Legendary college football coach Urban Meyer tells a remarkable story about his father. During his senior year of high school Urban was drafted by the Atlanta Braves to play major league baseball. Soon after arriving in the minor leagues, however, he realized he didn’t have the necessary talent and called his father to tell him he was quitting. His father informed Urban that if he quit, he would no longer be welcome in their home. “Just call your mom on Christmas,” he said. Needless to say, Urban finished out the season and ended up embracing the incredibly conditional world of his father, a world in which failure was simply not an option, and reflection another word for “weakness wrapped in nostalgia.”
Urban went on to win back-to-back national championships as the coach for the Florida Gators, and some would chalk his success up to his uncompromising attitude and work ethic. It certainly helped. But it turns out that these victories were short-lived, at least as far as Urban was concerned. The screws only got tighter; once he had won those titles, anything but perfection would be viewed as failure. After the 2007 season, Urban apparently confessed to a friend that anxiety was taking over his life and he wanted to walk away. He was quoted in 2011 as saying, “building takes passion and energy. Maintenance is awful. It’s nothing but fatigue. Once you reach the top, maintaining that beast is awful.” One commentator described him as “a man running for a finish line that doesn’t exist.” Soon the chest pains started, and then they started getting worse. A few hours after the Gators winning streak finally came to an end in 2009, Urban was found on the floor of his house, unable to move or speak. He had come to a breaking point. Soon he would resign, come back and resign again.
Urban Meyer’s story may be a bit extreme, but perhaps you can relate. Perhaps you had a demanding father or mother, for whom nothing was ever good enough. Perhaps they are long gone but you still hear their voice in your head. Perhaps you have a spouse that never seems to let up with the demand, for whom successes are not really successes; they’re simply non-failures. You see, as gifted and driven as Urban Meyer was and is, no one can live under the burden of perfection forever. It may work for a while, but sooner or later, we hit the wall. Even when Urban was fulfilling all righteousness, record-wise, he wasn’t doing it out of love of the game or the joy of shepherding young men, but out of fear of weakness and fear of what it would mean if he lost. If righteousness is a matter of motivation as well as action, then even when he was meeting the standards of performance set by his father, he wasn’t really meeting them.
Urban had fallen victim to a vicious form of performancism. He had become a slave to his record, where the points scored on the field were more than just a proud part of his team’s tally but a measure of his personal worth and identity.
I got my first tennis racket on my seventh birthday. And because we had a tennis court in our backyard, I played every day. By ten I was playing competitively. Everyone around me marveled at my natural ability. I would constantly hear how great I was for being so young, how much potential I had to “really go somewhere.” All of this made me feel important. It made me feel like I mattered. Without realizing it I began to anchor my sense of worth and value in being a great tennis player.
I had a problem, though. Whenever I would hit a bad shot or lose a point, I would throw a John McEnroe-like temper tantrum. I would yell, curse, break my racket, etc. Numerous times my parents and coaches would counsel me, telling me I had to get myself under control. But I couldn’t. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t. I didn’t know why back then but I do now. Every lost point, game, set, and match threatened my identity. I unconsciously concluded that if I didn’t become the best, I’d be a nobody; If I didn’t win, I didn’t count. If I wasn’t successful, I would be worthless.
I was experiencing what Paul Zahl calls, “the law of capability”—the law that judges us wanting if we’re not capable, if we can’t handle it all, if we don’t meet the expectations that we put on ourselves or that others put on us. Zahl describes it this way:
If I can do enough of the right things, I will have established my value. Identity is the sum of my achievements. Hence, if I can satisfy the boss, meet the needs of my spouse and children, and still pursue my dreams, then I will be somebody. In Christian theology, such a position is called justification by works. It assumes that my worth is measured by my performance. Conversely, it conceals a dark and ghastly fear: If I do not perform, I will be judged unworthy. To myself I will cease to exist.
After Urban Meyer’s very public collapse, he took some time off. He went on a road trip with his son. He attended his daughter’s volleyball games. He made peace with his father. He even rediscovered the reason he got into football in the first place: love of the game. Eventually he took a new position as coach for Ohio State, and above his new desk he hung his contract—not the contract he signed with the university, but the one he signed with his wife and children, the one which prioritized his family and his health. An expression of love rather than judgment. It’s a beautiful story, and it’s not over.
An article about Urban during his transition mentions a book that he used to live by, written for business executives, called Change or Die. He has talked about the book in speeches, given away countless copies, invited the author to meet with his teams, but never did he realize the book described him, down to a tee. The article recounts an episode that occurs in the car on the way to Cleveland, in which someone reads Urban a passage from the book:
“Why do people persist in their self-destructive behavior, ignoring the blatant fact that what they’ve been doing for many years hasn’t solved their problems? They think that they need to do it even more fervently or frequently, as if they were doing the right thing but simply had to try even harder.”
Meyer’s voice changes, grows firmer, louder. “Blatant fact,” he says. He pauses. A fragmented idea orders itself in his mind. “Wow,” he says. He asks to hear it again. “Blatant fact,” he says. “It should have my picture. I need to read that to my wife. I’m gonna reread that now. Self-destructive behavior?”
This is a man who was addicted to the law, so much so that it destroyed him. Yet his defeat turned out not to be the end he feared it would be, but the beginning of something new, the advent of a man finally free enough from the stranglehold of narcissistic performancism that he could not only laugh at himself but begin to love those around him. Self-destruction was not the end of his story, neither is the Law the end of ours.
The law is God’s first word, but thank God it’s not the last. The last word is the one that comes straight from the mouth of Jesus himself, when he says, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
If you’re a Christian, here’s the good news: Who you really are has nothing to do with you—how much you can accomplish, who you can become, your behavior (good or bad), your strengths, your weaknesses, your sordid past, your family background, your education, your looks, and so on. Your identity is firmly anchored in Christ’s accomplishment, not yours; his strength, not yours; his performance, not yours; his victory, not yours.