Earlier today I read a wonderful article on The Huffington Post about a young person who, seventeen years ago, had broken into an elementary school in a rural area. Although he had never been identified or caught for his crime, the burden of it had apparently weighed on him. He brought the note of confession along with $300 restitution and left it with the principal’s office. In addition, he included his phone number so that he could be reached in case his restitution was deemed insufficient.
My heart was warmed by the story because it reminds me of one of the most important reasons why I am a Christian: Redemption.
When I look at the whole of my life, I do believe that I am a good person with good intentions… and yet, even as a good person, I have managed to really mess things up and inflict considerable hurt on other people.
Every so often I become aware of something I have done in my past that hurt another individual, and I didn’t even realize it. Had I known at the time I was hurting someone else or causing pain, I would have gone about it differently.
It’s hard to tell how much pain and harm have been done that I just don’t know about. I shudder to think about it.
I spend my days doing a lot of good works. It’s my vocation and my career–I visit the sick, the elderly, serve the poor, and a vast number of other “good deeds”.
But all those good deeds don’t fix the brokeness and hurt that has found its way into my soul throughout the years. They might make me feel good about myself for a bit… but in the end, they don’t actually redeem me.
Serial killers have been known to be perfect neighbors. Child abductors have been known to assist in the search of the very children they stole. Cruel people can do good deeds.
Although I am an advocate of doing good deeds, and although I encourage parents to teach their children while they are young to do good for other people, I am well aware that what we really need in our world, in our lives, and in our souls is redemption.
Redemption changes us.
It isn’t the good deed of returning the money he once stole that made the story of the unnamed young person so heartwarming… it was the fact that something has happened over the past seventeen years that has changed this person.
Who knows what he had once been like? Maybe he stole the money for drugs. Maybe he was just a bored teenager looking for a thrill. Maybe he was struggling in poverty and saw an opportunity to get a little quick cash to alleviate the burden for a while. Maybe he was just another spoiled kid taking something that wasn’t his because he could. Maybe his mother was dying of cancer and he was rebelling against an unfair world he didn’t understand. Maybe he had been molested as a child and was acting out in his teens. Maybe he was hoping to be caught so that someone would finally notice him.
There are a million reason why he might have stolen the money and damaged the building. Some make him a victim, some make him a selfish kid, and some are just senseless… and chances are we’ll never know what motivated this young man so long ago.
In fact, we aren’t even going to really know what motivated him to return the money, confess to his long-forgotten crime, and apologize.
All we can know is that whatever he was seventeen years ago changed and the teachers who once felt victimized by him are now able to see a redeemed person trying to make amends.
Redemption is the single most important aspect of Christianity because it reminds us that no matter how “good” we are, we are never good enough to save ourselves. No matter how perfect we try to live our lives, we are still in need of a grace that is bigger than anything we, as human beings, are capable of.
We are human beings with all our wonderful qualities, and all our flaws–we can’t escape them. Humanity has managed to mess up this world over and over again. What keeps us moving forward, seeking a better way, is the hope that these faults and flaws are not eternal and that no matter how ugly our lives can be, there is a redeeming grace that can restore us to the beauty of the love and compassion of God.
Our society has a hard time letting go of past hurts and wrongs. Mistakes haunt us and follow us throughout our lives. In a social media world, those mistakes are now broadcast on a global stage and refuse to disappear. Past crimes must be reported on every job application. Certain crimes make it impossible to obtain student loans that can help a person gain the training and education they need to break through cycles of poverty.
Our society operates in a mode that says redemption is impossible and that no wrong can disappear or be forgiven.
And that’s where Jesus Christ enters into our lives and turns things upside down–it doesn’t matter what the world says, there is a redemption that can change the way we see ourselves, the can change the way we perceive our self-worth, and that can change how we interact with the world around us. The redemption that comes from the grace of Jesus is one that does more than change us, it changes the world through us.
Whoever the young man was that left the note at an elementary school’s principal’s office is no longer the sort of man who could ruin the end-of-year celebrations and plans of scores of young students and breach the feelings of safety and security of the adults charged with their care. Today, he is a man who can see his own wrongs, understand the pain they have caused others, and would seek to set it right as best as he can.
He has gone from being a dark cloud hanging over other people’s heads to being a bright light of hope to people who wonder if they are indeed making a difference.
That is the power of Christ’s redeeming grace: It turns darkness to light.