Thief

BY KEITH FONG

It was a night back in Berkeley, and I must say, I was enjoying the familiarity of it all. Walking the worn path back home from studying late, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of fondness for school, maybe even enough to wish class would come just a tad faster. The night was clear, the weather crisp, the streets empty, the walking company pleasant, and the conversation joyful—exactly as I like it.

All too soon we were at her apartment and ready to go our separate ways. It was a familiar routine: hand over her laptop, open the door, and say good night. And oh, maybe something a little out of the ordinary—but not what you’d expect.

Hello robbers. Fists struck my head and back. Hands grabbed her and swung her away. No words, no threats, no sounds, no chance. Too fast to react. With three of them versus two of us, and the element of surprise on their side, we could only put up a pitiful struggle at best. Ten seconds later we found ourselves stunned, the laptop gone, and the three robbers scattered. Robbers: one. Us: zero.

Out of instinct I bolted out after them, failing to grasp what had happened, and devoid of a plan. The trio of robbers had split. The one with the laptop ran straight and the other two vanished right. I followed the one with the laptop, and caught him two blocks up. He was alone and out of breath—an easy target. I considered it. A tackle from behind would stun, a blow to the head would immobilize, and the only thing stopping me from retrieving the laptop would be a foot race down the hill. Given that his fellow robbers were nowhere in sight, it would have been simple.

“Love your enemies” materialized in my mind (Luke 6:27, NASB). Yes, I knew the context of the passage; this command from Jesus is specifically for Christians who are being persecuted “for the sake of the Son of Man” (Luke 6:22). If I were being stolen from because I professed the name of Christ, the commanded response would be clear:

But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. (Luke 6:27-30)

Or, to apply it to my situation: “But I say to you who hear, love the robbers, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who take advantage of you. Whoever hits you on the head, offer him your face also; and whoever takes away your laptop, do not withhold your camera and phone and wallet from him either. Give to everyone who demands anything from you, and do not demand it back.”

Yet that night we were not being persecuted nor stolen from because we professed the name of Christ. I knew I was not commanded to offer them to hit my face as well. I knew that Jesus had not commanded me to show them my own laptop, camera, wallet, keys to my car and my apartment. I knew that Jesus did not forbid me from taking back my friend’s property. It was a matter of wisdom.

I considered taking the laptop back. My mind started churning: Is justice mine to seek? No. Could I stand before my friends and the court and be blameless? Probably. But could I stand before God, who sees perfectly and judges the thoughts and intentions of my heart? (Hebrews 4:12). I asked myself if my anger was justified. Of course it was! They ambushed us from behind like cowards, hit my friend, and stole her laptop! Then a verse came to mind: “…the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19-20). I might be justifiably angry, but my angry violence would not accomplish justice. God will render to each what is right, not me. Okay, Lord, I prayed. And by the grace of God, my anger, hatred, and rage melted to pity, compassion, and sorrow.

“Is it really worth it?” I yelled. “Just give the laptop back. I don’t want to fight.” I walked toward him. He was scared, about the age of 17 or 18, I guessed. “Come on, give the laptop back and we can be over this. Is it really worth it?” Silence. An eternity passed. Then his friends came, and he retreated back toward them. A different robber walked up towards me.

“Back up. Empty your pockets.” His fists bared, eyes glaring, teeth clenched. “Back up. Back up. Empty your pockets.” Now I retreated. I thought, Uppercut to the jaw, knee to the groin, blow to the back—neutralized. But what if he has a knife? No, he would have flashed it already. Besides, he’s smaller and younger than me, maybe about 18 or 19. Is it worth it? Another verse popped into my head: “‘Vengeance is Mine,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). And Keith, I thought to myself, vengeance is not yours. It is not your job to extract it, nor exact it.

“I don’t want to fight. I don’t want to fight,” I repeated. We kept up the dialogue for a few more steps, until, by the providence of God, laughter and voices from the house pierced the ice. He froze, and looked left. “It’s very easy,” I said. “One call. That’s all I need.” Tension shot up his body and terror filled his eyes. I yelled, “Robbery! Robbery!”

All three robbers bolted to the car, and I flipped out my camera to try to record the license plate. The driver hit the gas, missed me by a couple inches, screeched left, and roared around the corner. I checked my camera. Nothing.

The next hours were spent making a couple of 911 calls, finding dropped keys to the apartment, giving witness statements to the two policemen, making small talk, cleaning up the wounds, and finally going to bed around 2:30 AM. At the end of it, the damage was: a stolen laptop, scratches on the hand, arm, leg, and back, a dropped and broken food container, and the naïvety of two college kids shattered—the end of the summer semester punctuated with the exclamation mark of a reality check.

Was I bitter? Resentful? Did I feel victimized? Indignant? I don’t think those would be accurate words. Perhaps there was some regret. Maybe there was still a little anger. But underneath the confusion of my muddled thoughts, I found a thankfulness for God’s deliverance and protection, and an overwhelming pity for the robbers. I prayed for God to exact justice through the government  (Romans 13:1-4) and for Him to mercifully bring them to faith. The ethereal, familiar refrain carried me to sleep—

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there have I, though vile as he,
Washed all my sins away,

Washed all my sins away,
Washed all my sins away;
And there have I, though vile as he,
Washed all my sins away.¹

Forgiveness is easy when we look to the cross of Jesus Christ.

Two days later, the scene often manages to invade my mind. What if I had done this? Or that? I should have done this. I could have done that. What if…? My thoughts pull me away from trusting that my God is sovereign and that He is my good Father in heaven, and I force my flesh to pray and submit to His plans. It’s definitely a struggle; the robbers’ faces still come to mind when it’s dark, and I find myself on the edge of the cliff of paranoia whenever I’m walking on the street or stopping at stop signs in my car, half expecting them to jump out of the bushes behind me to do another lawless deed.

Often I drift back to when I first caught the robber with the laptop. After a lot of thought, I know what I should have said: “You are sinning against the perfect God. Is it really worth it? To trade your soul for a joy trip, for a toy, for some cash? Think about your life. You are a thief, condemned and worthy of eternal hell. I am too. Jesus saves from this worthless kind of life. He saves you from wasting your life worshipping things and people and temporary highs. You were made to worship God, not steal. You were made to worship Jesus, not assault. You were made to worship and submit to the King, not rebel against Him and His people. Repent and believe in the gospel, for it’s your only hope!”

Prepare me for the next time Father, to be bold with my mouth for the sake of the gospel. Amen.

¹William Cowper, There is a Fountain Filled With Blood. Public Domain.

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