1st and 40

By Justin Rossow

Have you ever been really discouraged in your discipleship journey?

This weekend kicks of the 100th season of the National Football League. My wife and I caught the fourth quarter of the Chicago Bears’ home opener against division rivals, the Green Bay Packers. Since I grew up in Detroit, I was rooting for them both to lose…

And then something happened I had never seen before.

The Bears were down 3-7 about midway through the last quarter of play. Their offense, which had not yet worked out all of their pre-season kinks, was finally starting to move the ball. They had gotten a first down inside Green Bay territory and were only a few yards from field goal range. That’s when the wheels started to fall off.

It was 1st and 10, and the incomplete pass was nothing special. Nor was the holding call on the Bears’ offensive line.

That’s a ten-yard penalty: repeat 1st down.

So now its 1st and 20. The Bears try something (play action, if I remember right) which didn’t amount to much, except another flag against the Bears.  Illegal hands to the face.

Ten-yard penalty: repeat 1st down.

We’ve gone from just outside of field goal range to the other side of midfield. The Bears are struggling.

It’s 1st down and 30, and the Packers dial up some serious pressure for the pass play they know is coming. The Bears quarterback drops back to pass; the pocket begins to collapse around him; he feels a heavy hand on his back shoulder, ducks, spins out of trouble, and throws an amazing pass down field. Having just lost 20 yards in penalties on the last two plays, quarterback Mitch Trubisky had dodged tacklers and delivered an amazing 52-yard completion to put the Bears in striking distance of a lead-changing touchdown.

Except there was a flag on the play.

In order to get the space he needed to catch that desperate pass, the wide receiver put both hands on the back of the defender and pushed. That’s called Offensive Pass Interference. And, you guessed it, it’s a ten-yard penalty: repeat 1st down.

That’s the thing I have never seen before: 1st down and 40.

1st down, with only 40 yards to go…

That had to be just a terrible feeling of frustration and failure: things were going so well, and suddenly everything you try starts going from bad to worse. Even when you make a great effort, and it looks like you have just done something amazing, more information comes to light that sets you back even more. Your goal is getting farther and farther out of reach. The people who are supposed to be your biggest fans have started booing you. You thought you were in an almost impossible situation, and then you thought you had miraculously gotten out of it, and then you find yourself in an even worse position. You’ve got to go try again, with no hope, and no chance, and three more tries before you can punt.

Do you ever feel like that?

Has your discipleship walk ever gone from bad to worse? Have you found yourself overburdened, and then something happened and you thought things were going to improve dramatically, and then more information comes to light, and you are worse off than before? Do you wish you could just punt and get it over with, because the effort of going out and getting pummeled again is just not worth it?

That kind of discouragement is actually a natural part of following Jesus. And it can affect not only your attitude, but your performance; it even limits what you see as possible.

1st and 40 for the Bears, and Trubisky throws a quick out-route to his wide receiver. The receiver, knowing it’s 1st and 40, turns his head to start running up field just before the ball arrives. It’s hard to catch an NFL pass if you are looking in a different direction… The pressure of gaining 40 yards in the next 3 plays made the receiver take his eyes off the pass. It actually looked like he was playing volleyball instead of football, because he basically spiked the pass into the ground. It wasn’t a difficult play, and there wasn’t even a defender in the area, but the pressure of 1st and 40 affected the pass.

2nd and 40 and the Bears try a play that goes nowhere. 3rd and 40 and the commentator says something like, “I wonder what the Offensive Coordinator is going to dial up. There aren’t too many options in your playbook for 3rd and 40. They’ll probably go with a screen to try and gain some positive yards.”

The commentator knew it was coming. The Packers knew it was coming. The predictable screen pass gained the predictable 2 yards, but what are you going to do? Your options are limited when it’s 3rd and 40…

That football series reminded me of something that, when you are right in the middle of, is really hard to see, and so really hard to deal with. In our American culture, we typically and uncritically experience LIFE as if it were a JOURNEY: we make “progress” in life, we have a “direction” in life, we can experience “setbacks” or “wrong turns” or “new paths” in life.

And, as a culture, we are hyper competitive. We tend to turn everything into a game, with winners and losers, and opponents and teammates, and cheerleaders and victory parades: it doesn’t matter whether you are thinking about your career or discipleship walk, you will naturally, automatically, and subconsciously think about and experience your life as a JOURNEY and as a COMPETITION.

That’s not all bad; in fact, I’m not sure it is good or bad all by itself. But that way of thinking is powerful and most often hidden from our awareness, and that makes it dangerous.

Have you ever felt like, in your relationship with Jesus, on your journey of faith, that it’s 1st and 40? That you are moving in the wrong direction? That your teammates are letting you down, your fans have betrayed you, and the few remaining chances you have to get this right have no hope for success? Have you ever seen your relationship with Jesus suffer or felt like your options were limited because you were so far away from your goal?

It is natural to feel that way. And that way of feeling is only natural if your faith walk is a journey in one direction with a set goal, or faith is a competition where you have to work hard to gain ground in order to have success and therefore win the approval of coaches and fans.

1st and 40 seems like a discouraging place to be in your faith walk. I know; I’ve been there. But the answer isn’t to go out there and try hard to “win one for the Gipper.” Your discouragement, your limited options, the pressure that makes you fail even at a simple task—all of that is directly related to the lens you are using to view your life, a lens that makes everything a goal-oriented journey and a competition that can be won or lost. And you are using that lens without knowing it.

So what’s another option? What do you do when, despite your best effort, it feels like it’s 1st and 40 in your journey of faith?

Call these three plays in your huddle and see what happens.

  1. Feel What You Feel.
    Acknowledge the frustration, the anger, the feeling that others have let you down or even that others are against you. Admit that you feel like a failure; notice how you have been functioning lately: defeated, distracted, and under pressure to perform.
  2. Notice the Lens.
    This part is really hard. It’s like a fish recognizing water, or the boy in The Matrix who says, “There is no spoon…” But this step is essential to a healthier way of experiencing your life, your faith, and your relationships with others. Connect your feeling and thought to why you feel and think that way. If you feel like you are going in the wrong direction, notice that feeling only makes sense if you are on a journey with only one right goal or outcome. If you feel like a failure or that people are on the other team, notice that those feelings fit a competition in a way that may not be appropriate for your faith walk. Find a trusted friend to help you express what you feel and connect those feelings to the lens that is shaping the way you think and feel about what’s going on. This step isn’t easy. (Thinking about our thinking and feeling is never easy.) But once you get the hang of it, noticing your lens can be extremely helpful.
  3. Look for Jesus.
    When it feels like 1st and 40 in your faith journey, remember this is not actually a football game; there is no spoon. If the options in your playbook are shrinking, remember your options are narrow only if you define your next step in terms of having to make a lot of progress quickly. Instead of cursing the booing crowd or pouring your effort into the predictably futile or desperately risky, call a time out and look around for Jesus. I imagine he is somewhere close, waiting for you to notice, and inviting you to take a small next step following him.

You don’t have three chances to gain forty yards; you have as many chances as you need to take one small step following him. And then another. And then another.

Don’t worry about direction: there is no one right way to get to the goal, and Jesus may even be leading you on a scenic route to show you something amazing you might otherwise have missed. You won’t need your playbook, as much good as it is doing you; but you will want the compass of God’s Word to help you discern which way Jesus is taking you and what your next step looks like. And you’ll want some people around you to help you discover the promise from Jesus you’ll need for your next step. But they aren’t teammates to be blamed when they drop the ball; just people who need Jesus, like you.

So if you feel like you’ve been taking a beating in your faith life, and the good intentions you had for the fall already feel like they have been undermined to the point that you know you have no chance of making the playoffs; if you are burdened and exhausted and feel like throwing in the towel, take a deep breath. Recalibrate. Call a time out.

Feel what you feel, but then notice the lens that is filtering your thoughts and feelings. Most importantly, look for Jesus. He is closer than you think, with more grace than you can imagine, and he has been leading you this whole time, even when you thought you were losing yardage and heading in the wrong direction.

It’s not easy, but taking one small step following Jesus is so much more fun than trying to score a game-winning touchdown when it’s late in the fourth quarter and you are facing 1st and 40.

Your job is not to find some way to win the game. Your job is to take one step following Jesus.

(Go Lions!)


  1. Wonderful and timely! You have been on my mind and in my prayers a lot lately. How are you and your family? MariLee

    1. Thanks, MariLee! We are doing well. Family is transitioning to some new realities with one at Wayne State, one in online high school and dual enrollment at Baker, two still at St. Paul, and mom starting full time as Director of Communication this week at a church in Livonia. I’m preaching, consulting, teaching, and writing. Still following Jesus one step at a time! Thank you so much for your prayers.

  2. Like usual – spot on. The Lens! The Lens! The Lens! (copyright Bo Schembechler, 1983)

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