While discussing the fascination many have with entertainment that exposes the worst of humanity, I was sent this quote in which the creator of The Sopranos, the massively successful and critically acclaimed HBO drama, reflects on the evil of the main character Tony Soprano.
“He is a sociopath. No doubt about it. But, a lot of people said, ‘You know, we thought that maybe there was a chance that Tony Soprano would turn his life around and in the end there would be some morality to it. And that in the end he would transcend his evilness.’ And this, to me, is amazing because you wonder, ‘Do people pay attention to the story?’ In Season One, the guy’s mother tried to murder him. So, he, of all people, is supposed to rise above that and be happier than he was before that happened? It doesn’t make any sense at all. He never got over that.”
(The full article is here.)
I don’t want to minimize the significance of what this man says about his creation, Tony Soprano. The depth of his past defines the nature of his present. That is true of all of us. Our past certainly makes us who we are. Transcending that past is not something that is easy, and in some cases, it is never complete.
Tony Soprano’s creator says that it does not make any sense that someone would change. I’m grateful that OUR creator says that we can. He is the one who changes us.
But if he changes us, what can we do? We have said that there are several things necessary.
3. Put yourself in the way of grace
4. Mortify sin
5. Rejoice in the gospel
We’ve discussed the first two. What is this third idea?
3. Put yourself in the way of grace
This has been the most helpful thing to me. I know that it is God who changes me, and I know that it is his grace to do so. I am not changed by upping my church attendance, praying more, or reading my bible more frequently. We sometimes act as if God must reward us for these things, and fall into the trap where we think, implicitly, that God must give us the gift of change because we have done good stuff. That turns the good stuff into an economic transaction, which God despises and rejects.
But are these things valuable? Yes.
God does dispense his grace ordinarily in specific contexts. Paul, for instance, tells us that faith (which is what we need in this battle) comes by hearing the word of God. So the one who is drinking deeply of the Scriptures (and I think primarily Paul means the scriptures preached) is going to be more open to the ministry of the Holy Spirit than the one who neglects with regularity this means of grace.
We long for the grace which changes us, but grace is freely dispensed. It is ordinarily dispensed as God chooses through those things to which he attaches it – his word, prayer, the sacraments, the fellowship of the church. The more we avail ourselves of these things, the more we place ourselves in the position where God is likely to act. He is not bound by this, and we obligate him to nothing. But this being where he shows himself active, then it behooves us to go where he is active.
Those seeking healing in the gospels knew instinctively to go where Jesus was. They still needed his grace to be healed. But by placing themselves where he acted, they opened themselves more fully to his intervention. The same is true for we who want healing in our struggle with sin. We need to go where Jesus is.
I am not saying that the path to holiness is to ‘read your bible and pray’. That can be law. If I think that there is a connection, a reward, for these activities, then it is law. If I think that God is attending to my hours invested and rewarding me accordingly, that is wrong.
Rather, the means of grace are just that. Not works, not magic formulae, but places where, as one author puts it, the distance between God and his people is ‘thin’. They are places where God’s Spirit works upon our Spirit and makes us more sensitive to him, more desirous of him, and, I have to think, more able to resist sin. The whole complex of worship, scripture, sacrament, fellowship (Heb 10.25 does have a sanctification context) and the like are places where God feeds our faith and grows us up in him.
Well, I could go on about this. It is too easy to see the means of grace and spiritual disciplines as works of the law, when they are not that at all. They are places where we go to meet Jesus. And they are places where we can hope, and pray, that he will meet us and slowly and significantly weaken the grip of sin on our lives.
Meeting Jesus often enough, we may find that even those long icy fingers of our past may begin to loose their grip on our heart.
Are you listening, Tony?