Rethinking What Bible Character You Are
Whenever I’m watching a movie, if a character has to go under water for an extended period of time, I hold my breath. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember. Not as a psychological reflex or anything, I’m just skeptical. So if I can’t hold my breath that long, I don’t think James Bond or Jason Bourne can either.
But beyond testing the accuracy of movies, I’ve also found that it’s helped me get into the story. When they come up for air, so do I. When their lungs burn and hearts pound, so do mine. It may be nerdy, but it’s kind of fun, and I’ll bet you think about trying it next time you watch a movie. Just don’t try it on Finding Nemo.
I think one reason humans enjoy stories is that we like to relate to the characters. Especially the protagonists.
We like to watch the guy get the girl and think to ourselves, “I could be that romantic.” We see good characters celebrated and bad ones with egg on their face, and daydream those scenarios happening in our own lives.
The hard truth, however, is that sometimes, no matter how hard we might try, we just don’t belong in the skin of the good character.
I recently watched a movie about WWII. It showed a scene in which an American soldier raised his hands in cowardice as a German soldier shined a flashlight his direction. I cringed and wanted to shout, “Don’t give up! Don’t give in! Die with dignity!” However, all the while, I also had a nagging question in the back of my mind: What would I have done? I can remember all too well times in my life when I played the part of the coward.
No matter how badly I want to be the good guy, sometimes a story can remind me that it’s not always the role I play.
Stories can remind me of my own character flaws. The flaws so intimate and real that no author could have come up with them. And sometimes it’s those stories that I need to pay the closest attention to.
There’s a danger in thinking you know stories well enough that you don’t pay close attention to all the details. I think this is especially true when it comes to stories about Jesus. If you grew up in the church, chances are you heard the stories of Jesus so early and often that you can’t remember a time when you didn’t know them. But sometimes, in our youth, the details of the stories get a bit fuzzy.
When my son was seven, he asked me at dinner, “Hey, Dad, you remember the time when the disciples cut that guy’s head off when they were gonna kill Jesus?” After a moment of trying to process what wasn’t quite right about his question, I figured out where his little mind was. He was in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before Jesus’ crucifixion.
“Well it was actually just his ear,” I made sure to put in, “but, yes,” I answered. I thought it was a pretty big detail to set straight. I wanted to see what else he knew, so I asked, “Do you remember what Jesus did after that?”
“He healed him,” came the answer. And I was a little relieved. I figured that was the most important part to get right anyway. Jesus can heal a decapitation just as easily as a loose ear lobe.
Nevertheless, looking at all the details can be important.
Recently, as I’ve been teaching from the Gospels, I’ve been trying to get into the stories and look around at all the characters. Trying to paint those details in my mind as clearly as I can. They’re the stories I’ve heard since I was a kid. The ones I’ve always known well enough to skim over. As I’ve been going over them with a renewed discipline of getting into the scene myself, paying attention to all the details, there’s something I’m noticing.
I’m finding that I haven’t always imagined myself as the right character.
And I think maybe it’s a natural assumption I’ve made—that I’m supposed to be the good guy in the story. When Sunday-school teachers told the parable of the Good Samaritan, as a kid I thought to myself, “I could be that guy. I would take care of someone like he did.” I guess I just never thought of myself as the Levite or the priest who walked quickly by. Maybe it’s because teachers encourage us to imitate the qualities of the good character.
But when I look carefully at all the details, I’m finding there’s often more truth there that I had not yet discovered.
Or maybe something I knew at one point but needed to be reminded of. Sometimes it’s a beautiful and comforting truth. Like when I hear Jesus say that his burden is light and his yoke is easy. Or when I read Jesus’ promises to those who love him and follow his teachings, choosing to live for his kingdom. I can feel peace knowing those words are still true for me today.
However, as I put myself into the scenes, I can also understand the weight of the warnings that he gives to the hard-hearted Pharisees. Those in his culture who thought they knew enough. Those who were teachers, tasked with the job of pointing the sheep to the Shepherd. The ones who thought they were in right standing.
As I read Jesus’ words to them, I know their warnings are just as much pointed to my ears, as sharp as a double-edged sword. I know what it feels like to hear Jesus say that I’m like a white-washed tomb, because I’ve spent so many years of my life trying to present my appearance as good and pleasing while pushing the death and disease of sin to the darker corners of my soul.
But that wasn’t the end of my story and I have learned that Jesus can breath new life into decaying tombs. He can restore sight to once blind guides.
Not every Pharisee in the Gospels stayed hard-hearted and we don’t have to today either.
I love the story of Malchus. He’s the poor guy my son mistakenly beheaded earlier. I love his story because it’s not finished. After his ear is healed, we don’t ever find out what happens to him. For many years, I’ve read that story assuming I was one of the disciples. Maybe I would be Peter with the sword, swinging it wildly trying to defend my Lord.
But I get a different perspective when I think of what it would’ve been like for Malchus. What would I feel if I were the one coming to arrest the Messiah? What fear would I feel as a sword narrowly missed the top of my head? What burning sensation of pain as warm blood ran down my cheek? And what would I feel as Jesus, the man I was arresting, touched my skin and looked me in the eyes? Is that something Malchus ever forgot?
And as I start to put myself in Malchus’s skin, I realize his story is something I should never forget either. Because in a way, I was the one who came to arrest Jesus. I was the one who put him on the cross.