Before I start, let me say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a purely good hero or a purely evil villain. Some people are naturally benevolent or malicious, for whatever reason. And that’s okay. I like clearly defined battlelines. I’m not the type to think that just because I understand what led you to an action makes that action okay. That argument, in fact, usually irritates me.
But I do have a confession. Some of my favorite characters are my characters who refuse to love me. I’m not talking about the broken down, victimized ones that are easily pitied (empathetic, anyway), but the bullheaded wretch who refuses to bow the head to anyone, who knows God and openly rejects him; the girl who insists she’s entitled to a place in Heaven (one of the elders’ thrones in the judgment hall, of course); the man who traded his soul for power and wealth; the Christian who loves God but whose temper and unwillingness to forgive overrides anything the Spirit might say. There’s a pagan girl who knows her Bible better than most seminary students and a king who allows a general to keep his slaves in hopes of winning the man’s soul.
This is the group James meant when he wrote “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19 ESV) Before you start to pity them, remember, even the Accuser believes that God exists, but he neither acknowledges him as God nor gives him thanks. Even Satan knows that God is the ultimate power and authority, and that he is judge, jury, and executioner. He knows. He’s seen the sapphire throne and the seraphim and cherubim — rumor has it he might have been one once. He’s seen more miracles than we ever will; he’s watched millions of souls return to their maker; he saw a teenage girl give birth to the Three-in-One. He saw the Christ become a man. He saw everything Jesus did. He watched Jesus die. He saw Jesus alive from the graves. He knows, better than any of us, that Jesus is coming back on horseback with a sword in hand and royal robes covering the scars on his back. He saw the Spirit unleash at Pentecost and can quote more Scripture than anyone short of Jesus himself. He’s watched martyrs and theologians, engaged in spiritual warfare, and been to his share of Bible studies and church services. He could probably preach on any given topic and send seminary students in a tailspin.
The greatest church brat of all Christendom is Satan.
James’ point isn’t to be legalistic. This is Jesus’ kid half-brother, the guy who didn’t believe Big Brother was who he said hew as until Jesus made a personal appearance post-Resurrection. (I tell you, I can only imagine that conversation. But Scripture didn’t record it, which makes me think it was a very, very personal conversation that’s none of our business.) So I don’t think that’s his point.
I think his point is very much one Jesus himself made, and one the prophets warn Israel against repeatedly: Knowing the truth and rejecting or ignoring it is a far more dangerous place to be than simple ignorance of the truth. Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures in vain thinking that in them you’ll find life; but you will not come to me of whom the Scriptures speak” (John 5).
Here’s the mystery to me: Adam and Eve saw God. They had a relationship with our Father that I can’t fathom. It wasn’t ‘oops.’ It wasn’t fear someone might hurt them. Adam knew for a fact God knocked him out, took a rib, and made a woman. That was God’s gift to him. Adam didn’t just wake up to a ready-made creation with a garden. He got to watch God create something. He was king of the world, and Eve was his queen.
And Satan tricked them both.
Anyone ever taken a good look at Hebrews 11 lately? You want to know who’s in there? You had a guy who deliberately broke every vow he made, womanizing riddlemasters, warriors hiding behind women, pagans, idolators, liars, thieves, abusers, abuse enablers, men who endangered the people they were supposed to protect, strong-willed, prideful people; and people who married pagans.
You’re getting the point. Probably one of the most perplexing ones to me is Peter’s characterization of Lot as ‘righteous’ and full of sorrow over the evil in Sodom and Gomorrah. But don’t overlook the phrase the writer used to describe this pack of moral failures. It’s in parentheses and easy to miss.
God called them “men of whom the world was not worthy” (v.38).
But don’t miss this: These men and women knew better, with the possible exception of Rahab the harlot.
I’m not missing the rest of the text. James and John both had plenty of words for people who spoke one way and acted another, and their words were sharp arrows meant to pierce the heart. Paul certainly had plenty of warning. Jesus issued woes on Jerusalem that both Matthew and Luke recorded. Through the prophets over centuries God begged Israel to return, constantly warned them that mixing lip-service to him while bent knee to false gods was going to get them killed.
“Come, now, let us reason together.”
“Return to me, and I’ll return to you.”
“My wrath lasts only a split-second, but my mercy is forever.”
“These cisterns you’re digging can’t hold water. You’ll die of dehydration.”
“I fed you manna to teach you to look to me as your sustainer.”
“I’ve tried and tried again, but you wouldn’t come to me.”
You know, it’s easy to pity and/or overlook the ignorant person who doesn’t realize they’re offending you, easy to be patient with the man or woman who’s never set foot in the door of a church. Much more difficult, though, is the one who knows the truth and refuses to submit to it. They’re also the hardest to get through to, because you can’t make a case they don’t already know.
The older I get, the more convinced I am that the greatest sins are not external, but internal. And I think anyone who’s been in church awhile–we church brats–know that. You might not catch us sleeping around or compulsively lying, but you’ll soon see the deep, poison-riddled roots.
Contempt (lovingly concealed under a self-righteous mood of ‘righteous indignation’).
Lusts of the flesh, eyes, and pride of life.
Lackluster love for God.
You’ve seen it. I’ve done it. It’s a harsh reality that we’re very hesitant to make war with our own sin, and far too often we’re blinded by our own self-centeredness.
If I’m brutally honest, I’m forced to admit it’s easier for me to love these wayward, stiff-necked characters than real people. It’s easier for me to smile and think “Someday” in the middle of a novel than to pull my head out of the pages, look around, and realize that Jesus loved the Pharisees, too. But, you know, I think he had to be sterner with them because they couldn’t understand anything less.
I remember sitting in church one day, a few years ago, and breaking down in tears during a sermon. That just don’t happen much. Pastor Matt was preaching from Matthew 23 (it may have been during the Luke series, as it had the cross-reference). It’s a passage we usually use to indict hypocrites and legalists.
I’m crying again.
I read the end of Matthew 23 and suddenly the rest of the room vanished. I looked up from my Bible (notebook & pen in hand) toward the ceiling and said, “Even me?”
He smiled and put his arm around me. “Even you,” he said.
Never forget who has your heart strings.
All of that said, I play in the gray with characters a lot. I’ll let their theology stand unquestioned. I’ll leave the rebellious Christian kid in his rebellion; refrain from forcing repentance. But the thing is, there’s design, even in their rebellion. I know how I made these characters. I know what it takes to get their heart strings. But sometimes, allowing a character to choose a side just doesn’t do. You’ve seen it. Two armies at war, a third section desiring neutrality – the second middle guy throws in with one or the other, it’s over.
So sometimes, I don’t burn off the flaws. Sometimes, I leave them there, forever the thing that both creates friction between us and the thing that keeps them from leaving me completely.
Don’t get me wrong. Most of the time, we don’t like indecisive characters. I certainly don’t. But, played right, the character who doesn’t pick a side has, in fact, decided. He’s the wildcard, the guy you can’t predict. He might help the hero. He might drive a spear through the hero’s heart.
Who really knows?
Well, let’s be honest. I do. I might not immediately, but eventually, I will. It might not happen in that particular story, but it’ll happen, ultimately. I know whose heart I have and whose I don’t. It’s not always who you think.
I know who they are.
I know where they are.
I’ve seen them.
I’ve heard them.
I know. Everything.
And I’m here.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
(Matthew 23:37-39 ESV)