Criminals and I have something in common: I view myself as a good person. Better than most, even.
“Perhaps the most surprising discovery in my early years of trying to understand the criminal mind was that, without exception, offenders regard themselves as good human beings,” writes Stanton Samenow, author of Inside the Criminal Mind.
“If I thought of myself as evil, I couldn’t live,” he quotes a murderer as saying.
“Just because I killed someone doesn’t mean I’m a bad person,” stated another.
This phenomenon of self-approbation is universal and easier to detect in others than ourselves. Muel Kaptein, in Why Good People Do Bad Things, rightly states that the majority of people “consider themselves more honest, more trustworthy, more ethical, more fair, more open and more helpful than average.”
Criminals and I have something else in common: If we want to come to God, we must come in humility.
An ancient, bloody king — an adulterer and murderer covered in remorse — sought to make amends and found he could not. “You don’t desire sacrifice,” he wrote, “or else I would give it. You don’t delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Too often — subconsciously, perhaps — we measure our value to God by the good that we do. We are like children waving poppies, squished and grimy between our sweaty fingers, in the face of the King of flowers. He is surrounded by perfect petals and delicate blossoms. Their scent fills the air.
Our flowers are tarnished. The petals broken.
Jesus told a story once:
Two men went to a place of worship to pray.
They met at the door coming in. One, a family man, was neatly dressed; his wife had ironed his shirt. The other was whiskered and rough (a beard gives one presence without revealing too much). An embarrassing tattoo from his teen years was covered by a shirt sleeve (he had thought he should, coming to church). Jail had changed him, made him less self-assured.
They recognized each other.
His reputation gone for a slipshod embezzlement, the family man thought. What a waste of a life.
They sat down, the family man in his normal seat, mid-auditorium, the embezzler at the back. He felt uncomfortable.
The worship leader walked to the front, and the singing began.
The family man lifted his hands. I thank you, God, he prayed, beneath the words of the music, that I have been given good teaching and not ended up like so many others. The sight of his old acquaintance had moved him to pity, and he thought of others that he knew. Some dishonest in business practices, some caught by addictions, others committing adultery. So many people care only about money and themselves. My old friend back there, money more important than honesty, and all that time in jail. Was it worth it? I give to the poor. I live a clean life. I spend time with my children.
Standing in the back, the embezzler did not join in the singing. He stared at the back of the bench ahead of him, and a line from the song caught his ear. An old song. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
A sob rattled up from inside him. He swallowed before it could surface. “God,” he whispered, beneath the music, “be merciful to me, a sinner.”
When he walked out of the church building, he knew God had forgiven him.
The other man went home still holding his poppies, sweat-grimed, in his hands.
Lucinda J. Miller lives with a broken people in the broken world of Rusk County, Wis. She is the author of a memoir, Anything But Simple: My Life as a Mennonite, and blogs at lucindajmiller.com.