It was early in the morning in Washington, D.C., and I was driving down Montana Avenue about ten minutes from home. But suddenly, the blue lights of a police cruiser zoomed into the reflection of my review mirror. My stomach dropped.
When I pulled over, the officer swerved his car off the road and pulled up behind me. Then he got out, swaggered over to my window, and peered in.
“Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“I have no idea,” I answered flatly as my heart raced.
He rattled off something about me taking an illegal turn, which made no sense because I had stopped at the red light, waited for it to turn green, and then took a left at the fork like I was supposed to (at least I thought that’s what I was supposed to do).
After examining my license, the cop told me to get my registration and proof of insurance ready. I asked for a moment to pull up the insurance information from my GEICO app, but I discovered that there was hardly any cell coverage at that particular spot (lesson learned about carrying a physical insurance card).
Two minutes later, the officer was back at my window asking to see proof of insurance. When I requested a couple more minutes to pull it up, he said that he had already given me a “reasonable amount of time.” Then he pulled out three tickets and handed them to me: One for illegally using a left turn lane, another for driving without insurance, and the last for failure to show proof of insurance. The total: Over $600, which I could only contest through a laborious process that ensured no justice.
As he swaggered back to his car, I drove off, seething with anger. The law was on his side — he was the face of the law, actually. And every time I drove through that intersection after that, I was on the lookout for him, afraid of whatever other infraction he might discover and hand me another fistful of tickets.
Seventeen years before the jarring pullover in D.C., I was on a little road on the outskirts of Oxford, Mississippi, where I was attending law school. I drove up to a police checkpoint, which made me nervous, but I figured the officer just wanted to see people’s drivers licenses.
After I gave the officer my license, he walked around to the back of my car and returned with bad news: My tags were expired.
“Oh no,” I said with dismay. “I had no idea.”
He looked at me with sympathy and said, “I hear you, but I still have to give you this ticket,” which I looked at in defeat. I don’t even remember how much the fine was, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t afford it. I was living off of $500 a month and struggling to pay for my groceries and haircuts.
“Sir, I seriously can’t afford this. Is there any way out of it?”
“I’ll tell you what,” he said kindly, raising his eyebrows. “If you’ll get these tags replaced by Wednesday and come see me at the police station around 4:00 p.m., I’ll see what I can do.”
Two days later, I drove up to the police department with my new tags and found the officer. After he came outside and looked at them he said, “Looks good to me — I’ll take care of this ticket for you.”
I thanked him profusely and drove away, making sure to abide by the speed limit. And in the coming days, I didn’t just watch the speed limit, I came to a complete halt at every stop sign and made sure to use my blinker at every turn.
The officer had been so kind to me. I didn’t want him to pull me over and discover that I had committed a new infraction. I wasn’t afraid of him — not at all — he was so gentle that I couldn’t help but feel at ease with him. I wanted to be the best law-abiding driver I could be, but it was because his kindness had provoked my obedience.
Spiritual Blue Lights
In my early days as a Christian adult, I perpetually struggled with legalism — the feeling that I had to obey a laundry list of rules to make God like me. It felt like He was always watching, looking for infractions, never satisfied with my performance. My relationship with Him was defined by what I didn’t do: No drinking, drugs, dating, listening to secular music or watching secular movies — no, no, no. That’s what made me holy. I was abiding by the rules but it was out of fear, not love.
If you’d have asked me back then whether I believed God really loved me, I would’ve unequivocally said yes, but it was a surface-level belief. Deep in my heart, I saw Father God as a stern law enforcement officer. Jesus and the Holy Spirit, whom I saw as much nicer, were just doing their best to help me be more obedient.
The unconditional love of Jesus didn’t become real until I finally got so exhausted by meticulously following the rules that I lost the energy to keep going. I started breaking the law, provision by provision, which left me perpetually riddled with guilt.
Driven to Jesus
The good thing about my guilt was that it drove me into the gentle arms of Jesus. I finally began to see that He must have died for all of my sins — past, present, and future — otherwise, His blood was just a temporary solution that made me clean until the next time I sinned. As Paul wrote, “I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.” (Galatians 2:21). Either God saved me or He didn’t.
In time, I began to see that God isn’t eager to catch me in my sin so that He can bring the law down on me. Instead, He’s eager to bring me to repentance. He wants me to “get my spiritual tags updated,” if you will. He’s always pleased to give me another chance, and with that kind of graciousness — the kind the officer showed me in Oxford — I find myself wanting to obey in response, to live in a way that honors His generosity.
Brothers and sisters, if you’re afraid that God is going to bring the force of the law down on you, don’t run from Him — seek Him out. Find Him at the “checkpoints,” the places where you know He’s waiting, places where you’re afraid you’ll get caught. Turn yourself in and you’ll discover that He’s there, waiting to pardon, ready to set you on the right path.
Check out my book, “Confessions of a Happily Married Man,” which tells the story of how God has worked in the ordinary (and extraordinary) of my marriage — and how you can see the ways He’s working in yours too.
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