You are not the worst thing you have done. These are the words that pervade each moment of my time with the women at the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women. Our congregation has volunteered at the women’s prison for three years: putting on monthly birthday parties, leading worship and bringing women to church with a Sunday day-pass.
Each time I hope that my life proclaims the same gospel truth: You are not the worst thing you have done.
A few weeks ago I received a letter from one of the women at the prison. She is finishing a 30-year sentence for the death of a child that resulted from a crash she caused while driving drunk in her early 20s. For three decades she’s struggled with guilt over her crime, and she began to change her life. She finished her GED and took correspondence training in psychology. She now leads AA for other women prisoners. She plans to become a substance abuse counselor and a speaker to others who are at risk for drinking and driving.
You are not the worst thing you have done.
It’s hard to imagine this is true for the woman who wrote me the letter. I have a child the age of the one she killed. Lives were forever changed by her actions. Families were shattered, ripples extending for generations.
And yet, this is the hope we cling to — that we are not the worst thing we have done. We are, instead, redeemed children of God, saved by an act of grace beyond our ability or even our desire for salvation.
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” Jesus goes on to tell his listeners to worry about the log protruding from their own eye before trying to dislodge a speck from their neighbor’s.
The verb Jesus uses for “judge” doesn’t refer to temporal judgments, figuring out wrong and right or how to best act in the world. It’s a verb that is commonly used when condemning someone to hell — in other words, saying that someone is so far gone that there is no redemption left for them.
In Matthew 7 Jesus seeks to draw me close to the woman who wrote me from prison. We share in common an unnatural act of grace. That shared grace should transform our experiences of grace toward others, even in the most horrific circumstances.
One of the best metaphors I know for this kind of grace comes from a sermon by Karl Barth. He describes a poem by Gustav Schwab in which a horseman is riding through the night, anxious to reach the town that lies on the edge of the great Lake Constance. The rider plans to spend the night in the town and the next day cross the lake by ferry. He rides and rides, faster and faster, hoping to reach the town before the freezing weather sweeps in.
Eventually it grows dark. He rides faster still, the cold seeping in. The lights of the town get nearer and nearer. Finally, he arrives, tired and relieved. He asks a woman: How much farther to Lake Constance. Another day? A couple of hours?
The woman tells him he is on the far side of the shore and ferry.
Then it dawns on the rider that he crossed the frozen lake by mistake. He is overcome by the fear of what could have happened to him. Riding over that thin ice in the dark, at any moment he could have fallen through into the black, freezing water, lost forever. Somehow he made it safe to the other side. All that long ride he never knew his life was in peril.
Barth says this is the situation we find ourselves in. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” We have crossed to the other side of the lake. The power of sin and death threatened to overwhelm this world, but they have lost their power. There is nothing left now but this new life, new people, the new creation of God’s love. In Jesus Christ, we have made it safely to the other side.
As it is, we are never in a position to suggest someone else is beyond redemption, that a new life is not possible. We know this is true because we have experienced it in our own lives. We all have crossed over Lake Constance in terrible peril. How could we condemn another when we have been saved?
I don’t know many of the stories of the women in prison. Occasionally, during requests for prayer, I’ll hear the women refer to addiction or loss, to shame or fear. But I never ask them. Prison is a place of punishment and dehumanization. The women who eventually leave find themselves taken advantage of by potential landlords who deny them housing but take their application fee.
The “have you been convicted of a felony?” box looms large on job applications. Many are unprepared for lives beyond the prison walls.
What I can offer them is the embodiment of the words we read in Matthew 7. We are not the worst thing we have done. My life is a testimony to this redeeming love. I, a creature of grace, look around me and see the possibility of redemption, of second chances, for all.
Melissa Florer-Bixler is the pastor of Raleigh (N.C.) Mennonite Church and the author of Fire By Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament (Herald Press, 2019).