Some years ago an American author named Taylor Caldwell wrote an interesting novel called Dialogues with the Devil, which consists of a series of imaginary letters exchanged between Satan and the archangel Michael. In these letters they express their opposition but grudging respect for each other, even as they play their very different parts in the unfolding of God’s plan. In one of Michael’s letters to Lucifer—another name for Satan—the archangel happily refers to a recent defeat the devil suffered. There had been a truly evil man who spent his entire lifetime in deliberate wickedness. He hadn’t been deprived as a child; he wasn’t victimized by society; there wasn’t any excuse for his wickedness—he simply preferred it that way. Even as a child he learned to exploit the goodness and innocence of others, and as an adult he freely and knowingly misused his great intelligence, good looks, and natural abilities to ruin as many lives as possible. His parents and siblings cursed the day of his birth, his wife bitterly regretted marrying him, and his grown children constantly prayed for his death. In short, this man lived in utter defiance of God, and was almost the devil himself in human form.
Then, on what was to be the last day of his life—though he didn’t know it—the wicked old man awakened and, getting out of bed and going to the window, saw the first light and first glow of the rising sun. He had seen the dawn thousands of times before, and had never been affected by it, but somehow this day was different. As the light streamed through the window and touched it, it was as if the light of God’s grace suddenly pierced his heart. He fell to his knees and cried out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Both Michael and Satan observed this; neither could explain or truly understand why it happened or how God’s grace worked this miracle of conversion, but it was genuine. The man truly repented of all his wickedness—not out of fear, but of sincere contrition, and when he died of old age a few hours later, he went not to hell, as he himself would have expected, but to purgatory, where he could undo the damage his sins had caused. Michael rejoiced at this outcome; Lucifer raged. Neither had expected this miracle of grace. This story, of course, is fictional, but the message is real enough: a last-minute conversion on the part of a hardened sinner is always possible. Repentance can occur at any instant. God never gives up on anyone, and neither should we.
The Book of Wisdom (11:22-12:2) tells us, “You [O Lord,] have mercy on all, because You can do all things, and You overlook people’s sins that they may repent.” This passage also states that God’s imperishable spirit is in everything He created—and because this spirit remains even in the hearts of sinners, there’s always hope for repentance. This is dramatically illustrated in the Gospel of Luke (19:1-10). Zacchaeus became wealthy because he was corrupt, and as the chief tax collector, he had many opportunities to cheat and abuse his authority and extort money from the helpless. The people’s contempt for him no doubt only hardened him in his sinful ways—but suddenly this changed. Upon being loved and accepted by Jesus, Zacchaeus repented immediately and completely, even though he was the last person of whom the people of Jericho would have expected this. In his Letter to the Thessalonians (1:11-2:2), St. Paul’s prayer—that the Name of the Lord Jesus be glorified through the lives of His followers—was fulfilled in the life of Zacchaeus in a sudden, unexpected, and wonderful way.
God’s grace can work miracles of conversion. In addition to dramatic cases mentioned in the Bible, such as that of Zacchaeus, Saul of Tarsus, and Mary Magdalene, there have been many other instances throughout history: Roman soldiers and authorities who were moved by the example of the Christians they persecuted; hardened criminals and murderers who were suddenly struck by God’s grace while in their prison cells; white supremacists who shocked everyone by beginning to work for racial harmony; Communists who fought the Church but who became Christian after being overcome by its message of love, and so on. We must always remember that God’s love and mercy and goodness can bring about amazing results.
In practical terms, this means first of all that we should never write anyone off. There are people we dislike, have little respect for, and try to avoid—often with good reason. There’s nothing wrong with this—but if they repent and show signs that God’s grace is at work within them, we should rejoice and accept and encourage them. Sometimes people do change—and when this happens, our attitudes toward them should change, too. Secondly, if you have loved ones who are not practicing their faith or who are cohabiting and living in sin or otherwise failing in their duties toward God, never cease praying for them. God wants everyone to be saved, and it only takes an instant for repentance to occur—so as long as there’s life, there’s hope. Lastly, if you have a fault or sin you’ve been struggling unsuccessfully to overcome, or if your response to Christ is much less than it should be, don’t give up. As long as your heart is open, God’s grace will continue working in your life, even when you don’t see or feel it—and with His help, you will be successful in the end.
Every person on earth is, at this moment, determining his or her eternal destiny, all the while being influenced to one degree or another by the temptations of Satan and his evil spirits, and the guidance and prayers of Michael and the angels. Based on the stories we see reported in the news and on our own observations, it doesn’t look very good for many people—but we can never know for sure. God’s grace can work miracles, and so there’s always hope—and how great will be our joy for all eternity if it turns out that it was our prayers and good example which helped make the difference in someone’s life.