipping a false god, or is it just an enjoyable pastime?

God said to His people, “I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2-3). How silly for ancient nations to put their hope in idols made of wood and stone. Those inanimate objects could not answer a prayer or save them for eternity. Yet neither can a Wildcat, Cardinal, Bearcat, or a Hoosier (whatever that is!). Our sports teams cannot save, heal, or comfort us. But the Lamb of God can! Worship Him alone!

From Used by permission.