As someone who found great inspiration in the story of Lance Armstrong I was saddened and disappointed when he confirmed this week that he had used performance enhancing drugs during each of his seven tour wins. But one thing I wasn’t was surprised. After years of rumors and speculation, not to mention the testimony of previous teammates over the years, hearing of his confession was hardly a shocker. Yes, I followed each of his victories, watching them on TV and reading of them in cycling magazines and newspapers, and I read both of his books. I was certainly a fan of Armstrong. I admired him; I wanted to ride like he rode. And from an athletic standpoint (though certainly not a personal one), I considered him a hero.
Back in 2008 when I first published my book Faith Journeys I wrote about Armstrong in a devotional entitled, “Is the Church Historical Fact or a Living Organism?”
But there is something about Armstrong that saddens me: he is not a Christian. I have to wonder how someone who has been given so much can not believe in God at all. It’s not that he serves another spiritual presences, he doesn’t believe God exists. To know that while he may inspire many here on earth to achieve great strides yet not spend eternity in heaven is disheartening.
He writes in his new book, Every Second Counts, the story of the home he bought in Spain. Part of the home is a family chapel that he paid to have restored. He writes this regarding the chapel: “To me, that chapel isn’t just about worship, but about history, about age, about the hundreds of years that have seeped into the arched ceilings, the gold paint, and the original stained glass. It’s stunning.”
I fear Armstrong’s comments regarding faith and religion are all-too-common in today’s culture. Religion is viewed as a duty, as a set of rules, as a hoax, or as a crutch (Armstrong refers to it as this, too).
Yet what Armstrong fails to understand is Christianity is not meant to be a religion but a relationship with the living God of the universe. Think of it—the creator wants you and I to know Him! He even came to earth to make a way for us to draw near to Him. Church is not a building, or a history lesson. Church, The Church, is the living, organic body of our Savior Jesus. That’s what Armstrong fails to understand (or refuses to accept).
This week we see what could be described as the deprivation of man in general and Armstrong in particular. I didn’t watch his confession (I don’t have cable so I couldn’t watch Oprah’s show), but I read enough in the press to know that his sincerity and regret was, at best, questionable (how else could he still claim he didn’t think it was wrong to cheat?).
For me, though, what is even more disheartening than the cheating is the years and years of lying – lying to the public, to his donors and supporters, to his fans, and, ultimately, to himself. He was vicious – suing those who dared suggest he had doped and calling them terrible, horrible names. In Armstrong we see the fallen nature of humanity for what it is: an obsession with himself. Like the title of Armstrong’s first book, we had confirmed this week that it wasn’t about the bike. It was about him and only him, at all costs.
And here’s what really gets me… Armstrong’s cycling wasn’t what brought him to fame, it was the fact that he had overcome cancer and then still went on to be what we all thought was the greatest cyclist who ever raced. We didn’t follow him because of the bike, we followed him because of the healing.
This afternoon I got kinda upset about that. I found myself upset with God that my sister died of cancer when she was 20, yet this liar and cheater was allowed to live. It just didn’t seem fair. Erin wasn’t perfect, but she certainly wasn’t Armstrong. How come she had to die and he got to live? If anyone deserved to die wasn’t it a man who would take his healing, shove it in the face of the God who healed him (as he did in his book), and then go on to mock the rest of the world to win by cheating and covering it up for years afterwards – ruining the lives of countless other professionals in the process? Isn’t that the one who should have died?
And then I was reminded about grace. It’s what Armstrong needs – it’s what he’s always needed. Not grace from me or any other person; what Armstrong needs is to accept the grace given him by God. Erin died a believer, which means she ultimately was healed that night she passed into eternity. But Armstrong? He’s headed straight to hell. Not because he cheated and lied, but because he’s a sinner just like everyone else. Perhaps worse than some but better than others. Yet at the end of the day when he dies he’ll spend eternity separated from God because he refuses to accept the grace found in Jesus.
And so God continues to offer grace, one chance after another. Should Armstrong have died? Who am I to judge that… What I can say with confidence is this: God must certainly love him a whole bunch, if you judge it based on the chances he’s given (and gives) to come to know Him. 2 Peter 3:9 reads, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Maybe, just maybe, Armstrong will wake up to this fact. It’s what I’m praying for, anyway.