My family moved around pretty often when I was growing up, due to my father’s career as a Marine. People ask whether it’s hard to be uprooted every three years or so, but it really wasn’t difficult for me. For all the comforts you stand to lose in leaving, you also stand to be loosed from some discomforts.
For instance, as a middle-schooler, I had a pretty sour disposition and very few friends. When I moved to a new city as a freshman, I decided I would be a totally different person. I remember clearly the conversation I had with myself before the doors opened my first day: “Lloyd, it doesn’t have to be like it was at your old school. No one knows you, and as far as they’re concerned, you might be the coolest guy here. Take down those walls you’ve built up and make some friends.” I didn’t turn out to be the coolest guy in school, but my social station improved greatly. Whatever people thought of you before, whether good or bad, you can change it all in a new place.
I bring this up because yesterday in my Bible reading, I felt led to look at Ezekiel 33. Ezekiel is told to relay a message for God. I’d like to quote it here because no summary I have composed does justice to the import of this passage:
Therefore, son of man, say to your people:
“If someone who is righteous disobeys, that person’s former righteousness will count for nothing. And if someone who is wicked repents, that person’s former wickedness will not bring condemnation. The righteous person who sins will not be allowed to live even though they were formerly righteous.
If I tell a righteous person that they will surely live, but then they trust in their righteousness and do evil, none of the righteous things that person has done will be remembered; they will die for the evil they have done.
And if I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ but they then turn away from their sin and do what is just and right — if they give back what they took in pledge for a loan, return what they have stolen, follow the decrees that give life, and do no evil — that person will surely live; they will not die. None of the sins that person has committed will be remembered against them. They have done what is just and right; they will surely live.
Yet your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ But it is their way that is not just. If a righteous person turns from their righteousness and does evil, they will die for it. And if a wicked person turns away from their wickedness and does what is just and right, they will live by doing so. Yet you Israelites say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ But I will judge each of you according to your own ways.”
It’s shocking to me how accommodating God is here. What I mean by that is, God gives us the freedom to change our mind about what kind of person we want to be.
We humans have a tendency to assign one another (and ourselves) permanent labels based on our past. Inertia is a physical concept, but we import it frequently into the spiritual realm. If I lied to someone yesterday, they might assume I am that much more likely to lie again today. Conversely, if I’ve been making good choices for the last ten years, people may assume I’m nigh insusceptible to do anything different.
It’s funny how often a godly life is seen as a set of chains to restrict us from doing what we like, and yet God’s very choice to allow us free will also pegs Him as unfair. How can He immediately accept someone’s choice to change for the better when they’ve been making bad decisions for years? Do all those things count for nothing? Conversely, how can He condemn someone who begins to make bad decisions when they’ve been doing well all their lives? Do not all those years count for anything?
The problem, I think, is with our skewed perspective. We only see these policies of God’s in light of how they affect us in the moment. If God allows me to have a second chance, to change and do better in the future, then He’s great. If He allows that same freedom to someone who wounded me deeply, He is unjust. Conversely, if God forces those who commit to Him never to change their mind, never to have the freedom to walk away, He has created soulless automatons. If He allows someone who has stayed on the path their entire life the freedom to turn off at the last minute and waste all those years, He is heartless.
In our twisted way of thinking, God cannot win.
Returning to our tendency to assign these permanent labels, let me confess that I’ve been completely guilty of that way of thinking, myself. I’ve assumed people who have wounded me in the past would continue to do so, and so put up my walls to refuse them the opportunity. The cruel end of that path, by the way, is even more pain. It often results in the loss of what might have been wonderful if we’d not made such stalwart assumptions.
Perhaps even more cruel is when I affix these permanent labels to myself. We all know the voice inside who whispers that we can never escape who we are or who we once have been. We choose to agree with this voice, and descend ever further into our own demise.
It’s comforting to know that the voice with whom we’ve so frequently agreed is lying. What we once were — even what we are — is not binding. Rather, we have the freedom (and every reason) to choose better.
It’s been a long time since middle school, and I’m thankful most of you never knew me then. Being stuck with that personality would be pretty unpleasant. Whatever laurels I may now possess, I want to resist the temptation to rest on them. The same voice that would bind me to pits in my past would just as soon blind me to those in my present.
Lord, teach me to walk right beside You, following where You lead. Only in submitting to You do I escape the chains behind and the pitfalls ahead.