This past week, one of my friends shared with me how annoyed he was when an older, mature believer referred to him as “a baby Christian.” Although he would be the first to admit that for most of his life his outward lifestyle manifested precious little in the way of Galatians 5 Spirit Fruits, he was nonetheless miffed to be considered a new believer; he has felt a lifelong connection to Jesus despite the fact that it’s only in the last few years that his lifestyle has shown radical, visible “proof” of his submission to Christ as Lord.
I am entirely sympathetic to how this friend felt in the moment, and there was a time when I might have responded the same way.
Choosing to follow Jesus and live by His Word often carries a pretty hefty relational price tag with friends and loved ones, and it seems to me that newer Christians often take some small amount of consolation by “over-asserting personal Christlikeness” as a means of compensating for perceived relational losses (Philippians 3:7-11). As the date of my own dramatic change in lifestyle becomes more distant in the rearview mirror, however, I have come to view things differently.
Getting too deeply bogged down in details often results in getting stomped to death by the 800-pound gorilla we’ve been ignoring for far too long. Does it really matter “when” or “how long?” In some sense, I suppose it does, but not as anything other than a rough approximation of that time when Jesus redeemed our broken lives from the pit (Psalm 103:1-5). As a Coast Guard chopper lowers itself for a rescue mission, for example, the drowning person does not typically think to ask what time it is or what the pilot had for lunch that day; the all-important, mind-consuming issue at hand is “Life…or Death?” Gratitude for our rescue from sin and self-deception ought always to trump peevishness at not having been rescued ten minutes earlier.
In the not-too-distant past, if asked, I would mark the date of my conversion as July 23, 1997, my first day of full-on sobriety from alcohol and drugs. Now…I’m not so sure. I’ve begun to see and understand that God planted a deep need for hope in my soul long before that seed blossomed into an unmistakable desire to pursue Him. What if, in fact, the first sign of awakening took place long before I put down the bottle? What if, for example, God chose to use one of my all-time favorite film characters to show me something about myself? What if, in His great mercy, He chose to leverage my deep fascination with the fictional Corleone crime family to help me see and comprehend a deeper truth, that indeed, “There, but for the grace of God, go I?”
Perhaps, as Jesus tells us, God is always at work, and always has been (John 5:17)?
Two of the greatest films ever made – almost universally acknowledged as such – would have to be The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), both written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Even though both films clock in at about three hours in length, it’s probably safe to say that I have seen each of them at least 10 times. Most often, these repeat viewings have occurred on the same day, meaning that I will typically ignore all phone calls, restroom breaks, nearby car accidents and tornado sirens to view Part I and Part II together, in sequence, with as few interruptions as possible. Over 40 years old, these masterpiece films still have a lot to say about avarice, power and the corruption of the human heart.
Though also written and directed by Coppola, The Godfather Part III (1990) is also universally acknowledged…but not so much as a masterpiece. Most aficionados of the series will reluctantly admit that whereas the first two films were out-of-the-park grand-slam home runs, Part III was something more like an infield bunt. Though clearly a cut above your average gangster film – there is a great deal of production value in any Coppola film – Part III suffered mostly because it was invariably compared to its older brethren; it just didn’t rise to the level of its forebears. And yet, something about this film – clearly inferior to the previous masterpieces – stuck in my soul and germinated.
When Part III was released in Dec. of 1990, I was nearly 30 years old and extremely anxious to attend the premier. It simply would not do to allow opening weekend to pass me by. In anticipation of the release date, I even invited some friends over to watch the first two films back-to-back, with only a short break for food prior to heading over to the local theater. About 30 minutes into the much-anticipated sequel, I remember the feeling of embarrassment I felt over having made such a big fuss about the whole thing. We all sat through the merely-good sequel in relative silence.
Though these events transpired over a quarter of a century ago, I can still recall them with a fair amount of clarity because an unexpected turn in the plot line revealed to me a long-suppressed yearning for that which is good and right to triumph over that which is dark and depraved.
At a key point in his machinations to take control of a legitimate international concern, ruthless gangster Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is offered an opportunity to confess his sins to a priest. After an uncomfortable laugh, followed by an amused warning that it might take more time than the priest had planned, Corleone does indeed confess the worst of his sins. The priest confirms for him that his sins are indeed terrible, but that even he can yet be saved:
Sometimes the desire to confess is overwhelming. And we must seize the moment.
What is the point of confessing, if I don’t repent?
I hear you are a practical man. What have you got to lose? Go on.
I, uh…I betrayed my wife.
Go on, my son.
I betrayed myself. I killed men. And I ordered men to be killed.
Go on, my son, go on.
Nah, it’s useless.
Go on, my son.
I killed…I ordered the death of my brother. He injured me. I killed my mother’s son. I killed my father’s son.
Your sins are terrible…and it is just that you suffer. Your life could be redeemed, but I know that you don’t believe that. You will not change.
Wait a minute. What did he just say? Was that true? Was there yet hope for Michael Corleone? Lamberto’s assertion goaded my unbelief.
It would be another six-plus years before I found myself in the same position of hopelessness and desperation. I had been drifting my way through life, thinking that God did not really exist and that, even if He did, I was “probably OK” with Him. Sure, I drank way too much. Yes, I was selfish and unkind. Definitely, my family suffered much in the way of neglect and abuse at my hands. But, you know…it’s not like I ever shot two people to death in a Bronx restaurant…or ordered the pitiless execution of my older brother. (Not having a brother at all, I really don’t know how I might have treated him anyway.) You can almost hear the refrain, right? “I’m not that bad.”
In hindsight, it’s interesting to note how God used a less-than-epic Hollywood film to plant a solidly-biblical idea in my head; the words of the priest in the film would stick to the back of my consciousness as if pressed down with Super Glue: “Is there indeed hope for anyone, no matter what they’ve done or who they’ve hurt? Why was I suddenly and inexplicably excited by the prospect of the Michael Corleone character making a radical turnabout in life? Why, for crying out loud, was I disappointed when he brushed off the priest’s invitation to give his murderous life over to God?”
There are yet times in life when I find myself tempted to be discouraged by the lack of flourishing in my life or – more often – the life of another. It helps during those times to think of a farmer yelling at the ground because the harvest isn’t happening ten minutes after the seed was planted.
Humility, then, shows up to remind me that I have zero idea what God might be doing in any given moment; His work in my own life remained hidden (even from myself) for longer than I know, even today. Any fuzzy glimpse we that we do receive into God’s work is a gracious, undeserved insight that He has let fall from His hand. Allowing ourselves to become discouraged because the Kingdom is not coming in the way we had it mapped out in our heads is a time-wasting luxury that a dying world simply cannot afford.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
And [Jesus] said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.