Glory to God: Living an ‘Unretouched’ Life

On the evening of April 8, 1988, a teenage Mark Wahlberg punched Hoa Trinh in the eye and left him partially blind. No one disputes this story; Wahlberg almost immediately confessed to the crime. By Wahlberg’s own admission, he was not at all the kind of kid you wanted to spend any time with. Obscene, racist, and filled with both anger and a horribly-misguided South Boston sense of street machismo, Wahlberg had desperately asked Trinh to hide him from police. Trinh – not realizing that only a few moments earlier Wahlberg had clubbed another Vietnamese man into unconsciousness with “a large wooden stick, approximately five feet long and two to three inches in diameter” – obliged Wahlberg…only to be assaulted himself once the police cruiser was safely out of view.

Time goes by. Living as we all do under God’s grace, the storyline changes dramatically.

Nowadays, Wahlberg is an accomplished actor, producer and restaurateur – a well-known name across America. I personally have enjoyed many of his performances in movies – his work in The Departed is particularly memorable – and (for better and worse) recently become hooked on the gritty HBO program Boardwalk Empire, a series which carries his name as executive producer. In addition to his numerous achievements in film and television, Wahlberg is involved with a number of worthy charitable causes; he established the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation for at-risk teens, and supports organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and The Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Women and Children. Wahlberg is, by all accounts, happily married with four young children and takes his Catholic faith seriously. His current estimated net worth is $200 million.

Mark and Marky Wahlberg

Wahlberg is a different man today than he was in the 1980’s and recently petitioned the governor of Massachusetts to grant him a pardon from his youthful crimes so that the official record of his history matches who he believes himself to be today.

Like Wahlberg, I too have a story that took place in the mid-1980’s, a regrettable period of my life that no one seriously disputes.

As a young man in my 20’s, I got mixed up with a bunch of suburban Detroit knuckleheads who more or less viewed their day jobs as a major distraction from chasing women, drinking to excess, fighting occasionally and spending a lot of money – fueled by illicit drug sales – on motorcycles, cocaine, club-hopping, concert tickets, you name it. My involvement with these guys started out “safely” enough, or so I thought. After all, “Who doesn’t like to go out at night and have a good time?” At some point, however, one of the boy geniuses in this group of associates figured out that selling drugs was a quick ticket to quitting his day job. When he began acquiring guns to protect himself, his money and his stash – and encouraged some of us to do likewise – it was God’s mercy that I was able to move to California for a year and successfully sever all remaining ties to that group. To this day, I have no idea what happened to them; I can’t even recall their last names. Unlike Wahlberg, I was never arrested for any of my crimes.

Nowadays, I do my level best to serve the Lord by loving Him, loving my wife and kids, staying sober, staying employed, keeping my mouth shut as needed, not punching anyone, and being wiser about my close associations. Having been convicted by the gospel, I know for certain that there is absolutely nothing I can do to “earn” my salvation or to expunge the depravity of my young life as a self-indulgent, spoiled and foul-mouthed punk. Nowadays, I feel absolutely free in Christ to serve others as best I can despite my history; in fact, these days I serve others because of that history of depravity, working in ministries that line up well with my My Former Life as a Lost Person. I spend a fair amount of time interacting with others who (like me) have gone through withdrawal to various addictions, tenuous sobriety, divorce, sexual sin, financial struggles, depression and desperation.

So it’s entirely possible that Wahlberg and I share a position on God’s shelves as Trophies of His Grace. Perhaps only God knows for sure, since we are all self-deceived as to the true intentions of our hearts (Jeremiah 17:9).

It may be that Wahlberg’s recent petition to have his past crimes expunged from his record has more to do with selling hamburgers than it does his own personal redemption narrative. As the Wahlburgers chain expands, his criminal record has become something of “an unwelcome snag” in the race to procure a concessionaire’s license in California. “[R]eceiving a pardon,” writes Wahlberg, “would be a formal recognition that I am not the same person that I was on the night of April 8, 1988.”

Isaiah 43:25Fair enough. God does redeem His people to good works (Ephesians 2:10). To his credit, Wahlberg makes no bones about how awful his past crimes were, and he has even reached out to his former victims to apologize face-to-face. Maybe the only nagging issue in all of this is that of timing. Had Wahlberg made attempts to ameliorate the effects of his violent past and provide restitution to his victims in some form long before the concessionaire’s license issue came to a head, it might be easier to trust the sincerity of his recent gestures. After all, 27 years provides ample opportunity to make a phone call, right?

Perhaps I am too cynical as to underlying motives; God alone knows Wahlberg’s heart, and we can all trust the Judge of all the Earth to do right (Genesis 18:25). What I find ironic is that Wahlberg’s campaign to tidy up his past life has had the opposite effect in the media. All one has to do is Google Wahlberg’s name to see that his request for pardon has unleashed a flurry of activity on news sites and blogs, most of it (predictably) negative. Probably a lot of Wahlberg’s current-day admirers have only recently become aware of these regrettable incidents in his young life as a result of his effort to clear his name.

The bigger mistake – as far as I can tell – is that in the act of seeking in any way to alter or expunge our record by our own efforts, we effectively deny glory to God.

Yes, the life Wahlberg leads today is in many ways admirable. Praise God that he spends time, talent and treasure on worthy causes, regardless of what the “true” motives of his heart might be. I pray that his marriage stays intact – a rare feat in the entertainment industry – and that his kids grow up healthy and thrive. May his Catholic faith be as sincere as his publicist would like us to believe, and may the recent spate of publicity surrounding him – both bad and good – be used to good effect in the lives of his victims and their families as well. I wish them all the best…whether California ever gets its Wahlburgers or not.

Were he ever to ask me about all this – admittedly unlikely! – I would encourage Wahlberg to seek some sort of exemption with regard to the licensing process that leaves his former convictions in place.

God is most glorified in the life of the individual when it is obvious to all that something radical broke in and interrupted the predictable trajectory of a downward life. This is exactly what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-22). It’s exactly what happened to me on a cross-country flight in July of 1997. Apparently, it happened to Mark Wahlberg as well. There is no solid reason anyone can give as to why the Apostle did not perish in his sinful violence, why Wahlberg did not die on the streets of South Boston and why I escaped an early death in a rented drug house just north of Eight Mile.

Whatever the Master has painted on the canvas of our lives, let us never seek to alter or “improve.” As Christians, let’s all trust the promise of Isaiah 1:18 and accept that our records have already become spotless in eternity through the work of Christ. In that spotlessness alone, I now feel no shame, and thus no need to “revise” my past or paint a prettier portrait of myself for the good folks at my local church. “What a wretch I was…all glory to God!”


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