When you’re so far gone, sometimes it’s hard to believe that change is possible. Whether you’ve entered a life of abuse, addiction, pain or heartache, made horrible mistakes you regret, or have fallen back into destructive habits so often you don’t feel you deserve another chance, it’s easy to give up trying.
The Apostle Paul knew what those feelings of regret were like; he was described in Acts as “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (8:3). Known as Saul at the time, he stood by as a man, Stephen, was stoned to death simply for speaking up about what he believed. Saul terrorized Christian after Christian as their cries of pain fell on deaf ears.
Saul epitomized the word “villain,” yet I think he’d identify with the following fictional characters who did great evil, but discovered change is possible.
1. Missy, “Doctor Who”
Missy is one of the most intriguing characters in “Doctor Who,” because the Doctor gives her chance after chance. After chance. If any fictional character exemplifies Jesus’s command to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22), it’s the Doctor, and I don’t know how he does it, because each betrayal cuts a wound deeper than the last.
And yet, in the latest series 10, Missy struggles to be a better person. It’s not an easy battle; feeling remorse for past actions, she discovers, is horribly painful. Willingly accepting that pain to reform takes an incredible amount of strength and determination, and it’s only accomplished through love and forgiveness. The Doctor’s refusal to give up on her eventually leads her to choose him instead of her old destructive habits.
2. Zuko, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”
Zuko is a very angry teenager, as demonstrated by his many temper tantrums during the three years he attempts (and fails) to capture the Avatar. It’s only over years of being patiently loved by his Uncle Iroh that he has a change of heart. Like Missy, he doesn’t find the transformation to one of the “good guys” easy. He constantly faces people doubting his motives because of his past actions, but by sticking with it (with a few setbacks along the way) he finds joy, peace and purpose that he never knew before.
3. Black Widow, “The Avengers”
Though Clint Barton (Hawkeye) is sent to kill Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) because she is a dangerous assassin, he makes a different call. Raised to be a killer from a young age, Natasha never knows there is another option until she experiences Clint’s love and acceptance. Once again, we see mercy and forgiveness take effect as Natasha reforms, becoming an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and working with the Avengers to protect the world.
4. Darth Vader, Star Wars
It’s Luke’s determination not to fight his father and his constant belief that “there is still good in him” that changes Vader’s opinion of himself. I think Vader spends most of his time under the thrall of the Emperor believing there is no going back; his murdering innocent children in the Jedi Temple was the beginning of many heinous crimes, including building a planet-destroying Death Star. Who could possibly forgive him for everything he had done? Turns out, his son could. By accepting forgiveness and his son’s love, he finds peace.
5. Edmund, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”
Though not exactly a villain, Edmund does turn in his own siblings and newfound furry friends to the White Witch for a few pieces of Turkish Delight. He’s not convinced he’s done anything wrong until he realizes the extent of the White Witch’s rage when she turns innocent animals into stone. However, he stays with her because he doesn’t know what else to do; he’s trapped. Not only does Aslan rescue him, but sacrifices himself in Edmund’s place. Perhaps Edmund didn’t believe his actions deserved forgiveness, but Aslan made him worth it by his sacrifice. Edmund is so impacted by Aslan’s actions, he becomes humble, considerate of others, and just.
The Common Thread
The themes stringing all these narratives together are the same the Apostle Paul experienced during his conversion: love and forgiveness. God not only forgave Paul, but used him to reach thousands of people by proclaiming the news of Jesus’s resurrection. Though Paul wasn’t worthy of forgiveness for his crimes, just as we are not, he was made worthy through God’s forgiveness. Accepting forgiveness enabled him to go on to shower that love on so many others.
Change is hard. There’s no doubt about that. God’s not going to do all the work for us, but He is there to support us through the temptations, the times we want to revert back to our old selves, the judgment and doubt from other people, and the difficult path we’ve chosen. Just like He did amazing things through Paul, He makes us valuable by His sacrifice; He alone has the power to reform our souls. Are you willing to accept His great gift?