No, not the madness of the upsets or the buzzer-beating shots.
I’m talking about your bracket. The madness of the name at the top of the standings of your office pool. It’s your boss’s four-year-old son. He made his picks by smearing mashed raisins on his bracket and then trying to eat it. He’s winning, and it’s not even close.
It should be you. But you—the genuine college basketball fan in the pool, the one who’s taken in enough basketball to see Doug Gottlieb’s entire wardrobe more often than his immediate family, the one who watched Butler play Bucknell on your iPhone during your son’s dedication ceremony—had your bracket trashed by the end of the first round. You made intelligent, rational picks based on spreadsheets and calculations. You selected a sleeper based on hours of intense scouting and match-up comparisons. Yet by the start of last weekend, your bracket was in flames and you were assailed by self-doubt like some sports-crazed Hamlet, wondering how you could be losing to someone whose sleeper team is called the “Banana Pelicans.” It’s madness.
This madness is the NCAA tournament’s main appeal. Year after year, we celebrate its unpredictability—the upsets, the Cinderella runs by mid-majors, and the number of times a ref will ignore a blatant charge by a Duke player because Duke is God’s new chosen people. Tournament time causes college basketball enthusiasts to yank out their hair as their expertise is laid siege to by a sophomore shooting guard from New Mexico A&M suddenly getting hot from three and upsetting the number two seed. Nobody, but nobody, has any idea what’s going on, least of all the experts.
Rece Davis: Digger, recap the upset of Michigan State by unheralded Wyoming Rodeo University.
Digger Phelps: Rece, I watched a lot of tape on Michigan State coming into this game. They really looked unbeatable. But nothing on that tape suggested that their shooting guard would go 0 for 24 from the field.
Davis: When he lay down at center court with his teddy bear, that was a big turning point in the game.
Digger: Yes, all the momentum shifted when that happened. You could see Wyoming Rodeo start to play with some extra confidence.
Jay Bilas: The fact that Wyoming Rodeo was allowed to use their lassoes in this game also gave them an edge. Their zone defense gained an extra dimension when they roped Michigan State’s center and tied him up like a calf.
Davis: Yeah, that was a gray area in the rules. Those referees probably won’t ref another game in this tournament.
Digger: Jay, do you think Wyoming Rodeo’s strategy of bringing the Michigan State shooting guard’s long-lost father to the game and introducing them moments before tip-off had any effect on his play? Remember, he believed his father was trapped aboard the International Space Station before his birth.
Bilas: Absolutely, I think it was a factor.
The Incessant, Obsessive Need to Know
All this madness reminds me how much Christians love to know what’s going on. Nothing makes us happier than to absolutely, totally, without question know what God is doing at any given time. Think about it: if you ask any Christian at any given moment about their life, without fail the majority will tell you that there is a one-to-one correlation between a life event and what God is trying to teach them.
“Tyler won’t sleep through the night. I’m really learning patience right now.”
“My Hawaiian Shave Ice kiosk is not flourishing. I think God’s trying to tell me to work in his strength and not my own.”
“I wasn’t picked to go on that short-term missions project. God just wants me to focus on my relationship with HIM right now.”
It’s not just in our own lives where this tendency comes out; it’s in the wider world as well. For example, there have been enough pop eschatology books written in the history of Christianity that we could wallpaper Thailand with the pages. I don’t think Jesus could have spoken much more plainly when he said that nobody knew the day or the hour, yet we name Belgium as one of the seven stars on the crown because their waffles are too delicious, all in an effort to predict the end of the world. Why? It’s not because we eagerly expect Christ’s return. It’s because we have to know what’s going on. Always.
Why I Can’t Listen to the Radio
I’m the king of needing to know what’s going on. I always have to know what God is up to in my life, to the point of acting in ways that are completely irrational. I can’t even listen to the radio because I get convinced that whatever song is currently playing is talking directly about my situation and has been ordained by God to communicate to me in that moment.
For some reason, I can’t just let life happen and let God be at work on my heart in his mysterious ways. I am compelled to know what’s going on all the time. Is he tackling my anger? What about my lust? Is he working on my patience, or my many idols, or my doubts, or my fearfulness? Which books can I read to better assist the process? How can I be more repentant so that the Holy Spirit’s work isn’t hindered by me? And so on it goes, ad infinitum.
Maybe I try to know because I think it’s spiritual to know. Nobody wants to admit, “I have no idea what God is doing in my life, and I haven’t for some time. Or ever, really.” That looks like we’re not trying, and sadly, if there’s a cardinal sin in church, it’s that one.
OK with Confusion
The madness of God’s work in the world and in our lives is that we honestly don’t know what’s going on most of the time. Confusion, after all, is one of the most common themes in the Bible. Think about Abraham looking at the stars and trying to count them. Or Moses standing before the burning bush. Or the Israelites pleading with God in the book of Lamentations. Or Jonah responding to Nineveh’s mass conversion. Or Mary talking to the angel Gabriel. Or Jesus’ disciples practically all the time. Do any of them seem to have a firm grasp on what God is up to? Could they have written a bestseller on knowing the will of God? Could they deliver a sermon that would satisfy the congregation and double as a successful podcast? I doubt it.
The NCAA tournament is fun because it mocks our ability to analyze it and predict the outcome. How it unfolds is always completely different from the way we think it will. We smile when a true sleeper like Florida Gulf Coast University surprises us, or when a result baffles the experts. We never know what’s happening, and so we don’t obsess about analyzing it, which gives us the freedom to enjoy the madness.
God asks the same attitude of us—even though I still wonder if bracket-picking is a spiritual gift.
This piece was previously posted (in longer and even funnier form) here.