As a senior in high school, I was heavily invested in football. I punished my body through many a long practice to become the starting quarterback on the team. In my view there was no such thing as half-excellence. I pushed myself to be at the top of my game–and recruiters for several big-time 1A colleges took notice. I received letters of interest from the University of Las Vegas and Texas Christian University among others.
My plan was to take a scholarship from one of the colleges courting me and then move on to play in the NFL. Why not?
Playing football was the one area of my otherwise dysfunctional childhood where I excelled. Since both of my parents were dead, I didn’t have their moral support. I decided to turn to my brother Mike for his take on my potential. You see, Mike had played defensive tackle for the University of Nevada at Reno. I knew he’d be a great sounding board, so we talked it over. Frankly, Mike was concerned about my arrogant attitude. Standing on the sidelines in my grass-stained jersey, I could hear Mike hitting me with those words: “Jim, you know what? You’re getting a big head about playing football. You’re not the same guy you used to be.” Ouch! Even though I was a young Christian, I knew enough to know that God and big egos didn’t mix. I began to reflect on my brother’s concern. Had football become an idol? Should I give it up even though I loved the game? I had Mike’s opinion, now I needed God’s leading. Before a Saturday game, I knelt down and prayed something unusual: “Lord, if you don’t want me to play big-time college football, break a bone today . . . but don’t let it hurt” You see, with my entire career on the line, I needed a sign from God that couldn’t be explained away as coincidence – such as a sudden rainstorm.
You can read the play-by-play details of what happened that day in my new book, FINDING HOME. Suffice it to say that I was creamed by a linebacker when my fullback stepped out of his way! I hit the turf, hard. When I stood up, I felt a dull pressure on my left shoulder. Reaching under my shoulder pad, I could feel my collarbone was broken. No question about it, I could feel the break in the bone as it pushed up under the skin. Isn’t that amazing? I had my answer: a broken bone that didn’t hurt. That was the last time I wore a uniform. Not long ago I heard a sermon illustration about an unusual practice shepherds used in ancient times to handle wayward lambs. As a last resort, if a lamb had a habit of wandering away from the herd, the shepherd would use his rod to carefully break one of the lambs’ legs. Crippled, the shepherd would splint the leg and then carry the lamb everywhere on his shoulders until the leg healed. During that season of dependence, the lamb would bond with the shepherd, never to stray again. God, as the Good Shepherd, disciplines His sheep. Discipline is never fun. At times it can be painful. As the writer of the book of Hebrews says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).
You see, God’s love for me and for you moves His heart to do whatever is necessary to keep us from wandering from our relationship with Him – in my case that involved breaking a bone, literally. In the process, we come to see how utterly dependent we are on Him for all that we have.
What’s more, when we do stray – and then experience God’s hand of discipline – He longs for us to seek His healing touch. Just like King David did after his affair with Bathsheba. David writes, “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow . . . let the bones you have crushed rejoice” (Psalm 51:7-8). David knew that God is our Good Shepherd. He cares about the details of our lives. Listen closely. His voice is calling you and me to the right pathway.