A while ago, I saw a news story about a young pastor, with a wife and five children, who has taken into his home a man who’s just recently been released from prison. The man is living in the pastor’s basement and looking for a job and being with the family for every meal, every outing, really every moment.
Pretty amazing! What’s even more amazing is that the man was convicted of murdering a young child –– a particularly heinous crime by anyone’s standards.
The folks in the neighborhood and the nearby town are infuriated –– especially those with children. They’re protesting in front of the pastor’s home, and no one will hire the man, and they tell interviewers that the pastor has no right to jeopardize the whole town that way.
The pastor, though, says that the man received Jesus 16 years ago, and has become a devout Christian living a very good life –– no threat to anyone. In a word, the pastor says, he’s CHANGED.
And, of course, the big question in the news story was, “Can someone really change?” The pastor says, “Yes.” And the townspeople say, “No way.”
What does scripture say? CAN a person really change?
Much of the Old Testament concerns the ongoing relationship between God and his people. A pattern can be seen repeatedly. The Law is given, and the people promise to obey. They break the Law and push God out of their lives. God calls to them to repent and return to him. Occasionally they actually do this, but it never seems to last too long.
God continues to call his people back to him. When they refuse and harden their hearts, bad things start happening –– they’re defeated in battle, they’re exiled, the temple is destroyed, all kinds of things. Finally, they get it and repent, turning back to God. God’s arms are still open, and he and his children are reconciled again.
Until the next time!
I have no idea how many laws are on the books today, but crimes are still being committed, speed limits being exceeded, people stealing from, and hurting, other people. It doesn’t matter how many laws there are, or how good and sensible and right they are –– most of us just keep breaking the law, in one way or another.
Well, CAN a person really change? It seems that if we’re counting on laws that are imposed from the outside to change us, we’ll be disappointed. Make all the rules you want; most of us just keep doing what we want to do. The only way a person can change is from the inside out.
“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” the Lord says in Jeremiah. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
THIS is a very different story.
How does God write his law on our hearts? Well, I honestly believe that God has more grace than we’re sometimes able to receive. There are many New Testament scriptures that talk about running the race, striving, resisting sin; but there are even more that talk about “letting.” LET the Word of Christ dwell in you richly; LET the peace of Christ dwell in your hearts; LET the Spirit fill you–– and fill the church as well.
I Peter says we are to LET ourselves be built into a spiritual house. This paints a different picture, not so much about running and striving, but about opening ourselves to God and LETTING him write his law –– the law of love and grace –– on our hearts.
Out of his great love for us, God sent us a Savior, a Redeemer … Jesus Christ. He paid the final price for our stubborn pattern of sinfulness, and rejection of God. Because of Jesus, we can come to God in humility and honesty, and receive forgiveness. If we LET him, God will demonstrate his grace to us all the time, always and forever. If we LET him, God really will write his law on our hearts –– through our experiences, our shortcomings, our triumphs … through teaching, and prayer, and study.
If we LET Jesus in, we’ll be so grateful for who he is and all he’s done, that we’ll want to be true to him. If we LET him, God will, over time, change us from the inside out, the only way people can really change at all.
Has the man in the news story really changed? I honestly don’t know. At this point, only God knows for sure. But CAN he change? Oh, yes. If he really lets God in, God can change him from the inside out.
With Jesus, the entire Law is summed up very simply: Love God. Love each other.
This is what God will write on our hearts, and the more we let him in, the more we’ll change. Don’t resist! It’s all about humility and honesty. If we let him in, God will do the rest, and our changed lives will show his grace and our gratitude to all.
Rev. Susan Bennett is pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church. She and her husband live in Stockbridge with two giant Rottweilers and a 15-pound rescue dog who is the boss of everybody.