“I did it for me, I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really- I was alive.” -Walter White
“For the wages of sin is death.” -St. Paul
If you haven’t seen the Breaking Bad finale yet, you might want to stop reading now. Sunday night, millions of people tuned in to watch the train wreck that they knew was coming. Walter White, a former chemistry teacher, father of two, and normal American society member made a decision to start cooking meth.
And that one decision led him to exploit, murder, lie, and destroy all the people that he loved.
One of the most disturbing things that the Old Testament prophets say about idol worship is that you will eventually become like what you worship.
Which is true of Walter White, but Breaking Bad matters because it’s so true for all of us.
Growing up in Arkansas, I actually had several friends get hooked on Meth, and one of the reasons that it is so popular is because it makes you feel so powerful, you feel radically free and confident. You feel almost god-like.
Walter White started using people the same way that the people used his product.
So this past Sunday at Highland, we had hundreds of people (including me) come forward and write down on cards what idols were tempting us right now. And then yesterday I spent sometime praying over the different cards and what people had written down. And it’s powerful. Not because of how bad it is, but by how diverse it is. People wrote down everything from alcohol to money to toys.
And none of it is intrinsically bad, it’s just not big enough to bear the weight of worship.
In his new book Playing God” Andy Crouch points out that every idol makes at least one of 2 promises:
1. You will be like God
2. You will never die
And then Crouch says this:
“In the success phase of idolatry, you will never convince an idolater that his addiction is not working. It is working. It is rescuing him from his human vulnerability and giving him and intoxicating taste of invulnerable ecstasy.”
For those of us who watched Breaking Bad, we know how true this is. The first few seasons showed a mediocre-seeming man rise to a position of power that a normal high-school teacher could never dream of. He was a Kingpin, feared by all, loved by none. But in the words of one secular psychiatrist, “Idols ask for more and more, while giving less and less, until eventually they demand everything and give nothing.”
Parables of Hell
I know that this show is incredibly dark, but it is also incredibly profound and even Biblical. After all that’s what the show’s creator was trying to do all along was tell a kind of Parable for our need for what he called “Biblical atonement.” He wanted to tell a story that exposed sin for what it was.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings as a way of telling a post-Christian Europe the story of the Gospel in a way that they wouldn’t recognize at first. And one of the best examples of idolatry that I’ve ever read or seen, Tolkien tells us about a character named Gollum.
Gollum started off life as a normal Hobbit, but then he found the ring and the power (for a little while) to be like God. And over time the ring made him into a monster. He had once been somebody, and now he was a twisted version of nobody. And he did it all for what he called “His precious”
It was his idol. And if you know this story, you know it was also became his Hell.
I like the way that N.T. Wright talks about this:
Hell is actually something that happens on earth when people don’t follow God’s way of peace..the way I talk about final loss is this: People worship idols–money, whatever. Their humanness gets reshaped around the idol—you become like what you worship. [And] If someone chooses to go that route, what they are choosing is to collude with the deconstruction of their own humanness.That’s a lot of big clunky words for saying that they are in love with death. They don’t know it, but that’s what it is.God has made us in His image. And if we choose to say, “I’m going to deconstruct myself,” then, God, with great sorrow, will say, “Okay, go ahead.”
You know it’s interesting, in the last scene of Breaking Bad, as Walt is dying, he goes back to the meth lab. He puts his bloody hands on the equipment that had made his life and then ruined it.
The creator, Vince Gilligan, said this was the scene where Walt needed to die, but what Gilligan actually said, was that this was where Walt could die surrounded, “by his precious.”
The worst thing that can happen to someone in the Bible is that God gives you exactly what you want. Left to our own devices we create gods for ourself. We need to worship something. And we most certainly will.
This is why Paul writes Romans 1 and 2, the way he does. Contrary to popular belief, Paul is actually not elevating certain kinds of sin, he’s actually leveling the playing field. He lists off every kind of ways that both religious and secular ways have for worshipping gods that are not God. He talks about sexual immorality and greed and lying and then he turns to the religious to talk about their sins of exclusivity and hypocrisy.
And then Paul goes on to say that the word for all of our misplaced worship is sin.
Sin, something we all do, is falling short of the glory of God.
And sin pays, or in the more poetic words of Paul:
The wages of Sin is death.
Just ask Walter White.