The first time I got a parking ticket, I sat in my car and cried for a good ten minutes.
I was doing homework in a coffee shop in downtown St. Paul and I had parked in a two-hour spot on a nearby side street. The whole time I was studying, I was paranoid about my designated parking time running out, but because the street was mostly empty and the spot I was occupying clearly wasn’t in high demand, I tried to push the worry aside and concentrate on my work. I had never gotten a ticket before, so why should I get one now? That line of thinking was, of course, terribly illogical, but it helped to calm me down, so I clung to it with all my might.
You can therefore imagine my sheer panic when, upon walking to my car no more than ten minutes after my two-hour parking window had expired, I saw a parking enforcement officer standing beside my car, tapping away on some tiny little black machine clearly designed to induce terror in the hearts of obedient rule-followers like me, and finally placing a long, flapping white ticket upon my windshield.
My panic induced me to run toward her maniacally, my heavy backpack thumping out the heightened rhythm of my heartbeat against my back, as I yelled incoherently, “No! Wait! I’m here! I was finishing an essay but now I’m here and I swear that I’m going to leave right now and this isn’t even a crowded area and it’s not like cars are lining up trying to get in this spot so it shouldn’t even matter if I stay parked here, should it? Should it? No! So please don’t give me a ticket! Please!” The officer watched my dramatic approach gravely, but no matter how much I pleaded with her to reconsider giving me a ticket, she remained unwavering in her punishment.
And so, deflated, I accepted defeat. I watched the officer walk to the car behind me and begin writing another ticket as I moodily detached the ticket from my windshield, climbed into my car, and turned the key in the ignition.
And then I started sobbing.
My brain was telling me that I deserved the ticket, that I shouldn’t have expected the officer to give in to my pleas, that the law was firm and unforgiving and that I was no exception to that law. My heart, on the other hand, was throbbing with the memory of the officer’s unsmiling face, her cold tone, and her clear annoyance at my belief that I could somehow offer her any explanation that could possibly excuse my violation. In the midst of my frustration, I pictured her inching through the streets of St. Paul day in and day out, scouring each and every park job she passed for even the tiniest of wrongdoings that could warrant the issuance of a ticket, and smiling gleefully with each ticket she distributed. Sparked by my own hurt and in no way based in reality, this portrayal was most likely exaggerated, unfair, and untrue.
But it got me thinking.
Sometimes, or maybe even a lot of the time, I think we can fall into the dangerous and blatantly misleading trap of believing that God operates very much like how I pictured this parking enforcement officer to operate: inching slowly through each and every detail of our lives, scouring our actions for wrongdoing of any kind, and smiling gleefully when He catches us in the act of violating His commands. In our broken, sinful, and human minds, we can sometimes believe that God is, in a way, out to get us. That He likes it when we mess up, because then He can enact punishment. That He isn’t for us, but against us. We can run after Him, screaming protestations at the top of our lungs, begging for Him to understand what caused us to mess up and to consider rethinking His punishment, but He will forever remain stoic and unfeeling, dismissing our words with a wave of His hand as He mechanically moves on the next person in need of punishment. With this frightening image in mind, we tread lightly around God, crossing our fingers and squeezing our eyes shut and hoping, hoping, hoping that His omniscient eye will somehow pass us by without detecting any glaring fault.
My dear brothers and sisters, I beg of you to please take my words to heart when I tell you that this Parking Enforcement Officer God we so often conjure up in our minds is about as inaccurate a portrayal of our God as we can possibly construct. For our God is not an officer, but a father, and from my own personal experience with my parking ticket trauma, this distinction makes all the difference.
In the midst of my post-ticket-sobbing-in-car meltdown, I decided to call my parents in the hopes that they could offer me some comfort. I dialed my mom’s number, but thanks to the modern-day wonders of speakerphone, I knew that as I relayed the sad saga of my parking ticket woes, both my mom and my dad were patiently listening. After assuring me that I need not worry, that it was not a big deal, and that neither he nor my mom were angry or disappointed with me in the slightest, my dad uttered the following magical words that instantly brought relief and healing to my heart: “Just bring the ticket home to me and I can take care of it for you. Don’t waste any more time worrying about it, because it’ll all turn out just fine. And besides, your car is registered under my name, so the ticket will actually be associated with me and not you. You’re in the clear.”
My sobbing increased, but this time out of sheer gratitude for the kindness and generosity of my dad. For not only did my dad have mercy on me, he offered to pay the penalty for me. He cleared my name. He set me free from guilt and shame. He satisfied justice with love. That right there is the mark of a father, and that right there provides a much more accurate depiction of what our God is truly like than the merciless, vengeful Parking Enforcement Officer God ever could.
As our Father, God is not simply lying in wait, hoping to catch us in the act of sinning. Rather, He is walking with us, guiding us toward right action through the ever-present voice of His Holy Spirit, observing our triumphs with jubilant pride and our downfalls and betrayals with a sadness and a hurt stemming from His perfect knowledge that we were made for so much more than the sin and darkness into which we so often fall. He never views our sins with satisfaction, gleefully plotting what punishment He will enact, for each and every sin drives more and more of a wedge between us and Him, and He cherishes uninhibited and unrestrained intimacy and closeness with us more than we can ever possibly understand.
When we humbly approach Him, sobbing and spluttering out the messy and complex details of each and every shameful sin weighing so heavily on our hearts, just as I confessed the parking ticket disaster to my dad, He patiently listens to every word. He hears us. He understands us. And then He offers words filled with mercy and truth and love similar to those uttered by my dad to bring relief and healing to our wounded hearts: “Just bring all of your sins, your sorrows, your shame, your guilt, your brokenness, and your hurt to me and I will take care of it. Don’t spend any more time despairing about what has happened, for I have already won the victory over sin. And besides, I sent my only Son to Earth to suffer and die in reparation for your sins, so that the debt of sin could be paid and forgiveness could be won. By humbly confessing your sins and placing them at the foot of my Son’s Cross, you receive my forgiveness through Him. Your soul has been wiped clean and your sins forgotten. You, my beloved child, are in the clear.”
Since receiving my first parking ticket, I have, unfortunately, received two more. Apparently, following parking laws simply isn’t my forte. But it is my distinct pleasure to inform you that my dad reacted the exact same way to each new ticket I received as he did to the first: with mercy and forgiveness and love, offering to pay the price on my behalf. His generosity in no way lessened with each new transgression, and it somehow meant even more to me that he could still act so lovingly the more I messed up.
The same is true for God. His mercy is inexhaustible. No sin is too shameful, no debt too staggering, no offense too grave, no number of wrongdoings too vast to be forgiven. So no matter what you have done, no matter how many times you have done it, and no matter how long it has been since you have confessed it, please know that God longs for you to come to Him, not fearfully as if you are approaching an unwavering and merciless officer, but as a child confidently running to your loving Father, so that He can remind you that the price of your sins has already been paid.
You are forgiven.
You are free of debt.
You are in the clear.
Our God is not a Parking Enforcement Officer God. He is a Father. He does not delight in enacting punishment, but in forgiving. Over and over and over again.
Stefanie Palmer, NET Alumna