The following excerpt is from “Fearless,” due for national release in bookstores and online Sept. 1 from Thomas Nelson, Inc. “Take courage, son, your sins are forgiven.” Matthew 9:2 (NASB) Noble Doss dropped the ball. One ball. One pass. One mistake. In 1941 he let one fall. And it’s haunted him ever since. “I cost us a national championship,” he says. The University of Texas football team was ranked number one in the nation. Hoping for an undefeated season and a berth in the Rose Bowl, they played conference rival Baylor University. With a 7-0 lead in the third quarter, the Longhorn quarterback launched a deep pass to a wide-open Doss. “The only thing I had between me and the goal,” he recalls, “was 20 yards of grass.” The throw was on target. Longhorn fans rose to their feet. The sure-handed Doss spotted the ball and reached out, but it slipped through. Baylor rallied and tied the score with seconds to play. Texas lost their top ranking and, consequently, their chance at the Rose Bowl. “I think about that play everyday,” Doss admits. Not that he lacks other memories. Happily married for over six decades. A father. Grandfather. He served in the Navy during World War II. He appeared on the cover of Life Magazine with Texas teammates. He intercepted seventeen passes during his collegiate career, a university record. He won two NFL titles with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Texas High School Hall of Fame and Longhorn Hall of Honor include his name. Most fans remember the plays Doss made and the passes he caught. Doss remembers the one he missed. Once, upon meeting a new Longhorn head coach, Doss told him about the bobbled ball. It had been fifty years since the game, but he wept as he spoke. Memories of dropped passes fade slowly. They stir a lonely fear, a fear that we have disappointed people, that we have let down the team, that we’ve come up short. A fear that, when needed, we didn’t do our part, that others suffered from our fumbles and bumbles. Of course, some of us would gladly swap our blunders for Doss’. If only we’d just dropped a pass. If only we’d just disappointed a football squad. I converse often with a fellow who, by his own admission, wasted the first half of his life. Blessed with more talent than common sense, he made enemies and money at break-neck speed. Now he’s the stuff of which sad, country songs are written. Ruined marriage. Angry kids. His liver functions like it’s been soaked in Vodka. (It has.) When we talk, his eyes dart back and forth like a man hearing footsteps. His past pursues him like a posse. Our conversations return to the same orbit: Can God ever forgive me? “He gave me a wife, I blew it. He gave me kids, I blew it.” I try to tell him, “Yes, you failed, but you aren’t a failure. God came for people like us.” He absorbs my words like the desert absorbs a downpour. But by the next time I see him, he needs to hear them again. The parched soil of fear needs steady rain. I correspond with a prisoner. Actually, he does most of the corresponding. He has three-to-five years to reflect on his financial misdealing. Shame and worry take turns dominating the pages–shame for the mistake, worry about the consequences. He’s disappointed everyone he loves. Including God. Especially God. He fears he’s out-sinned God’s patience. He’s not unique. “God’s well of grace must have a bottom to it,” we reason. “A person can request forgiveness only so many times,” contends our common sense. “Cash in too many mercy checks and, sooner or later, one is going to bounce!” The devil loves this line of logic. If he can convince us that God’s grace has limited funds, we’ll draw the logical conclusion. The account is empty. God has locked the door to his throne room; pound all you want, pray all you want. No access to God. “No access to God” unleashes a beehive of concerns. We are orphans, unprotected and exposed. Heaven, if there is such a place, has been removed from the itinerary. Vulnerable in this life and doomed in the next. The fear of disappointing God has teeth. But Christ has forceps. In his first reference to fear, he does some serious de-fanging. “Take courage, son; your sins are forgiven” (Mt. 9:2 NASB). Note how Jesus places courage and forgiven sin in the same sentence. Might bravery begin when the problem of sin is solved? Let’s see. Jesus spoke these words to a person who could not move. “A paralytic lying on a bed…” (vs. 2). The disabled man couldn’t walk the dog or jog the neighborhood. But he did have four friends and his friends had a hunch. When they got wind that Jesus was a guest in their town, they loaded their companion on a mat and went to see the teacher. An audience with Christ might bode well for their buddy. A standing-room-only crowd packed the residence where Jesus spoke. People sat in windows, crowded in doorways. You’d have thought God himself was making the Capernaum appearance. Being the sort of fellows who don’t give up easily, the friends concocted a plan. “When they weren’t able to get in because of the crowd, they removed part of the roof and lowered the paralytic on the stretchers” (Mk. 2:4 MSG). Risky strategy. Most homeowners don’t like to have their roofs disassembled. Most quadriplegics aren’t fond of a one-way bungee drop through a ceiling cavity. And most teachers don’t appreciate a spectacle in the midst of their lesson. We don’t know the reaction of the homeowner or the man on the mat. But we know that Jesus didn’t object. Matthew all but paints a smile on his face. Christ issued a blessing before one was requested. And he issued a blessing no one ever expected. “Take courage, son; your sins are forgiven.” Wouldn’t we anticipate different words? “Take courage. Your legs are healed.” “Your paralysis is over.” “Sign up for the Boston Marathon.” The man had limbs as sturdy as spaghetti, yet Jesus offered mercy, not muscles. What was he thinking? Simple. He was thinking about our deepest problem: sin. He was considering our deepest fear: the fear of failing God. Before Jesus healed the body, (which he did), he treated the soul. “Take courage; your sins are forgiven” (Mt. 9:2 NASB). To sin is to disregard God, ignore his teachings, deny his blessings. Sin is “God-less” living, centering life on the center letter of the word sIn. The sinner’s life is me-focused, not God-focused. Wasn’t this the choice of Adam and Eve? They indwelt a fearless world. One with creation, one with God, one with each other. Eden was a “one-derful” world with one command: don’t touch the tree of knowledge. Adam and Eve were given a choice, and each day they chose to trust God. But then came the serpent, sowing seeds of doubt and offering a sweeter deal. “Has God indeed said…?” (Gen. 3:1), he questioned. “You will be like God” (Gen. 3:5), he offered. Just like that, Eve was afraid. Some say she was pride-filled, defiant, disobedient…but wasn’t she first afraid? Afraid God was holding out, that she was missing out? Afraid Eden wasn’t enough. Afraid God wasn’t enough? Afraid God couldn’t deliver? Suppose she and Adam had defied these thoughts. Refused to give soil to the serpent’s seeds of doubt. “You’re wrong, you reptile. Our Maker has provided each and every need. We have no reason to doubt Him. Go back to the hole from which you came.” But they spoke no such words. They mishandled fear and fear did them in. Eve quit trusting God and took matters–and the fruit–into her own hands. “Just in case God can’t do it, I will.” Adam followed suit. Adam and Eve did what fear-filled people do. They ran for their lives. “Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to Adam, ‘Where are you?’ so he said, ‘I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid…’” (Gen.3:8-10 NKJV). Fear, mismanaged, leads to sin. Sin leads to hiding. Since we’ve all sinned, we all hide, not in bushes, but in eighty-hour work weeks, temper tantrums, and religious busyness. We avoid contact with God. We are convinced that God must hate our evil tendencies. We sure do. We don’t like the things we do and say. We despise our lustful thoughts, harsh judgments, and selfish deeds. If our sin nauseates us, how much more must it revolt a holy God! We draw a practical conclusion: God is irreparably ticked off with us. So what are we to do except run and hide in the bushes at the sound of his voice? The prophet Isaiah says that sin has left us as lost and confused as stray sheep. “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned, everyone to his own way” (Isa. 53:6 NKJV). If the prophet had known my dog, he might have written, “All we like Molly have gone astray…” For such a sweet dog, she has a stubborn, defiant streak. Once her nose gets wind of a neighbor’s grilling steak or uncovered trash, no amount of commands can control her. You don’t want to know how many times this minister has chased his dog down the street, threatening un-minister like warnings toward his pet. She sins, living as if her master doesn’t exist. She is known to wander. Last week we thought she’d wandered away for good. We posted her picture on bulletin boards, drove through the neighborhood calling her name. Finally, after a day of futility, I went to the animal shelter. I described Molly to the animal shelter director. She wished me luck and pointed toward a barrack-shaped building whose door bore the sign, “stray dogs.” Warning to softhearted dog lovers: don’t go there! I’ve not seen such sadness since they shut down the drive-in movie theatre in my hometown. Cage after cage of longing, frightened eyes. Big, round ones. Narrow, dark ones. Some peered from beneath the thick eyebrows of a cocker spaniel. Others from the bald-as-a rock head of a Chihuahua. Different breeds, but same plight. Lost as blind geese with no clue how to get home. Two terriers, according to a note on the gate, were found on a remote highway. Someone found an aging poodle in an alley. I thought I’d found Molly when I spotted a golden retriever with salty hair. But it wasn’t her. It was a “he” with eyes so brown and lonely they nearly landed him a place in my back seat. I didn’t find Molly at the kennel. I did have a crazy urge at the kennel, however. I wanted to announce Jesus’ declaration. “Be of good cheer. You are lost no more!” I wanted to take the strays home with me, to unlock door after door and fill my car with barking, tail-wagging dog-igals. I didn’t do it. As much as I wanted to save the dogs, I wanted to stay married even more. But I did have the urge, and the urge helps me understand why Jesus made forgiveness his first fearless announcement. Yes, we have disappointed God. But no, God has not abandoned us. [We are] delivered from the power of darkness and conveyed…into the kingdom of the Son… (Col. 1:13) He who believes in Him is not condemned. (Jn. 3:18) Everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have everlasting life; and I will raise him up in the last day. (Jn. 6:40 NIV) These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 Jn. 5:13 emphasis mine) Jesus loves us too much to leave us in doubt about his grace. His “perfect love expels all fear” (1 John 4:18 NLT). If God loved with an imperfect love, we would have high cause to worry. Imperfect love keeps a list of sins and consults it often. God keeps no list of our wrongs. His love casts out fear because he casts out our sin! Tether your heart to this promise and tighten the knot. Remember the words of John’s epistle: “If our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts, and knows all things” (1 Jn. 3:20 NKJV). When you feel unforgiven, evict the feelings. Emotions don’t get a vote. Go back to the Scripture. God’s Word holds rank over self-criticism and self-doubt. As Paul told Titus, “God’s readiness to give and forgive is now public. Salvation’s available for everyone!…Tell them all this. Build up their courage…” (Titus 2:11 MSG emphasis mine). Do you know God’s grace? Then you can love boldly, live robustly. You can swing from trapeze to trapeze; his safety net will break your fall. Nothing fosters courage like a clear grasp of grace. And, nothing fosters fear like an ignorance of mercy. May I speak candidly? If you haven’t accepted God’s forgiveness, you are doomed to fear. Nothing can deliver you from the gnawing realization that you have disregarded your Maker and disobeyed his instruction. No pill, pep talk, psychiatrist, or possession can set the sinner’s heart at ease. You may deaden the fear, but you can’t remove it. God’s grace can. Have you accepted the forgiveness of Christ? If not, do so. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). Your prayer can be as simple as this: Dear Father, I need forgiveness. I admit that I have turned away from you. Please forgive me. I place my soul in your hands and my trust in your grace. Through Jesus I pray. Amen. Ernest Hemingway once told a story about a father in Spain who placed an ad in the prominent newspaper of Madrid. It read: “Paco. Meet me at Hotel Madonna on noon Wednesday. All is forgiven. Love Papa” The next day the guardia civil had to dismiss 800 young boys who showed up on the steps of the hotel. We all wonder if our father forgives us. We all stand at the door of the inn, wondering if his forgiveness is real. And the great news of the gospel is yes; his grace is real and so is our hope. By the way: The case of the missing Molly? She turned up in a neighbor’s backyard. Turns out she wasn’t as far from home as we all feared. Neither are you.
Published August 18th, 2009 by Peter Elliott