Sports Illustrated recently ran an article about the shooting death of NFL star Will Smith. Smith was a former defensive end for the New Orleans Saints – a key figure on their 2010 Super Bowl winning team. He was beloved in New Orleans. He had a beautiful wife, three small children and participated in a number of local charities.
On April 9, 2016, Smith was involved in a traffic accident which escalated into violence. He was shot and killed by Cardell Hayes, a hulking African American man from the other side of the tracks. Almost immediately Hayes was labeled by the media a “thug” who had ruthlessly killed one of New Orleans most dearly loved residents.
The Sports Illustrated article dug deeper, however. It turns out the Saint was driving drunk that night, with a blood-alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit. He had a history of violence. According to some witnesses, he was physically and verbally abusive to Hayes and threatening his life.
The thug, on the other hand, was described by many who knew him as a gentle giant – a big teddy bear. He was quiet and unassuming. He coached a local pee wee football team. According to his friends and neighbors, he was anything but a “thug.”
What happened on that New Orlean’s street on the night of April 9, 2016, is difficult to ascertain. It depends on whose testimony you believe. What we know for sure is that the truth is much more complicated than the story the media originally reported.
As human beings, we tend to divide people into two simple categories: good guys and bad guys, saints and thugs. Your friends and family are the good guys. Your boss, your ex-husband and the presidential candidate you despise are the bad guys.
The truth, however, is more complicated. Most people don’t fall simply into one category or the other.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we are all thugs. We are all born completely sinful (Psalm 51:5). We are selfish. We are rude. We are blinded by anger and hate.
But that is why Jesus came. He is the only true saint who ever lived. He came riding in on his white horse and gave his life for us, the bad guys. God came to this earth and suffered the punishment you deserve for your selfishness, anger and hate.
And because he did, you are forgiven. When God looks at you, he no longer sees a dirty thug. He sees a saint, washed forever in the blood of his Son and the waters of Holy Baptism. Martin Luther once famously quipped, “We are at the same time saints and sinners.” Using Sports Illustrated’s terminology, we are at the same time saints and thugs. We are sinners who have messed everything up, but because of the forgiveness Jesus won for us, God treats us as saints.
We are complicated. Now that we believe in Jesus, each of us has an inner struggle. Inside each of us lives a saint and a thug – our faith and our sinful nature. Though we are forgiven, we are not perfect. That’s why we cling to our Savior and the promises of our baptisms.
In God’s eyes, you are a saint, forever forgiven because of Jesus. Trust that. Fight against the thug living in your heart. Remember that struggle as you deal with other sinners. Forgive as God has forgiven you.
And don’t be so quick to categorize people as all good or all bad – as either saints or thugs. Remember, we are complicated.