TLDR: We’re only gonna change, people, when we finally get exhausted with sin.
What is it that causes people to quit being criminals? I’ve been reading some in desistance theory for a project I’m on, which is simply a highfalutin’ word for attempts to answer that question. How we answer has considerable implications for how we might want to arrange our justice system, and what sorts of resources we’d want to provide individuals upon exiting prison. At least if we are thinking about justice in any sense beyond straightforward retribution for wrongdoing, which I’m not fully convinced at this point we should do. But there’s a great deal of value to be had in thinking about transformation specifically within prisoners: the question of how criminals change is a highly-concentrated, distilled version of one of the most basic human problems.
As we are but three days away from Easter (either after or before, depending on the calendar!), it might seem like we should be fully optimistic about the possibility of experiencing real transformation on the basis of cultivating new joys and affections. We might be tempted to think that the extraordinary bells and whistles of Jesus Rising From the Dead would be sufficient to animate new habits and practices within us. Once God rises from the dead, everything changes in and for us. It is that simple—right?
Perhaps. I’m in a particularly skeptical mood these days, largely owing to my own nearly immediate descent from the heights of Easter Joy merely hours after our final guest had gone home. At 8 AM Monday morning, I found myself reflecting on the gross weightiness of irritation, as an unpleasant office assistant declined to issue forms I needed as I waited. The juxtaposition of the overwhelmingly petty frustration that marred my morning, and the soaring, transcendent joy of Easter is enough to make me think that deep transformation arises not when we are allowed to taste the joys of greater and higher goods, but when we finally become so exhausted with our own insignificant pettiness that we willingly let go of those things that encumber us.
This thought has bearing on theories of desistance. In one particularly interesting paper, the authors theorize that “offenders do not initially think about leaving crime because they suddenly see the advantages of a conventional life, but rather because they begin to see, in more vivid detail than ever, the costs and disadvantages of their lives of crime.” I’d like this to be false, in one way. It would be nice to believe that presenting positive visions of the good, and doing so in narratively exciting or dramatic ways, would lead people to practically affirm those visions and (re)order their lives accordingly. Except inertia is real, and we are more inclined to be content with the goods we presently enjoy than risking sacrificing them for greater ones. Only when we become exhausted with vice will we begin to turn away from it.
This all seems depressing. And think: it appeared in your inbox at 5:00 AM CST! What a great newsletter.
There’s no rescuing this idea from being anything other than depressing, except by seeing how it might transform our understanding of God’s chastisement for sin away from a fear of his punishment into a love of his Fatherly discipline. The Lord chastens those He loves—that is, he expedites the sensation of badness by withdrawing our agency (as though we were in prison), and hastening our experience of the costs of sin. His aim is to bring us to repentance, and to do so quickly—and yet he might allow the temptations toward sin to linger on in the soul despite his forgiveness, as part of his attempt to make us weary of ourselves so that we rise up and seek higher things. The costs of our wrongdoing are there regardless of whether God adds his punishment to them: there is no world in which theft, or murder, or any other wrong would not carry costs for the wrongdoer. Sin is internally corrosive of persons. But punishment exacerbates the process, by making those costs transparent and increasing their intensity. And in that sense, it offers a swifter path toward exhaustion with our wrongdoing than if we were left to our own. The kindness of God’s judgment on sin leads to repentance—eventually. It really does.