Coaches, Critics, and the Confidence of Grace

It was a headline that probably shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. As I scrolled through Twitter Sunday afternoon these were the words that caught my attention: “Purdue fires football coach Darrell Hazell.”

At one level, it’s a predictable decision. Since Hazell took over the program, the wins simply haven’t been there. And in college football, let’s be honest: wins are the only things that matter. Even at Purdue where expectations are relatively reasonable (compared to the SEC, at least), you still have to give the fans something to cheer about. If anything, Hazell can count himself lucky that he made it this long.

But at another level—a more human level—I found the news to be disappointing. I liked Darrell Hazell. I wanted him to succeed. From my perspective he was a man of character who coached without the antics and distractions that certain other football coaches seem to be prone to. And although the team had been through a few rough seasons, I had hoped he’d be given enough time to turn it around.

But in the world of sports, that’s not how things work.

It all starts in some sports bar. After one too many losses (and probably one too many drinks), a frustrated fan voices the notion that the coach needs to go. Others hear it and start to get on board with the idea. Social media starts buzzing. Before too long, someone creates a “Fire Darrell Hazell” Twitter account. Then the bloggers catch on and demand that the administration make a change. Eventually the local journalists start piling on as well. And somewhere in this process, the donors and athletic backers exert their influence in calling for a new coach, because hey, money talks.

By the time this process has unfolded, the outcome is inevitable. The critics are simply too loud. Although a good game might quiet them for the time being, all it takes is one wrong step, and they’ll come roaring back more viciously than ever. Even if the administration is supportive of the coach, they can only endure the displeasure of the fan base for so long. Once the critics single out their target, the game is over.

This is the ugly reality in a high-pressure, high-stakes (and high-dollar) environment like college athletics. And while it makes me glad I’m not a college football coach, it also makes me reflect on just how grateful I am to have been drawn into the liberating economy of Christian grace.

A college football coach has many critics, but I know that as a generally unimpressive human being, I have my fair share of critics as well. People who know the promises I’ve broken. People who have been on the receiving end of hurts I’ve inflicted. People who have seen me fall short time and time again. People who know just how ugly I can be. They may not start blogs about me and berate me on social media. But this doesn’t make their criticism any less potent.

It’s not hard to see how such fears could affect my view of God. I want to believe that he loves me and won’t give up on me. But what if the critics get too loud? What if public opinion turns sour? Then what? Will he eventually be forced to give in? Will he get tired of defending me? Will he finally decide to cut ties and move on?

Well, if God’s love for me is dependent upon my performance, then the frightening reality is that yes, he most likely will get tired of defending me against my critics. Although he may have loved me at one point, he’ll eventually run out of patience. And when that happens, the initial optimism at the prospect of a life lived beneath the banner of God’s love will be swallowed up by the despair and loneliness of having been abandoned and left to find my own way.

But if God’s love for me is not dependent upon my performance, then no amount of criticism will ever make a difference. It doesn’t matter how many games I lose; God will stick with me. And it doesn’t matter how many critics call for my head, God will silence them all.

As the Psalmist says, “The Lord stands at the right hand of the needy one, to save him from those who condemn his soul to death” (Ps. 109:31). When every voice of criticism and condemnation is lifted to point out my faults, God is standing by me to rescue me. He doesn’t get sheepish and back away so as to avoid the heat that’s coming my way. He stands in there and protects me, even when the outcry is deafening.

What is it that makes such steadfast commitment possible? The answer is given in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom. 8:34). We are saved from criticism and condemnation because Jesus endured criticism and condemnation. We will never be forsaken by God because Jesus was forsaken by God in our place on the cross. God’s commitment to us will never be swayed by the voice of our opponents because the blood of Jesus speaks a better—and louder—word.

When it comes to college football, you’re always on the hot seat if you’re not winning games. But when it comes to our relationship with our Creator, the hot seat has been buried with Christ. God’s not watching our win-loss record. He’s not seeing what people on Facebook have to say about us. We can be confident even in our weakness, because Jesus has secured our destiny.

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