In a day and age where terror seems to be possible around any corner, innocence has become an idea that we look back on with a sense of longing and nostalgia. The days of children playing unsupervised in the yard, or riding their bicycles to a friends’ house, seem to be over. We now inhabit a world where innocence has become a luxury that few can afford. In its place, we have 24-hour supervision of children and the terrifying knowledge that evil is all around us. At least one consequence of our adaptation to this changing world is the redefinition of innocence.
One of the best places to get picture of our understanding of innocence is in our literature and film. One of the great themes in the arts is the idea of innocence lost–the end of childhood. Both Stephen King’s The Body and Louise Erdrich’s The Round House are great examples of this theme. King’s novella may be better known to audiences as Rob Reiner’s acclaimed 1986 film “Stand by Me.” Both stories are told by an adult narrator recounting a dark experience in their childhood that would eventually leave them forever changed. King’s work involves four childhood friends who go into the woods in search of the body of a lost boy. Erdrich’s tale involves a young Native American teenager in search of his mother’s attacker. Though varied in their details, the heart of these stories is familiar to all of us.
These stories are powerful and relatable because we can all remember a time when we were ‘innocent.’ Everyone has experienced that uncomfortable transition out of a perceived, childhood innocence–whether in one tragic moment, or over a long period of time. As such, we are no longer easily entertained or enthralled by mundane occurrences. We sense that there are no real mysteries to be solved or wonders to be found. We “get” certain jokes that would have gone over our heads years ago. We are enraptured by breaking news stories that we work to keep our children from overhearing. We look back with nostalgia to the days of our childhood–in many cases not knowing how we ought to relate to our most formative memories.
Innocence is a stage of life that we’ve appropriately moved on from. As adults, we appreciate innocence and behold it as a thing to protect, but not something that we would typically seek to recover. “Innocence,” as our culture has come to define it, has become akin to gullibility; it’s the kind of thing that allows a child to believe in Santa Claus. Though we hate to see children lose this “innocence,” we don’t aspire to it in our own lives. In common parlance, “innocence” is on par with “naivety;” it’s not necessarily an insult, but never a compliment. Innocence is a stage of life that we seek to grow out of.
But the reality is that we may be misunderstanding the nature of innocence itself. Could it be that the nature of true innocence rests somewhere in between the aforementioned childlike-wonder and the more legal use of the term–the innocence that comes from a judicial pronouncement of “not guilty”? We find something like this strange combination in the person of Jesus Christ, whom the scriptures claim was the only truly innocent person to have walked the earth. Jesus’ innocence certainly registers on the “not guilty” axis. But does he have an innocence that registers on the childlike-wonder axis? Yes and no. If we’re talking Santa Claus, then no. But if we are searching for a sense of wonder and mystery, then we will find it in the person of Jesus.
Real innocence doesn’t hide from the realities of a broken world or seek to be naively unaware of the sin that is ever present. Real innocence, instead, can see this and not be deterred or transformed by it. This is precisely the kind of innocence we find in Jesus: an innocence that confronts lost innocence head on. Jesus, the ultimately “not guilty” one stares down and carries the lost innocence of the world on his shoulders. His innocent death becomes the means by which the guilty hear a new verdict (innocent!). And that verdict and the relationship that accompanies it become a new lens through which to view the world–not gullibly or naively, but with a renewed, realistic sense of wonder.
Innocence is restored when, through faith in Christ’s innocent death, our guilt is taken away. It’s important that we constantly keep this in mind: we have been made innocent by Jesus’ blood alone. But even as we have been justified by grace, even so we are sanctified by grace. Our objective identity of innocence is consistently worked out in (and into) our lives by the Holy Spirit. The status we are given–Christ’s status of innocent, “not guilty!”– isn’t something we have for a moment which slowly erodes as we pile our present and future sins on top of it. No. Because of Christ’s finished work on our behalf we are forever innocent–never in fear of losing or growing out of this new identity. And because of this, we ought never be weighed down with a sense of guiltiness or lost innocence. Our status as innocent–”not guilty!”– means that we have nothing to fear, that we have new eyes through which to see the world, and a new life of God-pleasing holy innocence to live out by the grace of God. So much for innocence lost.