Third Wednesday of Advent: Organized Crime

By Michael S. Chen

Advent Devotional | December 20, 2017

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.  Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Romans 13:11-14

When I was in the fifth grade, Dan Oskey showed me how easy it was to steal baseball cards from the neighborhood vendor, and without giving it much thought, I gladly joined him. Soon I was a ringleader in organized crime. I invited Nate Webb, and we started a group whose sole purpose was to steal baseball cards—those little glorified cardboard rectangles.

We stole thousands of dollars worth of baseball cards over the course of a year or so.

It wasn’t that we needed more baseball cards—we all had money from our allowances to buy plenty of cards—but the sad reality is that sin makes you stupid.

We took time to carefully plot our course of action, setting our sights on certain stores and particular cards. We even named our group—BIFL, which stood for “Borrow It for Life.” I knew it was wrong, but at some level, I was looking for something to alleviate my existential boredom and to feel like I belonged somewhere. I desired something risky and daunting. It also just felt good to do what was wrong; we wanted to steal, and we got away with it. So for a time, we persisted in doing the evil that we wanted to do.

Asleep to God, and in deep slumber, we often enable sin to gratify its strong desire in our lives.

My behavior was reminiscent of St. Augustine who, in his Confessions, reflects on the state of his own heart during his youth. He stole pears with a gang of adolescents, not because they were hungry or because the pears were special, but because they delighted in evil.

“I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself.” (Confessions, p.29)

Augustine saw that it was not the pears that posed a problem, but his heart and its strong desire to gratify evil. According to his account, they did not even enjoy the pears. They threw them away to the pigs for destruction.

This same painful logic repeated itself many centuries later as we made plans to steal baseball cards, executed them, and reveled in the spoils. Keeping the habit a secret wasn’t hard. Our parents and teachers saw us as good kids, and it felt good.

Until I was caught.

One day, confident and smug after many successful raids, I had a box of some old cards and I filled it with new cards that caught my eye. A police officer was waiting near the door. I averted my eyes and tried to casually walk past him.

“What’s in the box?” he inquired. My heart sank down into the floor.

The shop owner had suspected that I was shoplifting and called in reinforcements. “Just give him a scare—we won’t press charges.” he whispered to the officer.

I was in tears from the moment the officer asked me, “Do you know what you were doing?” I answered “yes,” but the honest answer was “no.” I didn't know what I was doing.

This confrontation was the beginning of God’s mercy in my life.

After I was caught, I cried in the shower so no one could hear me. I asked God to forgive me, but I still didn’t understand my own heart. My efforts to manipulate and control had soured my good desires. Years later, I learned that apart from the grace of God, we fixate on and feed wickedness for its own sake until it consumes us.

But the Holy Spirit led me on down the path of death in order to wake me up to His love.

I started to understand that our hearts were wired for love, connection, and purpose—all things that I had been trying find through BIFL. These were the things my heart most wanted, but there is only One who can deeply satisfy our hearts. St. Paul knew this, and his admonition to the fledgling church was to wake up and yearn for the righteous coming Kingdom, our heart’s true desire—for our salvation has appeared!

And together, we are being shaped into a people looking and longing for salvation.

Through the powerful working of the Spirit, we become fully awake to our deepest desires and renewed in our capacity to wait for rescue. It is painful to wait, to make the necessary changes to live in concert with the hope of the Gospel. For the things that my heart most wants, I can be satisfied in Him now, and yet it sometimes feels like it’s not enough. I want more. We all want more.

Yet in the troubled and blessed waiting for glory, we are no longer slaves to our whims, adrift in a dark world. But with patience and longsuffering we declare that our strong desires are and will be met by a God whose glory is revealed in Jesus. Clothed now in Christ, we walk toward a bright day when our desires and His glory will be one.

Michael S. Chen is the CCO’s Director for Cross Cultural Ministry.