recycled cans: paying for it yourself

i remember watching espn a couple years back when a sports star was being interviewed about some deep water he had gotten himself into. he had been involved in some criminal activity, and he was facing almost certain conviction at this point. it seemed to be all sports media wanted to talk about.

it was in this interview, though, that this athlete said something that has stayed with me ever since. after receiving question after question about what he did, about the charges he faced, and about the potential consequences for his actions, he responded, “i will redeem myself. i have to redeem myself.”

and i think the reason this quote has stuck with me all this time is that this man wasn’t just speaking for himself that day. no, he was speaking for all of us who have ever been faced with the reality of our mistakes. it’s at those times we feel most strongly that something must be done to pay for the wrongs we’ve committed. but i am getting ahead of myself…


this athlete isn’t alone. he’s not the first person to have felt responsible for making things right after doing something wrong.

it was just this week i found myself making a point to be more nice to those around me following a seeming offense. i had messed up in one area of my life, offending one person, and now i found myself being extra nice to others. and that’s interesting, isn’t it? as if somehow my first wrong, or perceived wrong, would somehow be made right by treating others with extra care. as if having them on my side would make my first offense okay.

it’s funny, really.

you can see something similar in the young boy whose mother notices him being overly helpful. offering to mow the lawn. do the dishes. sweep the kitchen. all without being asked. seeing this, and knowing that it is unlike her son to do so, she asks one of two questions: 1) ‘what do you want?’, or 2) ‘what’d you do?’

for the sake of this conversation, it’s the second question we’ll focus on.

i use this example to show that we all, when we’ve done something wrong, feel as though we have to do something good to pay for  this wrong. and that truth, when you’ve considered it, is quite interesting. particularly when you realize how common this feeling is. it’s not just this little boy who feels this way. it’s not just me who feels this way. it’s not just you who feels this way. it’s common among all of us. for both the wealthy sports star and the commoner alike.

we all feel as though something must be done to make right our wrongs. and it’s interesting when you apply that to the old testament law, where God commanded payment for our sin, which typically involved the sacrifice of an animal. an animal without blemish. most would see such law as primitive and barbaric. and yet, in a way, we still operate by this same standard: when i mess up, i feel as though i’ve got to do something to make it right.

recycled cans

and, usually, we put that on ourselves. “i must pay for this mistake. i must make this right,” we think to ourselves. or, as this professional athlete said, “i will redeem myself.”

but what if we can’t? what if, try as we might to be extra nice, to do more, to give more, what if all of this will never pay for our initial badness? what if the debt that we put ourselves in in the first place is still there after we’ve finished giving to this charity, volunteering for that organization, being nice to this person?

i picture God looking at such logic and just shaking His head. like a young boy who, after hearing of his country’s mushrooming debt on television, decides to bring a handful of aluminum cans to the recycling center, hoping to redeem his metal for enough money to pay for his country’s debt.

on the one hand, the owner of the recycling center is proud of the boy’s acknowledgment of the debt, and of his desire to do something about it. however, on the other hand, he knows this boy has absolutely no concept of the depth of the country’s debt, and the payment that must take place for things to be made right. in light of the nation’s incredible debt, the boy’s well-meaning attempt at payment is laughable, really.

and i think the same is true for us. on the one hand, God is pleased when we’ve come to the realization that yes, something must be done to pay for how we’ve acted. for the wrongs we’ve committed. for the hurt we’ve caused. for, were we to never come to the point of realizing our debt, we would never seek payment for it. or, as lewis put it,

it is after you have realized that there is a moral law, and a Power behind the law, and that you have broken that law and put yourself wrong with that Power-it is after all this, and not a moment sooner, that Christianity begins to talk. when you are sick, you will listen to the doctor. (mere christianity, p.38-39)

paid in full

however, if we stop there, if all we ever realize is that we’ve done wrong, without any sense of how things are to be made right, we will be lost. lost in an endless circle of trying to pay for our sins. trying to give more. trying to do more. or worse. it could lead to one inflicting pain upon themselves, as if somehow punishing oneself enough could ever pay the price of their debt. like the young girl lost in a pool of self-condemnation who seeks a way out through cutting or starvation. but it will never lead her out. it will never make things right. it could not not. that is simply not how it works. instead, it will only lead her deeper into despair.

no, the good news, the true gospel of the Christian faith, is that God has provided payment for our debt. that, before time began, He knew we would fall short of the Law. the Law we all know in our hearts. the Law we are all born with. that standard we all hold ourselves accountable for. and in so knowing, He provided a way out. a payment. the perfect payment. the death of His own son, Jesus Christ. fully God yet fully man. crucified on our behalf, risen to show us He was who He said He was. that we could believe. and that, through the blood of His Son, and our belief in Him, that we would be made right. that the broken law would no longer be held against us. that our debt would now be paid in full. that is the good news of the Christian faith. that is it.

again, to quote lewis,

the central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. (mere christianity, p.57)

right because it’s right

and so, when we hear that condemning whisper, when we have that weight on our heart, the weight of our sin, we must look not to ourselves, but to Him. for, anything less would simply be a meager attempt to pay for a debt far greater than we can likely comprehend with a handful of aluminum cans. and our futile attempts to do so will only lead to feelings of failure.

we will realize, at some point, and i pray it will be sooner rather than later, that we cannot pay this debt. and that all of our attempts to do so have failed to put even a dent into our debt. while we may feel better for a time, we will soon turn to find ourselves face to face with our failure, once again staring deep into the vastness of our debt.

the hope of the Christian faith is that it is no longer our debt to pay. that He has already paid it, which should create in us a sense of infinite thankfulness and gratitude, as well as a spirit of giving, of love for others. not that we might make right our wrongs-for we’ve already established we cannot-but that we might be filled with a deep love for others because He first loved us.

my niceness, my goodness, is a result of His goodness. which, when shared with others, should create a sense of goodness in them. like a contagion, passing from Him to you, from you to me, and from me to someone else. and so it goes, down the line. all stemming from His goodness, from His righteousness. not hopelessness in the face of an insurmountable debt, but relief at His payment. joy for His love. and pleasure in His goodness. everyday. that is our response. and i pray that it would pour forth from your life, as my own. so that He might be most glorified. in your life, and in mine.

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