Pastor Derwin Gray told Saddleback Church attendees over the weekend that even though he had made it into the NFL as a player he didn't experience "authentic peace" until he committed his life to Jesus Christ.
Gray, who played as a defensive back for the Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers, is the lead pastor of Transformation Church in Indian Land, S.C. He spoke at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. this past weekend in the stead of Pastor Rick Warren, who he called his mentor, as part of the church's advent series.
Gray says his mother and father were just teenagers when he was born, and he was raised primarily by his grandmother. He grew up in Texas just a half-mile from some government housing projects and says his childhood was anything but peaceful.
"Peace was not a part of my life. As a matter of fact, it was a war zone. It was a living hell," he said.
At the age of 13, he says, football became his god. He worshiped it because he saw it as an opportunity to get a scholarship and escape the situation he was living in. His high school football team won a state title, and he received a scholarship to play at Brigham Young University, where he met his wife, Vicki.
Gray was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 1993, and by his third year he was voted team captain. But even after accumulating wealth and finding success on the football field, however, he says he realized his accomplishments could not provide him with peace. He still struggled to forgive his father for being absent from his life, and his career successes could not help him love his wife better or take away his fear of being cut from the team.
Steve Grant, a linebacker who was known as the "naked preacher" in the Colt's locker room for evangelizing teammates while wearing nothing but a towel around his waist, asked Gray early in his NFL career if he knew Jesus. Gray responded simply by saying that he was a "good person."
"By the way, time out. Do you know how arrogant of a statement that is, to say, 'I'm a good person'?" said Gray. "In order for me to say 'I'm good' it means I judge somebody else as worse than me, which is one of the worst things that we could do. The beauty of the cross of Jesus is that the foot of the cross, it is level, and we're all in need of grace and forgiveness and mercy."
Gray says Grant, citing Romans 3:23, helped him realize that he has fallen short of God's standards, and that only Jesus was able to perfectly live up to those standards. Gray says he watched the way Grant lived out his faith during the next several years, and in August 1997 Gray called his wife and said he also needed to commit his life to Christ.
"At that moment I knew, for the first time in my life, that I was loved," said Gray. "That there was somebody who loved Derwin Gray, and it wasn't because I could run fast, it wasn't because I could jump high, it wasn't because I could help them win a game, but there was somebody who loved me with a passion that was so great and so marvelous and so beautiful that they went to the cross for me, to take my sins and nail them to the cross and nail all of God's righteousness and love to me, and it blew me away."
Jesus gives believers an authentic peace with God, says Gray, which he calls "upward" peace. He went on to name several other areas of life where Christ gives peace as well.
Christ offers believers "inward" peace even when the circumstances of their lives are unsettling, suggested Gray. In 2004, for example his wife was diagnosed with cancer. The night the diagnosis was revealed to them, Derwin and Vicki Gray lay in bed crying, and they only felt peace after they began quoting scripture to each other. Vicki Gray is now cancer free, but even if she had died, says Gray, there would be reason to praise God, because he would see her once again.
Gray also discussed the "outward" peace Christ gives, which is reflected in human relationships. In 2001 he heard a voice telling him to search for his father, he says, which made him "angry" and "offended." He didn't think he should have to seek out the father who abandoned him, until he sensed God telling him that Jesus sought him out and forgave him so he could become "an extension of [Christ's] forgiveness."
Gray discovered that his father was in prison, and wrote a letter to him saying he loved and forgave him, and they reconciled with one another.
"The response of someone else is not our job. It's only our job to extend forgiveness and peace," said Gray.
Jesus also gives Christians peace in the face of death, said Gray, and they are to use the peace they receive to be missionaries in their homes, schools and work environments.
"There is no bigger mission than becoming an agent of peace in a world that desperately needs it," said Gray.
Gray is the author of Hero: Unleashing God's Power in a Man's Heart and Limitless Life: You Are More Than Your Past When God Holds Your Future. Transformation Church, which was listed as Outreach Magazine's second-fastest growing church by percentage in 2010, has two campuses in northern South Carolina.