A couple weeks ago I got a traffic ticket. It was no big deal, you could say — a rolling stop on a right turn, with no other cars or pedestrians in the intersection. Still, I was guilty: There was, to be honest, rather more rolling than stopping going on. The cops can’t let everyone off with a warning, and just because they often do, I have no right to feel entitled to it. So I can’t get upset with anyone except myself — especially since I was a block from home when I did it. So close!
But to me, it was a bit of a big deal. At age 50, this was my first traffic ticket. And as I was sitting in my car right outside my home — being processed while neighbors who saw the police lights and heard the short “whoop” of the siren were probably looking out their windows — I felt like my world had gone a little awry. Who, me? This sort of thing doesn’t happen to me! I’m the good kid! I never even had to stay after school! (Except for giggling in class once, and that was the fault of the kid sitting next to me who kept cracking me up. Blame him, not me!)
The process only took a few minutes, but it felt longer. While I sat in my car, my mailman passed by, trying to pretend he wasn’t looking. “Rolling stop,” I felt I had to say, with a weak smile. (Translation: “I didn’t do anything really bad!”) “Hey, it happens,” he replied, letting me off the hook. As the officer read me info on my court date, I thought: Me, in court? Did I mention that I’m the good kid? Needless to say, I chose to fill out the papers to plead guilty and paid the fine on the spot. I just wanted to get it over with.
Of course, it’s not quite over with. Because now I have a record, and I can’t drive around with the cocky immunity of the never-been-busted, feeling I’m safe so long as I don’t do anything too bad. Now they’ve seen through my façade and know that I’m not so righteous and respectable: I’m a scofflaw. Now I know there’ll be consequences if I get caught taking little liberties again. I know that someone might be watching me, and judging me.
Now, in short, I have to face a bit of reality — a reality that I’d found easy to avoid up till now.
Which brings me to some spiritual realities. This little stain on my image is a reminder that I’m being watched and judged all the time, by Someone who can see far worse things in me than traffic violations born of impatience and spring fever. And the things He can see — things like pride, lust, self-absorption, willfulness, rebellion against my Maker, and on and on — deserve far greater penalties. All the more reason to be thankful that He has borne those penalties for me so that what He does see in looking at me is not my sins, but Christ’s righteousness.
Earthly penalties for our sins can be healthy reminders of these realities — far healthier for us than seemingly getting away with our sins, which promotes the lazy assumption on our part that those sins aren’t so serious or so urgent after all. (Plenty of time to repent and clean up my act later on, right?) Even penalties for little things that may hardly seem to count as sins — a rolling stop, say — can be helpful if they remind us that there are consequences for our actions and that we may be getting casually comfortable about bending the rules. Better to be get a wake-call now than after we get casual about bigger stuff, with bigger consequences.
What about you? Have you ever had a wake-up call by being “busted” — not necessarily by the police, but by someone who called you to accountability for your actions?