Walter White’s Worldly Sorrow

Breaking Bad season 5, the final season, is soon to be over. I’ve said before that I’ve never appreciated a show as much as this one, and the final season hasn’t disappointed. If you’re playing catch-up, there is no spoiler alert here, just a common theme: Walt’s worldly sorrow. 

Throughout the show, despite the continual hardening of his heart toward anything “good,” he never stops displaying emotion. He’s not a sociopath. He does have feelings. Yes at times he does things unthinkable, but there are other episodes where we see real tears running down his face. Even in this last season, despite his malfeasance and machinations, he still cries. 

While Paul wouldn’t deny there are different types of tears, he classifies two major types of “sad tears.”

As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (II Cor 7:9-10)

We see Walt shed many a tear over what he has done: lives he’s either altered for worse or destroyed. But not long after those tears, we see him get right back after it. Nothing changes. There is sadness for a time, and perhaps even for a season, but this sorrow only leads to death: the ultimate separation from God. But we see glimpses of this descent into death through alienation with his family, extended family, his conscience, and his partner-in-crime Jesse. In the book of Jonah, every step he takes away from God’s commands is a step toward the place of death and separation, known as “Sheol.” Every step away from God is a step away from life. This is “worldly sorrow.”

When you see Walt’s tears, you think you see a glimmer of hope. And then you remember the name of the show is Breaking Bad. Just about everyone gets worse. People left to themselves will often show some signs of remorse, but will only display worldly sorrow. And we are reminded in this scripture passage, this type of sorrow only leads to death. 

If you are a Christian, you are not a Walt. You have definitively passed from death to life and that life starts now. While sanctification is definitive, it is also progressive (please don’t think Flo). The life you enter into is never devoid of struggle with the old Walt in us (or Adam to be theologically correct) who will inevitably seek to selfishly cry as a form of show, penance, or shallow regret. 

What’s the difference? If death is alienation from God, salvation is relationship with God first, His people next, and then what He’s doing in the world today. When Paul speaks of “salvation without regret,” he is speaking in terms of reconciliation. People have shown a sorrow that leads to repenting instead of running from God and His people. They have repented from their sins against God and Paul, and are now “back on good terms” with the latter. This type of godly sorrow moves you to deeper relationship with God and His people.

Repentance always has a destination, and that first stop is God. Then His people. Then becoming involved with how God in Christ (gospel preached through the gathered/scattered church) is undoing what the first Walt, or rather Adam, did.

Watching Walt’s worldly sorrow should lead me to a examine my sorrow to make sure it is truly leading me to repentance, which ultimately points me to the deepest experience of life.

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Deeper than Weezer: Opening up a redemptive Pandora’s box

One of my prayer requests for the “core group” of our church plant (obviously including me) is for a deeper personal conviction of sin. What I mean is that we would be aware of, and regularly repent of our particular sins. Not just that we engaged in sin like gossip, lust, jealousy, envy, selfishness, self-righteousness, or didn’t engage in what we were called to (sins of omission), but why we did the things we did. Why chose to gossip (to tear down instead of considering how Christ builds us up) to lust (failure to see Christ as worthy of our gaze) or selfishness (failure to heed Jesus promise that there is more joy in giving life away). Why would a pastor pray for something like this for himself and Christ’s sheep?

If that seems like a strange request, I promise you it is a prayer that will bring praise to Christ, joy to the believer, and blessing/opportunity to neighbors/co-workers/friends. To repent of particular sins and recognize personal sin in general opens up the opposite of pandora’s box: the deep treasures of the gospel to you and others.

1.) For your neighbors benefit: The more you are aware of your own personal sin, the less self-righteous you become. You become the biggest sinner you know. You don’t look down upon someone else for doing _____. Instead you look sideways, seeing them as a fellow sinner, also in need of grace. The difference is…you have received grace, not that you’re a “better” person. Often you’ll find you aren’t! You become a better neighbor when you realize God doesn’t need your good works but your neighbor does (a la Martin Luther).

2.) For your benefit. Obviously you have to turn to Jesus, but if you have a constant recognition of your own sin, then you have a constant rest, appreciation, and joy that God’s love for you is grounded not in your performance but in the person and work of Christ. That is freeing and makes you want to make a joyful noise to Jesus. The flip side is also true: if you have little understanding of your own sin, you have little need for Jesus. Maybe you needed him back a few years ago, but now, not so much. What happens? You’ll find yourself becoming more and more self-righteous, angry, and bitter. Remember the “other prodigal son?” If not, check out how his self-righteousness made him and angry SOB (Luke 15:11-32). We miss out on joy and become more self-righteous by ignoring our sin.

We don’t repent from personal sin regularly so that God will give us more stuff (health and wealth gospel), but so that God will give us more of Himself. On the other side of the cross there was joy for Jesus so that on the other side of repentance, which is faith, joy will abound to us.

3.) For the sake of the Commission. A deeper understanding of sin led Isaiah into volunteering for a mission done got himself killed (Isaiah 6). And he volunteered for it! In the presence of God’s Holy throne he came undone (no it wasn’t because someone pulled the thread of his sweater as he walked away a la Weezer) because of a deep recognition of his own sins of the tongue. Once God cleansed and symbolically atoned for his sin, he said, “Here I am, send me.” His own sin, and the forgiveness by God, moved him toward mission. It moved him to sacrifice even his life for his neighbors. It move us to sacrifice comfort and convenience when we recognized that Christ has atoned the sins of our tongues (among a plethora of other sins). In contrast, a lack of personal sin is what led Jonah to self-righteously and unwillingly preach the gospel, and then actually, angrily hope for the worst (Jonah 4). Notice the difference?

4.) For the sake of Christ. One of the reasons we have been saved is so that we would praise God for the glorious riches offered to us in the in person of God the Son, with those promises sealed to us by God the Holy Spirit (Eph 1). Instead of morbid introspection where we spend time thinking how bad we are, we quickly turn from looking at our personal sin for the day or sin in general, and immediately cast our gaze upon Him who is already looking down from Heaven with a smile. When our countenance meets His, we burst forth in song, praise, and possibly dance (depending upon denomination or skill level). Regular, albeit brief glances at our sin leads to a panoramic view of Christ and His work.

The TV show Breaking Bad, probably better than any other show I’ve seen, reveals the cosmic affects of personal sin. But the gospel message and power invite us to live within a different narrative. Personal sin has/has had cosmic consequences, but personal gospel dynamics also have a cosmic redemptive affect.

If you’ve read this and think of someone else who needs to take sin more seriously, you’ve missed the point. If you’ve read this and think I’m writing this about YOU in particular, well there’s a Carly Simon song you might remember called “Your So Vain-I bet you think this post is about you.” But if you read this and have begun to recognize how messed up you really are, and then how perfect, righteous, gracious, satisfying, loving, merciful, powerful, holy, giving Jesus is, and that he offers all He demands, then you’ll have read this post correctly. 

If you begin with your goodness, you’ll love Jesus and your neighbors a whole lot less. On the contrary if you begin with your sin, Jesus will be honored and your neighbors blessed. They may just thank you-even if they don’t understand exactly how such sacrificial love was kindled.

Breaking Sad: Last thoughts on Breaking Bad

I recently finished the series Breaking Bad with my wife.  Now I’m Breaking Sad because NetFlix only has the first four seasons. Several folks told me to give the show a try, but I resisted, based on the simple fact that the show is about a chemistry teacher turned meth “cook.”

But after a number of my Christian friends actually told me to check it out, I decided to give it a shot. We got hooked very quickly. “Must have been love, but it’s over now.” Roxette once sang that. I feel her pain.

There are a number of shows out there dealing with issues that aren’t illegal. I tried several. And there were others I wanted to watch, but instead felt convicted after the first few minutes that I shouldn’t be watching them. But what makes one suitable and another one sin (at least for me-Romans 14)?

I think most Christians fall into two categories. Don’t watch anything “secular” unless we’re talking about Americas Funniest Home Videos. Or they choose what I call “the route of the oyster” and watch anything you want to watch and therefore suck in any “teaching” without thinking.

Here are some reasons, outside the the fact I appreciated the acting, writing, storyline, why I felt Breaking Bad was more than enjoyable, but instead devotional. They aren’t from Mount Sinai but the Valley of West Virginia. Yet perhaps they could be helpful to serve as principles to help guide us through the sometimes difficult process of discerning what shows/movies we watch…..

1.) Does the show glorify a particular sin?

In Breaking Bad, I found nothing glamorous about the whole meth making/dealing process. Duh…Of course there is money to be made, and lots of it, but the reality is that this “get rich quick scheme” ended up creating new problems (people asking where did the money come from, more crime like laundering, threat of death, more lying, murder, etc..). Ironically in order to provide for his family, the main character Walt actually destroys his family, hardens his heart, harms little children, kills people without thought, etc….It was kill or be killed, always looking over shoulder. Nothing glorious about meth. Walt becomes the kind of person he initially hates and judges. The specific sin of drugs only hardens and hurts himself and others. Know drugs, No glory.

2.) Does the show tempt you toward a particular sin?

Obviously no temptations toward Meth, only confusion how folks think meth is a good idea.

3.) Does the show expose sin, in any way, for what it is: rebellion, idolatry, deceptive, destruction/decay/death?

One of my greatest appreciations of the show is how it exposes Walt’s insistence that this drug making, and the affects of it, were only his problem. Breaking Bad really debunks the popular myth that an action is really only bad if it harms another person. That’s impossible. Each “sinful” action has a harmful affect on those within one’s community. Stealing affects the person whom the object was given. Affairs negatively the cheater, one cheated with, the children and husband. Lies destroy marriages and harden one’s soul to where one can then justify everything. Walt allowed a gal to overdose on drugs when he could have saved her. That in turn led to a horrific plane crash. Sin brings harm to individual and community. All sin does. Jonah ran from God and each step took him further away from life. Walt’s sin did the same thing.

In addition, there was really a greater sin behind Walt’s meth making: pride. Walt makes Oedipus’ “hubris” look like mild in comparison. Drugs and money were merely, as Keller calls them, “Surface idols.” Walt sought money and making drugs in order to be meet his need to be seen as successful and independent of others. Money simply provided this temporary prideful “success” and “independence” for him. To the discerning eye, the outward sin was only a symptom of a deeper heart idolatry of pride.

4.) Is there any positive takeaway or opportunity to discuss with neighbors or fellow believers?

On several cases, characters are placed in moral conundrums but have no real basis other than a feeling for whether something is right or wrong. Walt’s wife reacts disapprovingly against his incessant lying to her, but then she decides to make up a story for how her husband has so much cash. She used to think lying was wrong, and not reporting income was wrong, but she later participates in a money laundering scheme. A man who has been concealing income from the IRS, later refuses to pay off the 600,000 he owes the IRS with money he believes is obtained through gambling? He says he just doesn’t feel right about it. Walt once asks, “Where do we draw the line?” The show clearly shows the inability and inconsistency of an ethical system that is not based upon some overarching standard. Now it doesn’t reinforce God as that standard, but it does seem to raise the question: if there is no standard, can we really deem something right or wrong?

I see great opportunities for discussion in future.

5.) Is there anything clearly redemptive? 

At one point, Walt is actually broken. For a short time. His son sees him crying. The next day the father says, “Don’t ever think of me like this.” The son responds, “This is the best I’ve seen you in the last year and a half. You were real, authentic.”

Brokenness over sin-though this was merely brokenness over the consequences of sin-is a beautiful thing to the world around us. Jesus reminds us of its necessity in our posture before God as well as others in the Beattitudes: “blessed are the poor in spirit, and blessed are the meek….”

Just for a moment, there was something clearly beautiful…..

If we watch TV shows like an oyster and just suck in everything without thinking, we will do ourselves and families harm. But if we can actively discern messages in shows, and ask several key questions, they can be more than entertainment for us. They can be devotional and evangelistic. 

I’ve accepted who I am: I’m bad

My wife and I have been making our way through Breaking Bad on Netflix. As we are approaching the middle part of the 4th, and I believe, penultimate season, I’ve actually noticed a number of “common grace” (beneficial things non-Christians display and do) and fairly biblical insights. Let me share with you one particular questions that the series raises, and then answers.

If you are unfamiliar with the plot, it all centers around Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who discovers that cooking Meth can provide for his family. Everything goes downhill from there. Duh….

His partner Jesse regularly goes to a recovery group for drug addicts. The ultimate presupposition of this group stated in their beginning session is that you need to first accept yourself and that change is not the most important thing. You have to like and accept yourself. This Oprah-esque mantra is assumed as gospel over the period of several different sessions.

Now what is positive about this is that it points us to a God who accepts and justifies us not because we clean ourselves up, but completely because of His Son who took our dirt and gave us His cleanness. Therefore we don’t first clean ourselves up to come to Him. This kooky psychiatrist chooses to forgo the “religious” way to acceptance. You shouldn’t try to clean yourselves up so that someone else will accept you. I’m with that.

But he instead opts for the irreligious way of self-acceptance or self-actualization. Just accept yourself for who you are. You don’t need to change at all. You have to like who you are despite all that you’ve done, and how much your actions have literally destroyed lives.

Jesse gives it a shot. Instead of quitting the drug dealing industry, he hops back in with more vigor, determination, and delight than before. He used to to do it for money. Now it is who he is. He tells Walt that, “I’ve accepted who I am, and I am bad. I’m a drug dealer.”

In a later group counseling session depicted in another episode, the same leader presses him to open up and share. Then he drops the bomb shell which exposes this “self-acceptance” theory of change. “Do you know why I’ve come here? I’ve come here to sell the recovering addicts in this group crystal meth. Should I accept myself? How bad is that!”

The scene is beautiful in a broken sort of way. It exposes the follies of the religious/irreligious ways of salvation and change as futile shams. The only thing missing is Jesus.

The gospel is a third way to live. We don’t change in order to be accepted. But we also don’t NOT change because we should accept ourselves and all of our sin. We’re sinful. We shouldn’t see our sin and say, “That’s good stuff. That’s me.” The gospel says that is NOT the way God designed us to live. That is not you. Yet neither accepting ourselves, nor working to change our situation before God does any good. Change isn’t primarily the problem. Self acceptance isn’t primarily the problem. God’s acceptance of us is, and can’t be bought by self work or self-acceptance. 

Instead, the gospel offers us both God’s acceptance (which then allows us to say-I like who am re-created to be) and the gift of a desire to change. Not a desire to change in order to please God or others, but a desire to change because we already have God’s acceptance. And consequently the acceptance of His congregation of fellow struggling addicts.



Why I’m appreciating Breaking Bad

Due to the recommendation of several folks, and the opportunity provided by Netflix, my wife and I have been enjoying the series Breaking Bad. While I must admit that the plot of the show initially turned me off (and I guess it should have, I mean a chemistry teacher with terminal cancer turns into a Meth dealer? ) Breaking Bad regularly attempts to deal with honest questions facing humanity. 

For instance, the main character Walt’s brother-in-law just happens to be a DEA agent. When he offers Walt a Cuban cigar at his baby shower, Walt responds, “Isn’t this illegal?” The DEA simply laughs it off and tells him, “The forbidden fruit sometimes tastes the sweetest.” Then Walt, the chemistry teacher/meth dealer calls him on his inconsistency, “Where do we draw the line? What if marijuana is illegal this year and not next year? Seems arbitrary how we draw lines?”

And for the unbeliever who rejects any overarching standard-and I realize plenty of unbelievers live inconsistently actually believing in some standard-Walt does raise a good point. When you take God out of the picture, lines become merely whimsical suggestions.

Yet another scene in a different episode actually reveals a suppressed God-centered worldview. Remember, mankind can only suppress his/her knowledge for so long. Usually you’ll see evidences of it bubbling over. Walt and his chemistry partner put together a breakdown of the chemicals comprising the human body. This scene is beautifully juxtaposed with a moral dilemma Walt faces: what to do with the drug dealer in his basement. Should he kill him or let him go, with the potential that “Crazy 8” could come back and kill his family? The actual list of pros and cons he makes just doesn’t cut it. He needs something more.

So the directors switch back to the chemical reconstruction scene, where Walt confusedly asks, “What is missing? Why are we only at 99%?” His partner responds, “What is missing is the soul.” Now Walt has his answer. The human is more than chemicals, but endowed with a soul, therefore it would be morally wrong to simply kill this drug dealer.

I haven’t even seen the whole first season. And thanks to an article on CNN.com comparing Walt to Apple’s Steve Jobbs, I’m aware that Walt’s character becomes darker and darker as the seasons progress. Nevertheless, despite Walt’s ongoing descent into darkness, Breaking Bad has raised topics which challenge the Christian to go back to God’s Word and find solid answers to the world’s fluctuating morality. So far, at least in this first season, it has proved devotional and may open evangelistic doors in the future.


Caution: Breaking Bad is dark and deals with drugs, so don’t watch it if you’re unable or unwilling to question, to filter, to genuinely reflect, and proactively “take every thought captive” to discern what is good, true, and beautiful.