Listen: Chris Witts presents Morning Devotions.
A prison chaplain had an inmate who once confronted him with this complaint: “I’ve committed one robbery in my 27 years. Now everybody thinks of me as a robber, a criminal. That’s not fair.”
“You did rob a store,” the chaplain told him. “Yes, I did,” the man said. “But how would you like it if everyone took the worst thing you ever did and decided that was who you were?”
We all certainly make mistakes. Sometimes serious, dangerous mistakes. And Jesus throughout his ministry invited people, whose mistakes he was fully aware of, to be his friend. Some, like Judas, failed him. But others changed significantly because he saw beyond the labels people had given them, beyond even their sins, to see the person they could become.
The labels we attach to people
We do sometimes give labels to people and use them as excuses for not loving them. But it is also true that a good reputation is much easier to lose than a bad one. A bad deed seems to establish a new low for a person. You no longer are just ‘wilful’ or ‘a little wild’. You may become ‘dangerous’ or ‘untrustworthy’. He did it once, people will say. What makes you think he won’t do it again?
Our lives are like a building we construct with our deeds. When the old foundation is undermined by a new low in our behaviour the whole wall has to be rebuilt. Our sins attack the foundation of who we are.
Of course it is bad, too, when no amount of goodwill stop people from labelling us for some past misdeed. People do change. They do learn from their mistakes. But the wounds of betrayed trust cut deep.
St Paul consented to, and aided in, the persecution and death of Christians before his conversion. It took a long time for Christians to believe that he wasn’t the same man who had so severely persecuted the faithful. And Paul, even after years of hardship for the faith he had persecuted, still considered himself a sinner. He recognised the need to rebuild. And that rebuilding went on for the rest of his life.
God’s forgiveness as a starting point
Whatever compelled that prisoner to commit robbery also robbed him of something fundamental. It wasn’t just that ‘he made a mistake’. He had sunk to a new low. And until he rebuilds his life on a higher foundation, he will remain a robber and a criminal to everyone who knows about his crime.
In Ephesians 4:22-32 Paul admonishes those who haven’t faced up to their need for real changes in their lives. He shows them the bricks they will need to rebuild that fallen wall. And he shows them the things that will hamper that rebuilding. Having been there himself, Paul was able to teach others.
God’s forgiveness is a starting point for rebuilding. But it won’t stand on those old foundations. Forgiveness doesn’t erase the deed that made forgiveness necessary. It is a source of hope and a new beginning, a foundation to build on: but it is not an excuse for not doing the rest of the work necessary. We need to build the new wall with our commitment to living the life Jesus calls us to. Deed by deed, word by word, prayer by prayer, we build on the foundation of Christ’s sacrifice in love for us.
After years of faithful ministry, Paul could be confident of his place with God. He had built his house on a sure and lasting foundation:
“I give thanks to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has made me equal to the task; I thank Him for judging me worthy of trust and appointing me to His service, although in the past I met Him with abuse and persecution and outrage. But because I acted in ignorance and unbelief I was dealt with mercifully; the grace of our Lord was lavished upon me, along with the faith and love which are ours in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 1:12-14)
One bad deed doesn’t define us anymore than one good deed does. But each of them does set a boundary that we have reached—and know that we can reach again.
The War Cry – August 5, 2005