My friend D. was explaining to me the challenges of teaching prison inmates his Life Skills class and said many of them could care less because they 'got the wheel.' I asked him what that means. It is prison slang for 'the wheel of life' or in other words a 'life sentence' in prison. You can imagine that would remove your motivation for a life skills class. There is no need to learn how to interview, get a job, or balance the checkbook because you will never need those skills again. At the time D. was telling me this, American Idol, Carrie Underwood, was becoming a star with the song, 'Jesus take the wheel.' It gave me cause for reflection.
Underwood’s song is about a young mother who cries out for Jesus to save her from a near death car accident by 'taking control of the steering wheel' and then after she is safely on the side of the road she asks Jesus to 'take control of the steering wheel' of her misguided life. No doubt you are encouraged by the message that Jesus is a savior who can save us from harms… such as car accidents, and also save us from the tragedy of a wasted life… if we obey him. However, as Carry sings of salvation from an auto fatality with glossed lips and a veneer of tight jeans, we were not saved from her femme fatale. Something seems amiss.
To be sure Jesus can save us from harms and also from wasting our lives if we pursue Christ-likeness. However, Jesus’ greatest work is to save us from eternal condemnation as a consequence of our rebellion against holy God. Scripture says, "For him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21 WEB). Jesus Christ took our punishment upon himself to save us from God’s wrath against sin. To be saved from a car crash and a misguided life is worth singing about, but to be saved from eternal damnation is an altogether different category of praise.
One can easily understand why Carrie Underwood is an American Idol, but suppose a prison inmate from my friend D.’s class stood before us. His face is scarred from a life of violence, his body racked from drug abuse, and his usefulness to society wasted. He can no longer be saved from the repeated crashes that destroyed his life. He can no longer be saved from a misguided life for 'the wheel of life' in prison is all that remains for him. Though Carry Underwood’s performance has captivated the eyes of America, this prisoner is a captive we do not care to understand and so our eyes turn away. Though well beyond our aid, imagine that he hears that 'Jesus took his wheel', paying his sin debt on the cross and he begins to believe that Jesus saved him from eternal damnation. A contrast is to be noted. He is not pleading for Jesus to 'take' his wheel, but boldly believes that Christ already 'took' his wheel. Would we be willing to praise God for giving this criminal eternal salvation for free the same as we are willing to praise Carrie Underwood, America's Idol?
Truth be told, with our gloss of goodness removed, and our veneers of hypocrisy stripped away we have more in common with the heart of this prison inmate than with the cosmetic image of Carry Underwood. We are guilty sinners before a holy God, yet saved by grace. Though we may lust for the praise given to American Idols, it is Jesus Christ that will be praised.