My guess is that most football fans, given the option of any coach to put their money on (figuratively speaking, of course), would choose Bill Belichick for the NFL and Nick Sabin for the NCAA. Bill Belichick won the Super Bowl this year. In the college national championship game, Nick Sabin blew a 14 point lead to get nosed out by Clemson, coming in number two in the country. Both of these coaches distinguish themselves as usually coming in on top or close to it. For Nick Sabin a bad season means ending up second in the nation.
Besides winning, these two coaches share the quality of being demanding. Bill Belichick is noted for telling players who have messed up, “Just do your job.” Likewise, on the practice field or on game day Nick Sabin would never be confused with Jolly old St. Nick of Christmas fame. He also expresses in unmistakable terms that he does not take kindly to mistakes.
These observations suggest a correlation between being demanding and winning. Though occasionally a nice guy wins a championship, the Mike Ditkas and Jim Harbaughs of the football world enjoy more consistent success. In addition, in the long run players prefer tough coaches because they enabled them to be better players and even better people.
So, what kind of coach would Jesus have been? The Jesus described by contemporary evangelicals elicits the picture of an unconditionally accepting coach conveying to his players that performance does not matter, that He will be just as pleased with them regardless of whether or not they leave everything on the field.
This picture of Jesus omits much of the scriptural portrayal of Him. Certainly Jesus had a tender side and caring moments, but often He was tough with His team—His disciples.
After calming the sea that threatened to drown them, one might expect Him to say, “That was really scary, wasn’t it? Are you okay?” Instead He retorted, “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?”
Then there is this story:
Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, and they did not have more than one loaf with them in the boat. Then He charged them, saying, “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “It is because we have no bread.” But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, “Why do you reason because you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Is your heart still hardened? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments did you take up?” They said to Him, “Twelve.” “Also, when I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets full of fragments did you take up?” And they said, “Seven.” So He said to them, “How is it you do not understand?” (Mark 8:14-21)
This might have been said by Bill Belichick to his team on Monday morning after a rare loss.
That Jesus employed this confrontive approach with his disciples on a somewhat regular basis is indicated by their response when Jesus was teaching them about His death. Scripture records,” But they did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask Him.” Their fear suggests that Jesus did not subscribe to the view that there are no bad questions.
Or consider the response of Jesus when His disciples could not cast the demon out of the boy:
“O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” (Matthew 17:17)
Examination of this passage leads to the conclusion that these words were directed at the disciples. Perhaps some Alabama players might respond, “Hey, that sounds just like Coach Sabin.”
We also find a similarly tough approach taken by the apostle Paul and other New Testament writers. In fact, the books of 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians are filled with numerous locker-room-style lines. Consider this one: “What do you want? Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Corinthians 4:21)
My concern resides in the relationship between toughness and winning. Apparently at times human beings need the motivation of tough talk in order to function at their best.
The contemporary evangelical Jesus described above leaves us coddled and pampered. This approach is especially problematic when we consider that the Christian life is described as a battle, and therefore we need every motivation available to endure the related hardships and win. We must fight our own selfish desires, the hostile world surrounding us, and the hosts of hell seeking to destroy us. Consequently, we need the rigorous disciplines administered by winning coaches.
This is not to say that we never need nor should receive empathy and encouragement. These are crucial elements of the Christian life. However, we will not develop as Christians or function at our best in the Christian life if that comprises the totality of our input. One pastor likes to describe his church as a hospital. At times, football players need hospitals. But if that comprises the totality of the training facility, they can expect to lose games. The focal point must be the training room and practice field.
My book, Counterattack: Why Evangelicals Are Losing the Culture War and How They Can Win, makes the case that evangelicals are losing the culture war in part because we are predominantly running hospitals and not training centers. We might do well to invite Bill Belichick and Nick Sabin to our next pastors’ conference.