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 they 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.


The Greatest Touchdown Run You Will Ever See

Little seven year-old Jack Hoffman, who has brain cancer, ran for 69-yard touchdown during Nebraska’s spring game yesterday. It is, perhaps, one of the greatest moments you will ever see in sports. It made me proud to be a Nebraskan. More than that, Jack’s run made me delight in God for his common grace to create such a moment during a football scrimmage.

Life Theology

Blogging and Broken Computers

My computer is in the local HP shop this week.  Nothing internal, however.  The hinge to close the screen is poorly designed and has been slowly deteriorating since I bought it in January.  It’s a Compaq…so I don’t need to say much more.

So blogging will be slow this week and through the weekend. In the meantime, here’s some random thoughts or things that have come up over the past day or so:

  • Wedding planning is really fun, especially when you are less than four months away.  I like details.  I think they like me, too.  But I love my bride-to-be, and I know that she loves me too.  What a blessing she is to me.
  • We are studying Nehemiah for our staff Bible study here in South Africa.  It might be the best book on leadership ever written.
  • I just bought Leading on Empty by Wayne Cordeiro.  It’s about watching for, recovering from, and avoiding burnout in ministry.  I’m almost 25 so I’m hoping to apply the watching for and avoiding parts.  The first 30 pages are very good.
  • Jesus’ voice will raise the dead — every single person who has ever lived — and judge them (John 5:28-29).  That has implications for your life.
  • Jesus’ intercession for us is the thing that is keeping us saved (Luke 22:31-32).
  • I’m glad that my hope is not in a bunch of college kids who play football.  Otherwise after Nebraska’s game against Virginia Tech this past weekend, my life would be ruined.
  • My time here in SA is almost done.  In the past 2 months, we have seen more gospel vision, passion, and fruit than in the previous 7 months combined.
  • I really have a craving for tortilla chips and chunky salsa.

Is that…? (#2)

In honor of Nebraska’s first football game against Florida Atlantic this weekend:

Is that Captain Kangaroo (aka Bob Keeshan)…

…or Howard Schnellenberger?

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Even After Sexual Sin, There is Hope

My good friend Marty Everding is going to be speaking at a local Nebraska men’s conference called the Ironman Conference. He’ll be speaking on pursuing Christ as in pursuing sexual purity.  In a recent update email on his preparations, he wrote:

I was reminded of something last night through The Pilgrim’s Progress in chapter four where Apollyon is hammering Christian, and the poor guy loses his sword; as he is about to get skewered he reaches once more for his sword, grips it and cuts Apollyon deeply.  Christian cries out, “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise” (Micah 7:8).

I am struck with the thought that for many men who fall, there is often little inclination to get back up. The attendant feelings of worthlessness and guilt often obscure the path out of the woods, and while confession, repentance and contrition might be embraced at some level, there is often a general malignancy that stays across a guy’s chest convincing him to stay down. It is almost as though he believes he is not forgiven and there are no brighter days ahead of him.

Truly sexual sin — in an eternal sense — is no different than any other.  There is redemption, freedom, and no condemnation in Christ (Rom. 6:14; 8:1; Col. 1:13-14; 2:13-14).

Also, if you are going to be in the Omaha/Lincoln area on April 18, I encourage you to consider attending the Freedom Nebraska men’s conference.  Tom Osborne and Nebraska running back Roy Helu will be among the speakers.