Desperately Seeking Atonement

            I’ve always enjoyed watching tennis, and Andre Agassi has been a favorite for a long time. His passionate, go-for-broke style always made for compelling moments, including some of the most epic matches in tennis history. He won eight Grand Slam titles.

Of course, that was just part of the whole package for the flashy kid from Las Vegas.  There were the clothes, the long hair (when he had it), the screaming teeny-bopper followers, the tabloid dating, the stormy marriage to and divorce from Brooke Shields, the Kodak commercials, and eventually the marriage to fellow tennis superstar Steffi Graf.

But behind the scenes, there was even more.  In his autobiography, Open, which was released last week, Agassi opens up and spills the details of his family stress, inner turmoil, compromised morals and ethical lapses. As a child, he felt pressured into tennis by his father, whom he hated from the age of seven. By the time he was a teenager, he was being pampered as tennis royalty, was tearing up the junior circuit—and hated the game most of the time.

It gets uglier.  By the mid-point of his career, Agassi had begun experimenting with crystal meth.  Agassi writes that his assistant, “Slim”, was the person who introduced him to crystal meth, dumping a small pile of powder on the coffee table.

I snort some. I ease back on the couch and consider the Rubicon I’ve just crossed.  There is a moment of regret, followed by vast sadness. Then comes a tidal wave of euphoria that sweeps away every negative thought in my head. I’ve never felt so alive, so hopeful — and I’ve never felt such energy. I’m seized by a desperate desire to clean. I go tearing around my house, cleaning it from top to bottom. I dust the furniture. I scour the tub. I make the beds.”  

When a drug screen tested positive, he lied to the investigators—and kept using. He threw matches, tanking sets and just going through the motions because there was no motive in him driven by a simple love of the game. 

He even wore what may be the world’s only Mohawk toupee.

But nobody knew all that.  Agassi retired a tennis icon in 2006. He is more than comfortably wealthy.  He has a great life with Steffi Graff and their kids.  He reconciled with his father.  He is heavily involved in benevolent and philanthropic work, most of which feeds off his fame. 

So…why?  Why write such a book and reveal such dark places of the heart, such reputation-damaging reality?  Nobody knew…except Andre.  Andre knew, and he had to bring the story out of the dark and into the light.  Why?

In a conversation with Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly, Agassi says “”I just tell people, this book is honest. It lives up to the title. It’s my life, for better or worse. Get ready, buckle up, and keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.”   It’s honesty for his sons, Jaden and Jaz, so they’ll know all of dad’s story when they get older.  Why? Reilly again: “Maybe because he once lived enough lies for five men. Or maybe because, as an educator, he’s heard the truth can set him free.“

 But there’s a deeper why underneath this self tell-all. It’s deeper than mere honesty and a record for his sons. Listen closely to this comment from another interview

“I think one is always tempted to take the easy road and I certainly understood the cost that this would come with because I understood my process. I knew I couldn’t just go halfway up this road. But anything worthwhile in life comes with work and risk. This was part atonement, as well. I had something that most people don’t get, which is a second chance at my life. Everyday has been a form of atonement. And this book is that. I had a lot more to lose than to gain, but if it could help people—and I believe it gives tools and inspiration to real issues that all of us feel. There’s not a person out there that doesn’t know what it’s like to be in a situation that, at times, they don’t recognize.”

And again:

“I can’t live with that [the lying] anymore….When I retired from tennis, I had the opportunity, the time, the energy, to turn a real hard lens on myself….[this memoir is] part of “atonement for where I’ve been in my life.”

And once more:

“Every day from that second chance I had I’ve been atoning for this — it has been a heavy weight on me. This book is an atonement of sorts because in it I believe I give the tools and inspirations to help a lot of people that I’ll never meet in a lot of different ways….As for my reasons and motivations — be clear that this book comes at greater risk than it ever comes as a reward. In terms of economic reasons I have way more to lose than I have to gain.”

Andre’s soul is aching. He plunged into the messy part of his life—and we all have one.  He has come to realize that the lies, the hatred, the broken relationships, the vanity, the addictions and more lies had produced a life that was deeply shameful.  In other words, there has always been a standard for which he was responsible—and which he has offended.  The offended standard has a name that I’m not sure Andre has recognized: God. But that shame is real, a “heavy weight” that he cannot escape—and one that he does not want to define his life or legacy.

How to lift the weight and find relief?   Agassi is trying the same thing that human beings have tried for centuries— to fix it by his own effort.  It’s fascinating that he calls it “atonement”—a specifically religious term.  Here’s the idea in Agassi’s repeated explanations: “Ok, I’ll come clean publicly—on even the worst parts of my life. It will be embarrassing; it will be painful; it may be economically damaging; it will harm my reputation and I will lose friends.  But if I embrace the pain of this, that ought to be a pay-back (atonement) for all the negative choices I made.” 

I think most people think this is the way things work with God.  We’ve screwed up and He wants some pay-back.  If we shed a little blood, he’ll accept us…maybe.  Our instinct is right. for even the Bible says, ” without the shedding of blood there is nno forgiveness for sins.”  (Heb.9:22) 

Problem and paradox:  Spilling our blood won’t cut it.  No amount of self inflicted moral pain will ever fully clean up (atone for) our mess (what God calls ‘sin”). Even our best is a mess in God’s eyes.We’re all sin-infected, sin-contaminated. Our best efforts are grease-stained rags.”(Is.64:6, MSG)

In other words, none of us has a delete key with enough power to take all the mess away and give us a clean page on which to write the next chapter of our story.

So, is there anyone who can provide the atonement for which we long?  Yes.

“Christ appeared once for all to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself…by His [choice to die for us] we have been sanctified (cleaned up) through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”  (Heb.9:27, 10:10)

On the cross, Jesus bore the penalty and public humiliation for our sinful mess, so that we could be forgiven…cleansed…set free of the weight on our souls.  

Why? Because He loves us passionately—even in our mess.  And He longs to provide the atonement our souls are desperate to experience. That’s why His message is called good news.  

I hope somebody will tell Andre that his desperate search for atonement for his mess will only end at a bloody cross and an empty tomb. 

 Maybe you’re looking for it, too, and wish somebody would tell you.  Somebody just did.


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