You don’t preach the gospel if you fear criticism. Same goes for playing quarterback. Tim Tebow evangelizes while playing quarterback, making him one of the most heavily scrutinized public figures in America. Following a legendary career in which his University of Florida Gators won two national championships, the first hint of failure in the National Football League was bound to bring out the naysayers. Before his second professional season has even begun in Denver, that time has come. Tebow’s outspoken Christian faith only makes him a bigger target. Signs that he may not succeed in the NFL have even called his theology into question.

CBSSports.com national columnist Gregg Doyel dissected a recent Tebow statement the way analysts have picked apart Tebow’s unorthodox throwing motion. The occasion was unexpected news that Tebow would not begin the season as Denver’s starting quarterback. Tebow defended the quality of his play, vowing he work hard, improve, and become the star so many hope and expect him to be.

“Others who say I won’t make it are wrong,” Tebow said in an interview with a Denver Post columnist. “They don’t know what I’m capable of and what’s inside me. My family and my friends have been bothered by what’s gone on, and I tell them to pay no attention to it. I’m relying as always on my faith.”

This last sentence prompted Doyel’s theological reflection. Brandishing his Christian bona fides, Doyel made it clear that he harbors no personal animus for Tebow, as so many others do. He lauded him as a person, as a Christian role model, describing Tebow as one of the nicest people he’s ever seen. He even granted that Tebow should—indeed, must—be confident if he wants to succeed in such a high-pressure position.

Still, Doyel wondered where failure fits in Tebow’s theological scheme. What if God wants him to back up starting quarterback Kyle Orton? Is that not a possibility? Must he become a superstar? Does faith entitle him to this coveted role? Lots of good God-fearing football players—never mind the rest of us who peaked in high school—never find success in the NFL.

“From the outside it looks like Tebow equates his love for God in heaven with tangible rewards here on earth,” Doyel wrote. “And that’s more than wrong. It’s blasphemy.”

I’m not sure if Doyel knows what blasphemy is, or the seriousness of the charge he’s leveling against Tebow. Meriam-Webster defines blasphemy as “the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God,” or “the act of claiming the attributes of deity.” I don’t see how he can get all of that out of one column, let alone a couple brief comments open to interpretation.

Less heretically, Tebow could be saying he relies on his faith to withstand criticism and pressure, not that he finds assurance in his future as a starting quarterback because God loves him. The point is that we can’t be sure of his intent, based on these comments alone. When Tebow says, “I know that all this (controversy) will have a way of working out,” he might be echoing the Christian hope of Romans 8:28, that God works all things together for good for those who are called according to his purpose. Good, here, does not necessarily mean on-field success as defined by football wins and signing bonus riches. As a Christian, Tebow presumably knows this. In fact, God sometimes works our good through loss and poverty.

Standing on the Rock

Already Tebow has earned many millions by virtue of his selection in the first round of the NFL Draft in 2010. He was already such a sensation in high school that his games sometimes appeared on national television. I stood near fans at one college who hoisted signs in front of ESPN television cameras pleading for him to play for their school. His Florida teams won two national championships. While he was still playing, the school commemorated one of his speeches with a plaque outside their football facilities. He won the Heisman Trophy, one of the most prestigious awards in college athletics.

No one would really fault Tebow if he struggled with life as an NFL backup. He has only known success. Well, almost. That acclaimed speech during his junior season followed an unacceptable loss to an underdog conference rival. It firmed his resolve to succeed. So he’s proven that he can overcome setbacks.

But something different happened his senior year in 2009. After being ranked number one all season, the Gators lost in the Southeastern Conference championship game to number two Alabama. Overcome with emotion, he knelt on the sidelines and cried. Rival fans mocked him. After all, this was the fierce competitor who only one month earlier had defeated Florida State while covered in field paint, looking like a Braveheart extra. There would be no passionate speech, no chance for on-field redemption. Only the bitter reality of unmet expectations, a story that didn’t end as it should have with the Gator hero on top.

Criticizing Tebow, Doyel missed the real story. Tebow doesn’t believe God has promised him success. He does worry, however, that if he doesn’t succeed in the NFL, he will disappoint his family and legions of fans.

“I know there are a lot of people who believe in me as a player and a person,” Tebow told the Denver Post, “and I don’t want to let them down.”

This fear is a powerful, if dangerous, motivator. Tebow puts a lot of pressure on himself. He wants success, because success means fans, and fans mean people will hear him preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some might even be compelled by his success as a football player and role model to believe what he believes. If he doesn’t play in Denver, everything falls apart. Or so Tebow may fear.

I pray this is not how he truly thinks, because no one needs this kind of pressure. Indeed, no one can stand it. Only Jesus is the perfect role model who never fails us, who triumphed over death even when the world mocked him as a failure. None can compare. Thankfully, we don’t need to. God has won the ultimate victory that secures eternal fellowship with him for all who believe.

If Tebow fails in Denver, he can learn from the example of his friend, former Texas Longhorns and current Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy. He lost that same season to Alabama, one month after Tebow did, in the national championship game. But his circumstances were even more painful. A crushing hit knocked McCoy out of his final college game. Clearly choked up and searching for words while talking with a reporter afterward, McCoy gave a reason for the hope in him (1 Pet. 3:15).

“I always give God the glory,” McCoy said. “I never question why things happen the way they do. God is in control of my life, and if nothing else, I know I’m standing on the Rock.”

There was real power in the words he spoke—not just because they were true, but because he delivered them in such difficult circumstances. Disappointment gave his words weight. The same may be true for Tebow, too, if he never succeeds in Denver. Faith amid failure may be the most powerful testimony to God’s unconditional grace he ever delivers.