Mistakes and Missed Field Goals

If you’re a football fan, you probably know about the surprising ending to this weekend’s playoff game between the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks. With less than a minute remaining, Vikings kicker Blair Walsh missed a short 27-yard field goal that would have won the game for his team. As a general rule of thumb, NFL kickers don’t miss 27-yard field goals. But on this occasion, Walsh did just that, and it brought the Vikings’ season to a swift and disappointing end.

In the post-game interviews, the devastated kicker shouldered the blame for the mistake, admitting that he should have done better. It was freezing cold and the holder didn’t have the ball positioned properly, but that made no difference to Walsh. “It’s my fault,” he maintained. “I don’t care whether you give me a watermelon whole, I should be able to put that one through.”

All of this was an admirable display of humility, to be sure. But there was one thing Walsh said that stood out more than anything else. Realizing that with one swing of the leg he had immediately become one of the most despised men in Minnesota, he promised, “I’ll be working hard to erase that from my career, but it’ll take a while.”

In a results-driven industry built on winning and losing, Walsh’s resolve is understandable. He knows that the standards are high and the margin for error is slim. And as I reflect on his promise to atone for his mistake, I can’t help but wonder how many of us approach our Christian lives with the same attitude.

Most of us know all too well what it feels like to fall flat on our faces. We speak carelessly. We jump to conclusions. We get angry. We break promises. And yet as proficient as we are at making mistakes, I fear that often we don’t know how to bounce back from them.

When I stumble or fall, the default response of my own heart tends to sound a lot like Blair Walsh’s post-game interview: I promise to work hard and erase the mistake. “If God is displeased with me,” I tell myself, “then I’ll have to earn back his pleasure with lots and lots of virtuous activity.”

Yet this mindset couldn’t be more opposed to the gospel of grace. Most high-profile athletes have learned to resign themselves to the reality that sporting salvation is always a works-based endeavor. Fans are a relentlessly unforgiving bunch, and if there is to be any redemption for a pivotal mistake (like a missed field goal in the final minute), then it will have to be earned. Only a sufficiently long string of successes can make up for such a devastating mishap.

But the good news of Jesus does not require us to make up for past mistakes with future successes. It does not demand that we dig our way out of the holes we have fallen into before we can be accepted. Instead, it announces the liberating truth that our sins are forgiven, our penance has been paid, and our mistakes have been removed as far as the east is from the west. There is indeed a long road to redemption, but it has already been traveled by our perfect substitute, Jesus Christ.

We should never be content with our mistakes, nor should we desire to repeat them. But instead of responding to them with feverish efforts to appease God with our works, we can rest in the once-for-all effort put forth by Christ on our behalf.

This is what the gospel does. It allows us to vicariously enjoy Christ’s victory, reminding us that regardless of how many field goals we miss, Jesus has already won the game.

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