By Steven Norris

     Conversion is at the heart of the religious experience. The scriptures are full of stories of individuals who were headed in one direction (often a destructive, violent, or painful direction) when they have a life-changing experience with the Divine. As a result, a transformation occurs in the life of the individual and the trajectory of the person’s life goes in a radically different direction.

     One thinks of the story of Saul, a man who persecuted the church until that fateful day on the road to Damascus when his journey was interrupted by God and his life set on a different path (Acts 9:1-19). The Apostle Phillip encountered an Ethiopian eunuch on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Philip’s explanation of the scriptures leads the Ethiopian to be baptized in a roadside pool and change directions (Acts 8:28-40). The Roman centurion witnessing the crucifixion of Jesus responded to the scene with, “Truly this man was the Son of God,” hinting at the reality that his life was fundamentally changed (Mark 15:33-39).

     This past week, I was listening to a podcast about confession. The host observed, “feeling bad about something is close enough to doing good that people often use it as a good substitute.” I can’t help but wonder how many of us have strong experiences of guilt and regret over things that we have done in the past. We lament over those we have hurt — whether intentionally or unintentionally. We feel ashamed for the damage we have caused and we may want to do something.

     Seeking to make amends is a key principle in the work of restorative justice (as well as most recovery programs). It isn’t enough to just feel bad about doing wrong. It is important for us to do all within our power to make things right again. Part of taking responsibility for our past mistakes is to seek to undo at least some of the harm that we have caused.

     When I think about the numerous conversion stories in the scriptures, the Zacchaeus story stands out. The thing that most of us remember about Zaachaeus was that he was “a wee little man” who needed to climb up in a sycamore tree to see the “Jesus parade” coming through town (at least that is what the children’s song taught us).

     We don’t often remember the seemingly dramatic response of Zacchaeus to Jesus’ dinner invitation. “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (Luke 19:8). It wasn’t enough for the man to feel bad about his past mistakes. He needed to do something about it.

     In our own pursuit of God, it is important to understand that there is a difference between forgiveness and conversion. We are forgiven through the grace of God. This is a free gift — something we can only receive, not earn. Conversion, on the other hand, is to completely change directions, to live differently, to seek to correct that which we have damaged. As such, conversion truly becomes a lifelong process of transformation.