A Buckeye Believer Ponders Jim Tressel

I was in Ohio when the news broke about Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel. For a day or two the economy and world unrest took a back seat in the Buckeye state. Conversations centered on reactions to Tressel’s very late admission to having knowledge of two player’s potential rule violations. The reaction in the Buckeye state was primarily surprise. Jim Tressel is a revered figure in Ohio and not just because his teams have beaten Michigan. Buckeye Nations’s surprise seemed to be followed mainly by disappointment. Comments like these were overheard often.

“I had hoped he was different.”
“He is just like all the rest.”

Buckeye fans (and many others) want to believe that what Coach Tressel espouses is true. They want to think that their coach is really molding young men and preparing them for life. They also want to win. That is the tough line Jim Tressel walks.

I chose not to write about Jim Tressel for a few days until I had time to reflect as both a Buckeye fan and a fellow believer in Jesus Christ. I can’t win on this one. If I defend Coach Tressel I will get emails about how I am drinking the scarlet and gray Kool-Ade and compromising my beliefs. If I condemn him I will get emails about being judgmental. So I will try something weird. I will just be honest.

First of all, I thought the press conference was just short of a disaster. That should have been a time for contrition, repentance and assurances for how the situation was being handled. Instead the Ohio State position seemed to be concentrating on what a great guy Coach Tressel is. I agree that everyone should be evaluated with a full body of work and not on just one incident. But that was a conversation to have later. I also wish Coach Tressel had been a bit more forthcoming in his apologies for his bad decisions.  

The irony is that the news first broke while Tressel was autographing his new book, “Life Promises for Success: Promises from God on Achieving Your Best”. It was no surprise that the critics had a field day with that fact. Hypocrite was one of the kinder adjectives hurled at Tressel and at the leadership of Ohio State. On that charge I have great sympathy. One of my fears when my book “When Bad Christians Happen to Good People” was first published was how much I had put my life and testimony in the spotlight for others to dissect and criticize. It was a pretty regular occurrence after the book’s publication for a co-worker to give me a little dig after I said or did something that they deemed inconsistent.

“So is THAT in your book?”, they would ask. I usually responded by saying, “Yeah, it’s actually in the title.”  But my influence is small and my mistakes don’t make Sportscenter.

Here are my thoughts on Jim Tressel and any other celebrity who represents Jesus and stumbles or falls. As I learn to look more and more through the lens of grace I find that the struggles of others shines light on my own dependence on God.

  1. Jim Tressel made an enormous mistake. His cover-up and lack of transparency to his bosses have damaged him and the university. I used to get really self-righteous at moments like this and proclaim that “I wouldn’t have done that”. Really? I thought back on various moral dilemmas in my life. The ones I want you to know about were the ones where I reacted with integrity and honesty. But there are sad incidents in my life where I chose hiddenness and deceit. Some came back to hurt me in relationships and reputation. Some stayed hidden and no one ever found out. At least that is how I fool myself. But I was still wounded by that hiddenness in ways that I probably haven’t fully realized. Jim Tressel made a series of bad decisions that he says started out with a desire to protect two young men. I will take him at his word on his first response. Those who know him well say that rings true to his track record. But I suspect he realized at some point that he was in a mess that would not end well. Should he have come forward right then? Of course he should have. But have you ever delayed facing a tough moral decision until you are so deep that it seems better to hope it stays hidden? I have. That does not excuse Jim Tressel. There are consequences to sin. Jim Tressel has suffered those consequences in damaged reputation, relationships and influence. Extending grace to Jim Tressel does not change the focus on how ugly sin is and how painful the harvest of those choices can be. It does change how I respond to the brother or sister who sins. Paul wrote about how we should respond when a believer sins. “Live creatively, friends. If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out.” (Galatians 6:1, The Message).
  2. There is a percentage of the population that takes great delight when a visible Christian leader stumbles. They somehow feel that the failure of a vocal believer invalidates the faith. Christianity teaches just the opposite. Paul wrote in Romans how our inability to manage sin by strict moralism demonstrates our need for a Savior and for grace. Our hope is not in a great Christian leader or prophet. Our hope is in Jesus Christ.

    For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he declares sinners to be right in his sight when they believe in Jesus. Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law. 

    The church has too often communicated through our moralism that righteousness is because of our self-righteous behavior. No drinking. No cursing. No gambling. And so on. But the truth is that righteousness comes because of Jesus. Believers are saints by position and not by personal merit. When we sin we are still righteous even as we may suffer the consequences of those actions. We have been “declared” right in God’s sight because of Jesus. It is that unfathomable grace that is the distinctive of Christianity. If I fail miserably today it does not change the truth of the Gospel. All of us, celebrity and not, should point to Christ and not to our own works. We fail. God does not.

  3. Bill Thrall of Truefaced.com hit me with a paradigm shifter when he said this. “Most Christians don’t know that God has made us saints, who still sin, not sinners striving to become saints. This changes everything! If people knew about this treasure, churches everywhere would become safe places. Not soft places, but safe places, where we could be real, we could try out our faith, where we could fail and yet be loved.” Bill’s point is that we are all the same when God looks at us. God sees the redeeming work of Christ. We have been clothed in righteousness because of Jesus. A great example is how Paul described the church at Corinth. This was a body of believers with issues. Yet Paul addresses them as saints. “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”  When I view you as a sinner striving to be a saint I give myself permission to judge you and distance from you until you work out your sin issues. Grace says that I move toward you to walk with you through the trial because I may need that grace next.
  4. Real growth comes through adversity. I believe Jim Tressel will grow in his faith from this difficult, self-inflicted trial. I will stand with him as I hope other believers would stand with me through struggles. I have never learned the heard lessons of dependence and surrender when times were good. Only in the storm do I learn where my trust resides.

I have friends that are close to Coach Tressel. I believe he is a genuine man who made a mistake. Pray that he will trust God for the lessons he needs to learn. As for me, I take no joy when a fellow believer stumbles. I want to use those moments as a reminder to open the doors of my heart to the cleansing light of the Spirit.