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The Penn State scandal and the idols of the heart

November 8, 2011 by Eric Stillman 0 comments

As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10)

It’s been a rough year for college football, as scandal after scandal has rocked many of the elite programs around the country. In 2011 alone, Ohio State’s football coach, Jim Tressel, resigned after he was found to have hidden violations from the NCAA, the University of Miami football team was found to have committed numerous violations so heinous that it could lead to the program being shut down, and this past week, Penn State has been under the microscope after it was discovered that one of its assistant coaches had been sexually molesting boys for years, often at the team practice facility, and that school officials, including the head coach Joe Paterno, had done very little to bring the abuse into the light. Now, the Miami scandals were not much of a surprise, given the tawdry history of the program, but the Ohio State and Penn State scandals were shocking precisely because the head coaches of both schools had been held up as models of integrity. Now, sadly, they find their reputations crumbling around them as it became clear that neither man was as he was portrayed to be.

I think my reaction to these scandals is best summed up by the writer of Ecclesiastes: “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). I share in the revulsion at the Penn State scandal, and shake my head sadly at the deception and greed found at Ohio State and Miami, but at the same time I am not shocked by any of it. The Bible tells us that “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10), and therefore despite the way people may put others on pedestals as models of integrity or righteousness, I know that there is none righteous except Jesus. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and that includes esteemed football coaches. All of us, though created in the image of God and capable of incredible acts of goodness and beauty, are also fallen beings capable of the worst kinds of evil, often restrained only by our fear of getting caught instead of a desire for righteousness. There is truly no “model of integrity” except for Jesus Christ.

These scandals also reveal the power of idolatry, the danger that comes from making something other than Jesus your God, turning a created thing into the thing that gives your life meaning, comfort, and security. In the Ohio State and Penn State scandals, the big trespass committed by head coaches Tressel and Paterno was that others in their program were acting in ways that, if brought to light, could have serious repercussions for both themselves and their program. In the case of Ohio State, key players would be suspended, likely leading to games lost. In the case of Penn State, a top assistant coach would lose his job, hurting the team’s chances for success and possibly opening the door to further revelations of wrongdoing within the program. Both head coaches, faced with the choice to either expose the sin and risk their own security and success, or to hide the sin and protect their security and success, chose to hide the sin. By doing so, each coach revealed who they were truly worshiping – not God, but the idol of success, upon which all other things – their integrity, and the safety of young men – would ultimately be sacrificed.

You or I may not have the status or the pressure of a big-time college football coach, but each of us is faced with similar situations all the time. We are often put in a position where we must choose to either honor God and do the right thing and risk losing other things that we hold dear – the approval of others, important relationships, financial security – or sacrifice everything, including God, upon the altar of our idol. We make others look bad so that people will think well of us. We compromise ethically in order to raise profits. We settle for less than the best because we are afraid of being alone. We give in to another’s demands because we are afraid of losing a relationship. The pull towards self-preservation can be strong, and we are often too willing to sacrifice Jesus all over again in order to preserve our idols and maintain those things which promise to give our life meaning, comfort, and security.

Do not put your hope in anyone or any thing of this world, but put it in Jesus. There is no one righteous, no true man of integrity apart from Jesus. And ask God to expose the idols in your life, those things which, if not destroyed, may one day destroy you the way they did Tressel and Paterno.

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