Bo Pelini, Self-Deception, and the Gospel

In a closed-door meeting just a few days after he was fired as head coach at Nebraska, Bo Pelini addressed the Husker players. On Thursday the Omaha World Herald released an audio recording of that meeting. (Warning: the audio on this link contains extreme profanity.) Pelini spoke with the team for about 30 minutes and insulted Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst several times. Pelini did not speak well of the university, the administration, or the leadership culture in the athletic department.

If you know anything about Nebraska football and Bo Pelini (and I don’t expect readers of this blog to know anything), you quickly realized that this audio only confirms the exact reason why Pelini was fired: he had an arrogant, unprofessional, disrespectful, and vulgar disposition.

A member of our church (a Texas A&M fan) said to me before Pelini was fired, “He’s a jerk. Your fans are so nice. You don’t need a guy like that.” Yes, Pelini lost some big games by a lot of points. Coaches can’t do that and live to tell about it. But more than that, Pelini does not reflect the type of person an institution of higher education wants to employ, even a football coach.

This brings up an important point. Pelini was known not only for drama on the sidelines, but for crafting a dramatic (and well-rehearsed, it seemed) “us-against-the-world” plot-line throughout his tenure. This post-firing speech, no doubt taken to heart by so many impressionable student-athletes in that room (and for good reason: they loved their coach), was simply the narrative’s denouement. To change the metaphor, it was the Mt. Everest of the Bo Pelini experiment at the University of Nebraska. Mountain top experiences are usually good things. But this final climb to the summit had all the ice and frost bite and anger and heartache of Everest without any of the glory.

But this was about more than a frustrated former employee. It was about more than a coach who blows a gasket every now and then and has a bit of vitriol for his ex-boss. It was about more than approaching sports and coaching with an “us-against-the-world” attitude (which is a bad way to approach sports and coaching but that’s another post).

This was about the “exceeding sinfulness of sin,” as the Puritans used to say. Sin is horrific in its power to deceive the one it devours. Sin is blinding and the more one is entrenched in sin, the harder it is to see that you are actually blind. Pelini had opportunity in front of his players to say, once and for all, he screwed up. That he had not lived up to his own values of class, professionalism, accepting personal responsibility, and so on. That he had not treated people—superiors, referees, players, and others—with honor, dignity, and respect. But he did not. He blamed others. He defended himself. He exaggerated his virtues. He exaggerated the faults of his foes. He did whatever he could to protect and justify himself. Pelini couldn’t see what, it appears, everyone around him had been seeing for years both on and off the field.

Pelini provides us with an extreme case study of how easily and powerfully we can be deceived. We miss the point if we read or hear this and say, “I can’t understand how he didn’t see this! He got what was coming to him.” Instead, this case study should teach us. It should expose our own self-deceptiveness and tendencies to self-protect and self-justify. What would an audio recording of your thoughts sound like? You might not have as many expletives as Pelini, but no doubt there are voracious and dastardly self-defense strategies and tactics being developed and implemented every hour. No doubt you are deceiving yourself and loading up ammo ready to aim and fire on whoever will challenge you in order to justify yourself and dish out judgment and condemnation. Your spouse. Your child. Your boss. Your neighbor. Your small group leader. Your sibling. Your therapist. Be thankful you don’t have a platform like Pelini and a hundred college students with smart phones inside your head.

The only answer—and this is not a trite answer—is the gospel. Through God’s grace in the gospel, I see myself for who I really am. The layers of sin’s deception start to peel back. I realize that my biggest problems are inside of me, not outside of me. The gospel tells me I am more flawed and broken than I ever dared believe. How do I know this? The gospel tells me that God’s own Son, Jesus, died for me. He died for me not as an example but as a substitionary sacrifice. I would have no hope without his death. He died in my place because I deserved to die. I—you—deserved to die because I—we—assaulted God by trying to be God. You see, when we deceive ourselves into believing that our problems are outside of us and not inside of us, and that others are to blame and we are justified in our thoughts, words, and actions, we play the role of God and judge. One of the prime hallmarks of sin is that it deceives us to believe we are our own god.

The gospel shows us that we cannot be our own god and we’re doomed if we try. The gospel shows us that it is not “us-against-the-world” but rather “God-against-the-world.” In our attempts to justify ourselves, we have rebelled against God and find ourselves at odds with him.

But there is also good news in this gospel: we are more loved and accepted than we ever dared hope. The gospel reveals that God is not only against the world, but that he loves the world and he sent his only Son into the world to die for us. Jesus was willing to die and he died because we deserved it. On the cross, Jesus bears the entire punishment we deserve for our self-deception—our playing God. And he also provides the perfection you and I—and Bo Pelini—need for true and lasting justification. Jesus gives us all his beauty and goodness and obedience in return for all our ugliness and badness and disobedience. Astonishing.

What does this do in my life? It frees me from having to protect and justify myself. Why? Because in God’s eyes, I’m justified. There’s no more need to defend myself. The Creator loves and accepts me! Now, I’m free to admit my faults because the are ultimately not a threat to me anymore. God has forgiven me and is in the process of changing me and will one day bring final deliverance. Now, I’m also free to cry out with the psalmist, “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults” (Ps. 19:12). I can admit I don’t know myself as well as I should. There are hidden sins in me that want to stay covered. In fact, I’m partly blind to some of my worst sins. That’s how sin works. But as the gospel takes deeper root in my life, these “hidden faults” become more evident. As the gospel goes deeper and I actively seek out areas of self-deception in order to put them to death, self-deception begins to wane. Slowly, but surely, by God’s grace, it wanes.

This 30-minute audio recording is about Bo Pelini, sure. But it’s also about you and me. It’s about self-deception. It’s about the gospel. Let this final, tragic episode in Pelini’s time at Nebraska help you see that sin is exceedingly sinful because it inclines us to self-deception. Even more, let it help you see that the gospel is exceedingly good because it opens our eyes to who we really are, who Jesus really is, and what he has done to provide us true, lasting justification.

How the Texas Longhorns Taught Me About Life

Sports can be awful for spiritual development.  But they can be beneficial (and fun!) if you enjoy them in perspective. They have the potential of being especially sanctifying for a young man who lives and dies with his team, for God uses sports to humble and teach. Anyone who has played golf knows this.

The video highlights below are of two different football games between Nebraska and Texas.  The first is from 1996. Sorry that there are actually no Nebraska highlights! Nebraska lost that game, and I about lost my religion. James Brown (no, not that James Brown) broke my heart on 4th and inches, with his infamous “roll left” for a 61-yard gain.

You see, I was spoiled.  Nebraska had lost a total of two games from the beginning of the ’93 season to that fateful December day in ’96.  Two.  I didn’t know what losing was when it came to being a Husker football fan.  This game against Texas rocked my 12 year-old world.  But thankfully, God used this game to teach me a valuable lesson. I distinctly remember my dad telling me something I will never forget. He looked me in my tear-stained eyes and said, “James, you can never put your hope in people. If you do, they will always let you down.”

The second video is from 1998. We (Nebraska) lost that one, too. Ricky Williams and Major Applewhite chewed up my Husker heart. Then they spit it out and stomped on it. I don’t remember how I reacted initially, but what I do remember was that it was Halloween. After the game, I dressed up, grabbed my plastic bag and headed out to divide and conquer the neighborhood. I came back with record-breaking candy poundage. I’d like to think my dad’s wise words were somewhere in the back of my head that night, helping me put life in perspective (because Halloween candy is so much more important than football).

This week Nebraska plays Texas again. I will enjoy watching the game, and I hope the Huskers come out on top. But if they don’t, my weekend won’t be ruined.  Sports are fun, but they aren’t life. Jesus is life, and when you finally realize that, things like 4th and inches won’t break your heart. Dad, thanks for teaching me that.

1996, Texas vs. Nebraska, Big 12 Championship Game, St. Louis, Missouri (click here to watch highlights)

1998, Texas vs. Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska

I Think Jesus Would be a Darn Good Quarterback

Welcome to Saturday.

This is the place where dreams come true, where the clapping is a little louder, where boys become men, where grown men learn to cry, and where the grass is actually a bit greener…on the other side of the goaline.

Nebraska plays in a football game today.  And for the first time in four years, I’m excited to watch it.  For the first time in four years, I expect to clap and (maybe) cheer aloud.

I know football is not that important in the grand perspective of eternity and that there are millions of people today who will be worshiping Wolverines, Bulldogs, Longhorns, Tigers, and Gators, and probably less who corporately worship Jesus tomorrow morning.   I know that every game is just that — a game.  I know that football dominates too highly of a percentage of conversation, especially in my state.  I know that Bo Pelini will not save anyone from their sins and that Tom Osborne coming to Nebraska was, in fact, not the Second Coming.

But, I’m sure that Jesus would be a darn good quarterback, because he’s rather good at everything else he does.  The only question is whether you think Jesus would run a Middle East Coast offense or the Triple “Trinity” Option?  (Go ahead, it’s okay to laugh.)  Besides, Audio Adrenaline tells me that in our Father’s house, there will be “a big, big yard where we can play football.”  I mean, who can argue with that theology?

Welcome to Saturday.  It’s going to be fun.

I plan on enjoying it.  I hope you do, too.

Nebraska 31  –  Western Michigan 14