Anyone can put together a theology of success. It is not hard to celebrate men and women who are winners and explain what makes them great. The tough work lies in constructing a theology for failures. Perhaps because I have failed so often in my life, I look for the word from God that will help me keep going when I feel I’ve let God and everyone else down.
Perhaps that is why I’m drawn to a little phrase for losers at the core of the Book of Jonah: “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time …” (Jonah 3:1). In some ways, that truth outdistances the large fish as the most startling revelation in the entire book. God gave the prophet a second chance. Deliberately, consciously, stubbornly, Jonah had disobeyed God. He had run from him in a fit of rebellion, yet God came to the prophet a second time and allowed him to carry on his ministry.
On New Year’s Day, 1929, Georgia Tech played UCLA in the Rose Bowl. In that game, a man named Roy Riggles recovered a fumble for California. Somehow, Riggles became confused and started running 65 yards in the wrong direction. One of his teammates, Benny Lom, outdistanced him and tackled him just before he scored for the opposing team. When California attempted to punt, Tech blocked the kick and scored a safety, which was the ultimate margin of victory.
That strange play came in the first half, and everyone watching the game was asking the same question: “What will Coach Nibbs Price do with Roy Riggles in the second half?” The players filed off the field and went into the dressing room and sat down on the benches and the floor—all but Riggles. He put his blanket around his shoulders, sat down in a corner, put his face in his hands, and cried like a baby.
A coach usually has a great deal to say to his team during halftime. But that day, Coach Price was quiet. No doubt he was trying to decide what to do with Riggles. Then the timekeeper came in and announced that there were only three minutes till play time. Price looked at the team and said simply, “Men, the same team that played the first half, will start the second.”
The players got up and started out—all but Riggles. He didn’t budge. The coach looked back and called to him again; still he didn’t move. Coach Price went over to where Riggles sat and said, “Roy, didn’t you hear me? The same team that played the first half, will start the second.” Then Roy Riggles looked up, and Price saw that his cheeks were wet with a strong man’s tears.
“Coach,” he said. “I can’t do it to save my life. I’ve ruined you. I’ve ruined the University of California. I’ve ruined myself. I couldn’t face that crowd in the stadium to save my life.”
Then Coach Nibbs Price put his hands on Riggles’s shoulder and said, “Roy, get up and go on back. The game is only half over.” And Roy Riggles went back, and those Georgia Tech players will tell you they have never seen a man play football as Roy Riggles played in that second half.
What A Coach!
When I read about that incident, deep inside I said, “What a coach!” When I read the story of Jonah and the stories of a thousand lives like his, I say, “What a God!” We take the ball and run in the wrong direction. We stumble and fall and are so ashamed of ourselves that we never want to try again. And God comes to us, bends over us, and in the person of his Son he says, “Get up. Go on back. The game is only half over.”
That is the gospel of the grace of God. It is the gospel of the second chance, of the third chance, of the hundredth chance. It is a gospel of Jonah, for Peter, for John Mark, and for Haddon.
Scottish preacher Alexander Whyte once described the perseverance of the saints as falling down and getting up, falling down and getting up, falling down and getting up, all the way to heaven. For those of us who have tripped too often, Jonah’s is a gospel on which to stake our lives.
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