Few people know how to shine a spotlight on hope more powerfully than movie makers. Christians in any type of leadership – pastor, husband, parent, employer, supervisor, teacher, or simply a respected neighbor – can learn a lot from these media marketers. Consider “The Avengers” sequel being released this Friday.
The entire team behind this movie knows that we live in an age of ultra-needs, so they’re giving us ultra-hopes. Among their many other traits, Captain America is ultra-good; Ironman is ultra-smart; the Hulk is ultra-strong; Hawkeye is ultra-committed; and Thor is ultra. Period. He’s more than human. Oh, yeah, and the Black Widow is ultra-repentant. Sorta.
The appeal of the characters is simple: they are more than we are. But more importantly, they offer the hope – even if it’s a slim hope – that we could become more like them.
Maybe – just maybe – we can become good enough to have loyal followers and loving fans – like Captain America has. Maybe if we’re smart enough, we can think our way out of any problem – like Tony Stark does. Maybe if we bulk-up enough, we can beat-back injustices – like the Hulk does. Maybe if we are really sorry and really do a lot of good by battling against a lot of bad, we can have a clean conscience and lots of good, close relationships – like Black Widow has. Oh wait – she doesn’t. I guess she calls herself the “Black Widow” for a reason. But maybe we just need time. Even Thor (who admits to being a god-like alien, not a god) is simply one of an advanced species that’s more evolved. So give us a few more millenia, and we might be able to drop the hammer, too.
That’s a lot of maybes.
Still, the appeal is real because the needs are real. Every blockbuster in recent years has targeted real thirsts of the soul: meaingful purpose for the individual, relationships of sacrificial love, social justice, freedom to be yourself, and the end to all of the aforementioned means – joy, happiness, peace, whatever we want to call it. And these cravings make perfect sense, because most of us are running on empty every day.
We need great relationships, but we don’t have them. We spend the majority of every day putting our best foot forward, working behind masks and depending on mutual strangers only to come home too exhausted to connect with our families. We need to know that truth and goodness will prevail, but we don’t see it. Our televisions overflow nightly with horrific reports of injustice. And our souls need rest, but the complex strains of meaninglessness, finances and even housework boggle our minds. The closest thing to inner-peace comes by vicarious victories of actors playing a story on cable TV.
But we don’t really get God’s message that this world doesn’t satisfy. Instead of pursuing something different in Christ, we pursue more of the same in “ultra” experiences.
We crave more “friends” and likes on social media, faster internet, higher resolutions, hotter peppers, better bodies, edgier entertainment, cooler gadgets, healthier foods, greater accomplishments, higher degrees, stronger trucks, more options – even more exciting worship services and programs. Cheerier greeters, louder audio and more vivid video, more famous speakers, funnier preachers, smarter teachers, larger buildings, more lavish retreats, more contemporary programs, etc. After all, we’re already doing that “personal relationship with God” thing. And quite frankly, it’s not enough either.
At least that’s what the depressed demeanor and frantic behavior of many in our congregations seem to communicate.
As Christians in positions of leadership, we must come to grips with two truths. First, most of the people around us have these soul-cravings because they are focused on the potential and merely partial blessings in this life. And second, we in leadership have failed to equip and encourage them in the many specific practical blessings of Christ Himself.
The title of this article refers to God as the Avenger. That is to call us to the larger context of God’s passion, purpose and processes that begin to culminate in Romans 12:19, “…’It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
The first eleven chapters of Romans describe God’s great passion for His people in Christ, crucified on their behalf. The only Righteous One took on all of the sins of His people and gave them the legal and, therefore, final declaration of His forgiveness. That proves more than the feelings of God’s love. It proves that His actions have secured His love forever. God is crazy about His people, but not because they’re crazy adorable. We are undeserving, still tripping and falling and occassionally willfully rebelling sinners. But that’s part of what makes His love more amazing. It’s because of His heart, not ours.
And God always invests His passion in His purpose: the transformation of His people by His grace for His glory. Romans 12:1-2 states the conclusion of Paul’s eleven-chapter message: live daily in Christ and you will know God’s goodness. God’s will is always centered around Jesus, the Son. His forgiveness is the foundation of our relationships. His holiness is the model of justice now and certainty of justice for eternity. His wisdom is the path for problem-solving. And His Spirit brings the change to leave our former focus, to become more like Him, and to focus more and more on Him to love us, keep us, change us, guide us, provide for us, show us more of Himself and thrill us with His glory. God’s ultimate purpose for us is not more material possessions, greater recognition at work, or even happier families. All of those things can be “achieved” for selfish reasons with disastrous results. God’s purpose is following His Son by faith, interdependant among His people and shining like stars in this dark world for Jesus’ fame and our joy in Him.
Most of us get the first two. It’s God’s processes that seem to surprise many Christians.
A slow reading of Romans 12:3-18 will reveal the following as some of God’s ways toward knowing His love and growing in holiness: not giving us as individuals everything we want to succeed (verses 3-5), calling us to difficult work (verses 6-8), putting us in difficult relationships in the Body of Christ (verses 9-12), putting us in difficult relationships in the world (verses 13-17), and even putting us in some impossible relationships (verse 18).
Why? Because these ultra-needs continually send us back to our ultra-Lord described in verses 20-21, the One who cared for His enemies, even praying for those who crucified Him (Luke 23:34, Romans 5:7-10, Colossians 1:21, etc.).
Yes, the world is getting bad. And it’s going to get worse (Matthew 24:3-8). But He is the Avenger of His people – if not now as quickly and as fully as we would like, in eternity perfectly. That’s more than we will ever get from this life or from the fantasy of movies.
(spoiler alert: if you’re not familiar with MARVEL comic’s storylines, most of which have been faithfully followed in their movies so far, the next paragraph may reveal a key element of the plots for any future Avengers movies)
The third Avengers movie (if the Lord Jesus doesn’t return before then) will likely revolve around the Avengers splitting up. Captain America will head up a more traditional group of “good guys”, and Ironman will head up those “rough-around-the-edges”. If the movie holds to the comics, the writers may even keep the title of the original story: “Civil War”.
If so, Hollywood will continue their genious marketing to soul-satifaction by appealing to the greatest human craving of all: to be yourself. Independence. Freedom from anyone’s demands, claims or judgments on our lives. Isn’t that what tempted Adam and Eve and still tempts us? But God didn’t create us for that kind of “freedom”.
The paradox is that real freedom comes in slavery to Christ. Being so overcome by His loving grace that we seek to devote our every thought, word and deed to please Him and to know more of Him. Stepping into today, not knowing what it will bring but knowing that He has designed it for our greater faith, faithfulness and affection for Him. Accepting and even reveling in our weaknesses because we know that those are merely opportunities to cry out for the strength of our Avenger who gave Himself for His people.
As leaders in whatever position God has assigned us, we must get back to the basics and specifics of the gospel. Less spotlight on the experience of worship services and more spotlight on the One we are to worship in our services, homes, workplaces and everywhere else. And may our Lord bless us as we disciple His people, leading them to His throne of grace for holiness and joy in Him.
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I think you’re spot on. We want the freedom of the Prodigal, only to realize that true freedom is right under our nose in the Father’s house. We want more because there’s an orphan spirit in our lives that drives us to want things and experiences. God wants us to enjoy the world he created, but material things cannot fill a spiritual void–which is really a relational void.
Amen, sir. Thanks for contributing to the dialogue!