I like hero movies. My grandsons love them. Hollywood adores them.
In the last decade, about sixty superhero movies have been released, roughly one every eight weeks: Spider-man, Iron Man, Batman, X-Men, Thor, etc. Not to mention their sequels. (Forget that I mentioned them.)
I probably love normal hero movies even more, the ordinary civilian with a boatload of ordinary problems, facing unbeatable odds. Their stories stir something in me, a desire to go down swinging or to throw myself on a grenade. I see myself sacrificing everything for a greater cause, living a life of significance, having a life that matters.
But I wonder, sometimes, if hero movies insidiously stir the wrong thing. I once asked a hugely successful pastor for the key to his success. He said he just wants to be like his hero Jesus, and then he quoted St. Augustine,
Pray as though everything depends on God. Work as though everything depends on you.
Three years later he was exhausted, disillusioned, frustrated, and embittered. He dropped out of all service, divorced his wife, and—the last I heard—he was installing Invisible Fencing. He was a Super-Saint Burnout.
He had said he wanted to be like his hero Jesus, but he later admitted he just wanted to be a hero himself.
Burnout is so common these days that there is a test for it called the Maslach Burnout Inventory. It classifies burnout as “a multi-dimensional syndrome composed of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficiency.” The pervasive spread of burnout is no surprise given the current world of downsizing (oops, right-sizing), hyper-efficiency, dehumanization, and bad economy.
Burnout in the work-world is no surprise, but it plagues Christian ministries too. Why is that?
One of my favorite hero movies is Rocky. He’s a normal guy with job issues and girl-friend problems. And he’s a mediocre boxer with a chance for fame in a fight with the champ.
His girlfriend (A–dr-i-a-n) wonders why Rocky works so hard. He mumbles, “I’m just a nobody. It really don’t matter if I lose this fight. All I wanna do is go the distance. Then I’ll know I’m not a bum.”
There’s a little bit of Rocky in all of us, but it’s not the charming, aw-shucks, simple champ. There is a dark, sinister, grasping, rumble of panic inside all of us that wreaks devastation. We’re not just working for the general good of the world; we’re working for acclaim, to know we’re not bums.
The driving force
My dad used to quote an old preacher’s proverb: Don’t let the pulpit drive you to the Word, let the Word drive you to the pulpit. There are two ways to preach. We can let the pressure of identity (the pulpit) drive us frantically to performance, or we can let the force of God’s love (the Word) propel us to speak.
Two different people can spend ten hours on a sermon (or any job); both invest the identical time, both develop identical outlines, and both deliver identical sermons. Afterward, one is a bit tired but the other is shattered, drained, and totally spent. What’s the difference?
All work tires us out. That’s why we need sleep. That’s why Jesus needed sleep. But a hidden work beneath our work secretly torments us; we work hard to make art (that’s good) but we work even harder to make the artist; like Rocky, we mumble, “Then I’ll know I’m not a bum.”
Working to create something brings life. Working to be something burns us out. The feverish work beneath our work is an evil taskmaster shouting at our hearts, “Work harder you bum.”
Our superhero problem
The world is populated with narcissistic people who single-mindedly serve themselves. They should watch more hero movies. Hero movies inspire us to serve other people, to risk our lives to save the world.
But hero movies also covertly inspire us to risk our lives to save ourselves; we want that superhero greatness, to prove we’re somebody of worth. So, like those self-serving narcissists, our service is still about us. It’s just more surreptitious.
We are clandestine operatives working under cover of the capes of our heroic deeds, but the poor victim we fight for is our own identity. Our exhaustion, cynicism, and growing inefficiency are signs of wanting to bemessiahs and not just serve the messiah.
I’m realizing that much of my heroic intensity (such as it is) is simply a stealthy selfishness. Argh! Sin is primarily relational; it’s not wrong-doing so much as it is wrong-being. I’ve been choosing a being—my superhero identity—that doesn’t need God.
Jars of clay
If there ever was an Academy Award for super-hero saints, Paul is a shoe-in for an Oscar. If he wasn’t being beaten, stoned, or chased by wild beasts, he was being shipwrecked, imprisoned, or bit by snakes. And there’s always that thorn in the flesh that no one understands.
How did he survive those shipwrecks without making a shipwreck of his life; how did he burn like a beacon without burning out like the rest of us?
Time and again, Paul pointed to one greater than himself; Paul didn’t work to lift himself up but to lift up another. He said of himself (and us), “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels [that’s us!], so that the surpassing greatness of power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:7).
That’s what I need more than superhero greatness; I need confident superhero humility. “Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not”(Jeremiah 45:5 KJV).
Besides, if you saw me in my Spandex bodysuit, you’d think you were in a horror flick.