A criminal and I have one thing in common.
Like any good criminal, I view myself as a good person. Better than most others, probably.
“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 Dr. Stanton Samenow, author of Inside the Criminal Mind. “No matter how long their trail of carnage, no matter what suffering they caused others, every one of them retained the view that he is a good person.”
“If I thought of myself as evil, I couldn’t live,” he quotes one murderer as saying. “Just because I killed someone doesn’t mean I’m a bad person,” stated another.
This mindset is not common only in the criminal world. The phenomenon of self-approbation is universal, and easier to detect in others than ourselves. Probably all of us have sat and listened to someone reiterate a long list of someone else’s offenses, and been all the while thinking, “Well, what about you?”
Or been scandalized by some story, only to hear the other side of the story later.
The majority of people, according to Muel Kaptein in his book Why Good People Sometimes Do Bad Things, “consider themselves more honest, more trustworthy, more ethical, more fair, more open and more helpful than average.”
There is another thing I have in common with a criminal: if I want to come to God, I must come in humility.
An ancient, bloody king, after committing adultery and murder and covered in remorse, sought to make amends and found there was none.
“You don’t desire sacrifice,” he wrote, “or else I would give it. You don’t delight in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, oh God, You will not despise.”
Too often–subconsciously perhaps–we measure our value to God by the good that we do, whether it’s in helping others or in obeying the tenets of a certain religion. These are our “sacrifices” and they give us a sense of security.
We are like children waving poppies–squished and grimy between our sweaty fingers–in the face of the queen of flowers.
She 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.
There were two men who went to a place of worship to pray.
They met at the door coming in. The one man neatly dressed: a family man, and his wife ironed his shirts. The other man whiskered and rough–a beard gives one presence without revealing too much. An embarrassing tattoo from his teen years 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 slip-shod embezzlement, the family man thought. What a waste of a life.
They went in and sat down, the family man in his normal seat, mid-bench, 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 visit my children’s school.
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–he knew it from radio programs of his boyhood, and from chapel at the jail. Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
A sob rattled up from inside him, surprised 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.