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Learning from Tiger Woods

Let's find satisfaction in God alone, keep in mind that our sin will always find us out, and surround ourselves with good friends to keep us in check.

From the editor

In late November 2009, a series of events led to a bevy of stories about infidelities on the part of golf's greatest player, Tiger Woods. At PreachingToday.com, we handled the mess as carefully as we could, pointing out a few reflections pieces here and there on the internet. Our approach was due in part to the simple fact that when a gossip-infused story like this breaks, you must exercise great caution about jumping to conclusions (in the preaching world, jumping to points of application). Simply put: You wait until the whole story, as best you can tell, comes out. But even more so, a troubling, stunning story like this requires the kind of reflection that will lead to deeper insights that need to be shared. The temptation is immediately to use a story like this as an opportunity to pile on or tear down celebrities. Taking a little more time to process the mess, the preacher will find that despite the fact that the story involves Tiger Woods, it touches on deeper issues regarding all of humanity (believers included).

When a little time had passed and we looked for thoughtful material on the scandal, we found the following sermon by Mike Woodruff. While Woodruff does cover some of the initial issues of celebrity, watch how he pushes past them to get to the deeper issues that ought to give all of us pause. Also watch how at the beginning, middle, and end, Woodruff insists that all of us have it in us to do exactly what Tiger did. We just might not be in the situation he is in to do such things!


As you well know by now, there have been hundreds of jokes about Tiger Woods. I briefly considered opening with one, but I decided that would set the wrong tone. I begin this sermon with the belief that there is a little bit of Tiger in all of us. I do not mean that we all have a near-perfect golf swing or hundreds of millions of dollars. I mean that we all live under the reality that "there but for the grace of God go I." I fully believe that under similar circumstances, I am more than capable of making as big a mess of my life as he has of his. I am more than capable of violating the vows I made to my wife and others. I am more than capable of living a secret life of selfishness, greed, and sin.

For the sake of this sermon, I am making two assumptions: First, that everyone here knows who Tiger Woods is—the face of professional golf who has not only dominated the last decade of the sport, but has largely repositioned and re-popularized golf before going on to transcend it, winning Sportsman of the Year and Sportsman of the Decade and becoming the first billionaire athlete. Secondly, I am assuming that you've heard about his rather spectacular fall. Not all of the details will ever be clear, but what is clear is that what was initially reported as a single car accident was part of something much bigger. Since the accident, Tiger has admitted to his wife that he has been unfaithful to her. We have learned that he is not who we thought he was. He has taken a leave from golf and gone into hiding. All the while, a number of his sponsors have cut their ties with him.

For many reasons this is a story that is going to be discussed by many groups. PR handlers will study it in hopes of being able to help future clients. Corporate sponsors will watch it to learn if Nike—which has stayed with Tiger—or Accenture—which has dropped him—made the right move. Divorce lawyers may be called in, which will become a case study on its own. But I want us to discuss it for deeper reasons this morning. If there's a little bit of Tiger in all of us, what can we learn from his fall?

We can learn many initial things from Tiger's story.

In the process of researching this story, I learned a lot about culture. His infidelity has been understood to be a scandal by almost everyone. Some have made very specific calls for Tiger to act like a man. In an article entitled, "Tiger Woods Should Take This Opportunity to Grow Up," Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist for the Washington Post, writes: "There are a lot of questions surrounding Woods at the moment—from how many women to how long his indefinite leave from golf will last—but most of them are side issues. The question that really matters, the pressing one is this: When will Woods become a man?"

Some of what I learned was encouraging and challenging, like the quote above. But most was not. Most was depressing. It was depressing because of how lurid it was. Many of the women who slept with Tiger are giving details about their escapades to anyone who will listen—details that would have caused wide-spread shame thirty years ago and gotten them arrested a hundred years ago! Sharing details like this would get some folks stoned in many parts of the world today. Reading this stuff reminded me of how rapidly we are—to quote the late Patrick Moynihan—"defining deviancy down."

Some of what I read was depressing because it showed how focused on celebrities we've become. There are countless magazines and news shows that promote the lives of "thin" people. And by "thin," I don't just mean they do not weigh much—though mostly that's the case. I speak of people who don't have much bearing, much to offer.

In Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan's classic allegory of the Christian life, Bunyan tells the story of Christian, who is trying to make it to the Celestial City—heaven. Christian gets sidetracked in Vanity Fair, a meaningless carnival town. In Bunyan's day, "Vanity Fair" was a term of derision. It was used to refer to something bad. Now Vanity Fair is a magazine, and Tiger is on the cover. It's depressing to know that vanity fair has become such common fair.

Tiger's story got me thinking about how odd it is that celebrity endorsements work. I understand the value in knowing what kind of clubs Tiger uses. It only makes sense that he is using the best stuff. But given that he is getting paid to use them, that's not even really the case. All I can ascertain from the fact that Tiger hits golf balls by Nike is that they paid him more than Titleist! And who cares what he has to say about watches, cars, and consulting companies! But these endorsements work, nonetheless.

Yes, we can learn a lot about culture through the news of Tiger's fall. But there are more initial lessons we could learn—surface lessons that speak into the world of professionalism.

We can learn from Tiger's work ethic. Tiger was not just sheer talent; he was sheer talent plus a keen work ethic. I once saw an interview with Tiger. He had just won a tournament and a reporter asked, "When you would watch golf tournaments as a kid, did you think it would be like this?" Woods replied, "I didn't watch much golf growing up." Surprised, the reporter said, "Surely you did!" But Woods said, "No, I was out practicing. I didn't want to watch it on TV. I wanted to win it in real life. You don't get to the top watching TV." Tiger is a man who has worked hard. There is something to be said for his willingness to reinvent his swing at a time when he was already the best golfer in the world.

We could learn from his philanthropic work. We could look at how he has largely transcended race and blazed new trails for African Americans in golf.

We could also learn from the dangers of his relationship with his father. It appears likely that his Dad pushed too hard. Clearly, Tiger's early success says more about Earl Woods than it does about Tiger's talent. For the most part, Woods seemed to thrive under that attention. But perhaps that is not the full story. Former tennis great Andre Agassi's book, Open, reports that his life was not at all what it seemed. As a child he suffered at the hands of a dad who pushed too hard. He was miserable. He says he lived in fear and confusion, and it eventually led him into self-destructive behavior that included setting fires to his hotel room and doing drugs. We see this pattern over and over. Lots of accomplished men achieve so much because they are driven to please their fathers—even years after their fathers have passed away. And these men often eventually spin out of control because no one is made to be a performance machine. They succeed in one dimension, but fail remarkably in others.

There are even deeper things, though, to learn from Tiger.

Suffice it to say, when it comes to Tiger Woods, there are many things to learn. But I want us to learn the deeper lessons from his fall. Few have fallen so far, so fast in the public eye. What can we learn from this? I'd like to do this without sounding like a self-righteous jerk, so let me repeat what I said at the beginning: There is a bit of Tiger in all of us. We honestly don't know what we would have done in his situation.

It seems to me that there are at least three big takeaways. First of all, the Book of Ecclesiastes is right when it says that ultimate satisfaction is found only in God.

The Book of Ecclesiastes is part of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. It was written by Solomon around 1,000 BC, and is perhaps most famous for its opening line: "Vanity of vanities, it's all vanity." But if you've read the book all the way through, you know that the message of the book is not that it's all vanity; the message of the book is that everything other than God is going to come up short. We will never find ultimate satisfaction in money, sex, or power. Solomon, much like Tiger, had virtually everything this world could offer but comes to this conclusion: "Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil."

Writer and apologist G.K. Chesterton offers a brilliant synopsis of Tiger's situation and the Book of Ecclesiastes when he writes, "The man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God." That is, the person who is looking to buy sex, is looking to be complete, happy, full of joy. They are looking for transcendence, and they are doing so because they have a hole in their heart that was designed for God. They just happen to be looking in the wrong place.

As humans, we were made for more than what we see. We were made by God for a relationship with God. Until we get that, we are never ultimately complete, and we'll keep looking for things to give us meaning and pleasure. Some believe that wholeness will come through fame. Others believe it comes through power or sex or pleasure or money. But as the Book of Ecclesiastes points out, none of these things work. A no-strings-attached affair offers pleasure without responsibility, but it's nothing more than a brief high. It will wear off like any other drug.

Men, take note! Tiger is a man who had virtually everything he could possibly want: An attractive wife. More money than he could ever spend. Multiple homes, jets, and boats. Two beautiful kids. The title of the world's best golfer. The adulation of millions. He plays basketball with Michael Jordan. He goes bike riding with Lance Armstrong. He takes calls from the President of the United States. Like Solomon—who was the king of Israel during the zenith of her glory—Tiger had it all. And like Solomon, he kept looking for more, because there is a hole in our heart that only God can fill.

The second thing we learn from Tiger is that sin will find you out. This is exactly what Numbers 32:23 says: "Be sure your sin will find you out." We may be able to get away with lying and cheating for a while, but eventually things are going to collapse.

First of all, we will all stand accountable before an all-knowing God for everything we think, do, and say. Woods did not just sin against his wife; he sinned against God. The most frightening thing about the judgment we face is not that we might not get a fair trial, but that we will. God knows everything.

But before the judgment, sin still ultimately undoes us. For starters, sin is progressive. This is especially true of sexual sin. Sexual sin is a slippery slope that leads you down a path that is increasingly lewd and brazen. Proverbs 6:27 says, "Can a man take fire into his bosom and his clothes not get burned? Or can a man walk on hot coals and his feet not get scorched." The answer is "No," of course. Even if we could keep small sins small, over time they will lead us a long way from where we want to be. Sin is self-destructive behavior. It poisons your soul. It hardens your heart. It creates distance between you and God. It makes you less of a person, not more. No one who could see things clearly would ever chose to sin, because to choose to sin is to choose to suffer. Over time, you can't hide such suffering.

I doubt Tiger is happy to have been caught like he did, but it may be a real blessing, because the path he was on was not going to lead him to a healthy place. I think Brit Hume was on to something when he said that the question is not whether Tiger can recover as a golfer, but whether or not he can recover as a person. Tiger was—and might still be—on the wrong path, and he needs to get off of that path.

All of this leads to the third lesson we can learn from Tiger's fall: success can be a very dangerous thing. It's harder to deal with than getting a bad lie for your golf ball. Spiritually speaking, failure is almost always a better option than success, because it keeps us humble. The arrogance and self-importance that can accompany those who become successful can blind them to their desperate need for God and his forgiveness.

A word of wisdom in light of this: If you are doing well, you had better have good friends to keep you in line. One of the problems people like Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Alex Rodriguez, and Bill Clinton have is that they have so much money and so many people who want to suck up to them, that they begin to believe that they can get away with whatever they want. They begin to think they really are different.

Please know that you do not need Tiger's status for this to be true—for you to think you are above the law. All that needs to happen is for you to be put in charge of something. About 15 years ago, I remember my wife saying to me, "You've got some issues to work on, and you need better friends who point these things out. Otherwise, it's all up to me, and that is not a great plan." There's a lot of wisdom there. A little while ago, she said essentially the same thing to me again, and I ended up making four different appointments with people. I told each of them, "Please do not hesitate to tell me when I'm being an idiot. My job insulates me from some of the criticism that might otherwise come my way."

It seems that either Tiger doesn't have good friends, or he doesn't have the right friends. How do I know that? Because he was—and possibly still is—on a path that leads to trouble. From what I've been able to tell, no one said to him, "You are being an idiot and a jerk and this whole thing is going to blow up in your face." Real friends—the kind of friends every person needs—are those who understand what is going on in your life because you are not hiding it from them, and they call on you to become a better person. Seek these relationships today. Be intentional about it. What scares me is that Tiger is now pleading for privacy. That's a little duplicitous for a man who has spent ten years profiting from selling his image. What he is really asking for is not privacy, but the right to secrecy.


Tiger's life provides plenty more to think about, but let me end where we started: with a statement of my firm belief that I have it in me to make as big a mess of my life as Tiger has of his—and so could you. Let's learn from his story. Let's acknowledge once again that the Book of Ecclesiastes is true—that ultimate satisfaction is found only in God. Let's remember that our sin will always find us out. Let's be forewarned once again that success can be a very dangerous thing, and good friends are essential to keeping us in check. And more than anything else, let's continue to pray for Tiger Woods.

To see an outline of Woodruff's sermon, click here.

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see Plagiarism, Schmagiarism and Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize.

Mike Woodruff is senior pastor of Christ Church Lake Forest in Lake Forest, Illinois.

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Sermon Outline:


If there's a little bit of Tiger in all of us, what can we learn from his fall?

I. We can learn many initial things from Tiger's story.

II. There are even deeper things, though, to learn from Tiger.


I have it in me to make as big a mess of my life as Tiger has of his—and so could you.