O.J. Simpson: What Can We Learn?
Printed in Eternal Perspectives, Fall 1994
As I write this (August 1994), the O. J. Simpson saga dominates the media, and is the subject of conversations everywhere. Legally Simpson is innocent until proven guilty, but most people believe the evidence against him is overwhelming. I’ve heard a number of responses to his situation that cry out for an eternal perspective. Here are some things we need to come to terms with:
1. The difference between image and character. I’ve repeatedly heard people voice their utter amazement that “a man like O. J. Simpson” could be involved in such a thing. But what makes us think we know people just because we see them on TV? Image is what you are on a football field, in a movie, and in Hertz commercials. Character is what you are in the dark, when no one but God is looking.
What are the traits it takes to get and stay famous? In many cases the answer includes a mammoth ego, self-absorption, and an impassioned craving for public approval. These very traits that compel one to pursue fame both reflect and produce a private inner life lacking in substance and integrity.
Anyone can look good in front of an audience, or even in front of their friends. It’s an entirely different thing to stand naked before God, to be known as you truly are on the inside. “Do not consider his appearance or his height . . . The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
2. The difference between a hero and a celebrity. Fame is one thing. Virtue is another. The two aren’t even remotely related. In fact, the more famous you become the harder it is to cultivate and retain virtue. Being a hero is something entirely different than being a celebrity. Celebrities are just people with good looks, talent, money, and the ability to draw attention to themselves. Heroes are people who stand courageously for what is right, often against the tide of public opinion, and at great cost to themselves.
People like Pete Rose, Sylvester Stallone, Magic Johnson, Dan Rostenkowski and an endless parade of others have proven long on image and short on character, just as many faithful servants of God have been short on image and long on character. Politicians are celebrities. But if they steal from the country, cheat on their wives, and promote the ruthless killing of unborn children, no one in their right mind can consider them heroes. (That many do so simply demonstrates our society is not in its right mind.)
Consider Simpson’s history over the last decade. Is any man a hero if he dumps his first wife, sleeps around, marries another woman, then repeatedly beats her up, resulting in her desperate calls to the police nine different times? If, while his wife cowers bloody and half naked in the bushes, he brags to police he was currently sleeping with two women and didn’t want this one anyway? Since the killing, a lot of people, including some of his friends, have changed their mind about O. J. Simpson. But why weren’t immorality and divorce and abandonment and arrogance and wife-beating enough to do this earlier? Because he had a nice smile?
When you and I stand before God and give an account of our lives, the ability to run with a football or manage a company or write a newsletter article will mean nothing. Our dependence on Christ to cleanse us of our sins and empower us to a new way of living will mean everything.
3. The difference between physical abilities and spiritual integrity. Physical skills are a combination of genetics and training, neither of which is indicative of integrity. Galatians 5 tells us about human nature. Read the following and consider how many of these attitudes and actions characterize O. J. Simpson, others, or perhaps even yourself:
“The sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other . . . The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
In contrast, the following verses say, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. . . . Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited . . .”
The components of integrity such as gentleness, peace, love and self-control are exactly what Simpson—and our society as a whole—so desperately need. But the ultimate source for them is not good looks, muscles, speed, or notoriety, but the indwelling Spirit of God.
4. The difference between a self-made man and a God-made man. We value a man who is independent. God values a man who is dependent on Him. We value a man who marches to his own beat. God values a man who marches to His beat. We value a man who is his own authority, who makes up the rules as he goes. God values a man who submits, who follows those unbending ancient rules made by Another. We value a man who believes in himself, who makes himself great. God values a man who believes in Him, recognizing He alone is truly great.
5. The difference between high self-esteem and accurate self-esteem. People are saying, “I can’t believe O. J. is capable of such evil.” Of course he is. So are you. So am I. We’ve fallen for the old lie, propagated by secular humanism and modern psychology, that man is basically good. But we’re terribly arrogant and naive to believe this. Read Romans 1-3 and see what God says about the human condition. Look at human history. Look around you. We’re all capable of horrendous evil. The man who thinks he is incapable of adultery and crimes of hatred and passion is not on guard against them, and does not call upon Christ to save him from them.
Years ago I read a fascinating and chilling book by Robert Lifton, The Nazi Doctors. As a psychologist interviewing former Nazi doctors and their surviving victims, he hoped to discover what made these “monsters” tick. What he discovered was much more frightening—the fact that these were in fact quite ordinary men who given the opportunity did horribly evil things. As long as we consider the Nazis monsters, we can separate ourselves from them. It’s only when we realize the Nazis, Jeffrey Dahmer, O. J. Simpson and we ourselves are of the same stock that we can come to terms with our capacity for evil.
Those who idolized O. J. Simpson, those who held the signs on the freeway saying “Go O. J.” and “Run, Juice, run” exemplified the sort of esteem O. J. had come to have for himself. He believed his press clippings. He believed he was great. That he was above it all. That he didn’t have to play by the rules. That he could get away with it. (A Hollywood attorney-to-the-stars said, “Celebrities make the most impossible clients because they have no boundaries whatsoever.”)
One of the cardboard signs outside Simpson’s home said “Save the Juice.” O. J. needs to be saved all right, but not from the police or jail or even execution. He needs to be saved from himself, from his own sinful nature. So do we all. The good news is, that’s why Jesus came, and that’s what Jesus does. He can save O. J. Simpson, but only the real Simpson, not the hero, not the image, not the hype, just the bankrupt sinner. And he can and will save anyone else who realizes his moral bankruptcy and bows his knees in repentance.
6. The difference between Hollywood values and values that really matter. The day after Simpson’s “chase” on the L. A. freeways, I was attending Promise Keepers in Portland, with nearly 30,000 other men. (Another 5,000 were turned away—there just wasn’t room.) Here, like the quarter of a million other men attending Promise Keepers gatherings this year, were men gathered to uplift the very values and power for righteous living that O. J. Simpson so desperately lacked. Men were learning about God, about taking responsibility, about loving and serving their wives and children.
The event went by in Portland largely unnoticed by television news that night. The men at civic stadium couldn’t compete with O. J. All they did was commit themselves to being faithful in their homes and churches and communities and society, to keeping sacred promises in the daily grind of life. These men want to cumulatively build a track record of faithfulness to God and family. They wish to become heroes, if to no one else, to their own children. Small acts of daily faithfulness don’t make the news. But they matter much more than what does.
If we follow through with those commitments made on a day the nation focused on the downfall of one of football’s greatest legends, men, then by the grace of God it will prove to be infinitely greater than anything he or anyone else ever did or could do on a gridiron. It will give our children, our churches and our society an example to follow unmatched by that of any celebrity. A life enthusiastically applauded in the final day by the only audience that ultimately matters . . . the Audience of One.