A few years ago I was standing in line at the movie theater snack counter, hoping to grab some Raisinets before the previews started rolling. While I waited, I noticed a man out of the corner of my eye who was standing in the line next to me. He was tall, handsome, well dressed yet casual, and accompanied by a girl who looked to be about Middle school aged. When I turned to see his face I realized, to my surprise, that it was John Edwards.
It is always a little disorienting to see “famous” people out doing ordinary things. Although in this case, Edwards is more “infamous” than anything else. At the time, the scandal of his affair was all over the news, and while his wife, Elizabeth was still alive, she was not doing well. Having watched his public fall from grace on media outlets everywhere, it was strange to see him there with his daughter, at my local movie theater, doing the same thing as me.
Back then I was living in the Raleigh/Durham area, which is also where Edwards lived. I knew that. But seeing him with his daughter caused me to process the scandal with new eyes. For months afterward, whenever I passed the magazines in the checkout line with his face plastered all over the covers, I wondered what it must be like for him. I wondered what it must be like for his daughter.
I have never forgotten that random encounter, especially after having clapped eyes on that little girl. Edwards’ family has done a good job of keeping his younger children out of the media spotlight, so it is easy to forget about them. But I have often wondered about that girl who would soon lose her mother to cancer, and later endure the humiliating trial of her father. All during those formative teens years.
That experience left me with a taste of Edwards’ humanity, an interesting reminder amid the horribly sordid details of his mistakes. The reality of his humanity does not excuse or even soften the gravity of his sins, but his humanity does remind me of one thing: we share a common nature.
Recently I heard a pastor explain the profound grace of God by asking the congregation to visualize a scenario: Imagine you have been convicted of a crime and sentenced to life in prison. You have no hope of ever being free again. But then a stranger, who is innocent of any crime, offers to take your place. He asks nothing in return. You are free.
How do you think you would feel?
Of course the pastor anticipated responses such as “grateful” or “humbled.” Cynically I thought, “Well, it depends on the person. Some people would take that stranger for a chump, grab the offer, and run.”
Similar versions of the above scenario are often used to help convey the nature of grace. It is perhaps most beautifully captured in Les Miserables, when Jean Valjean receives perplexing grace and compassion from the priest he had just robbed. The grace of the priest changes Valjean. He is never the same again.
That should be the response of Christians to the grace of God. He lavishes it upon us so extravagantly that we should be changed by it. And yet many of us are not. Often my behavior is more like that of Edwards, who probably would have persisted in his sins as long as he was free to. I wonder how long he would have lied if he had not gotten caught and been forced to repent. I wonder how he will respond to the grace extended him last week.
News outlets frequently feature politicians and powerful business people who persist in unethical behavior for as long as they can get away with it. When given the opportunity to make things right, they usually do not. Grace is not an opportunity to change, but an opportunity to save one’s own tail.
This immorality is not, however, limited to the powerful. It is a common mark of human depravity. It begins as early as childhood, whenever children take advantage of their parents’ grace, rather than learn from it. It is evident in the behavior of common criminals who take advantage of the compassionate, using charitable donations for their own selfish ends. This depravity is also evident in an entire generation of Americans who, rather than be humbled by the luck of prosperity, have instead become entitled.
I wish I was more like Jean Valjean. I wish that the grace of God was a daily reminder that literally transformed every interaction of my life. Unfortunately, I find a great deal of commonality with Edwards. The man who tried to get away with as much as he could for as long as he could, is a man with the same sin nature as me.
As Edwards himself admitted, his actions were inexcusably terrible. Many of us feel the wrongness of his behavior on a visceral level whenever we think of him. I feel it when I think of his children. But before we rush to cast judgments, I think the Edwards storyline should serve as an important gut check for us all. Edwards has now been given the profound grace of a not-guilty verdict, and we’ll see how he responds it to. But how will we respond to the infinitely greater grace of God? Do we live out our lives in profound gratitude to Him? Or are we content to get away with the grace we’ve been given? In the same way that Edwards took the American public for a chump, do we, on some hidden level, do the same to God?