Spider-Man: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
Psalm 38:4 My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear.
Psalm 32:5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD"-- and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Our theme for Training Camp this year was “Training Camp Assemble.” With the explosion of superhero movies in the last few years, we took the opportunity during Bible study to examine some of the superpowers of these heroes and see what the Bible has to say about them. With Captain
we studied what God has to
say about loyalty to the government. We examined how Superman receives strength
from the yellow sun and becomes weak around Kryptonite and used that to study
the strength of our New Man in Christ and the weakness of our Old Adam in our
sinful flesh. We evaluated the differences between righteous anger and sinful
anger by analyzing Bruce Banner’s anger which causes him to become the Hulk. We
discussed the differences between self-esteem and Christ-esteem by looking at
the ego of Tony Stark and America Iron Man.
We also studied one of my favorite superheroes – Spider-Man. Growing up, I read the comic books and especially enjoyed the 1960s campy cartoon. But perhaps the real draw is that Stan Lee, the creator of Spider-Man, conceived of a super-hero who had real-life personal problems and insecurities from being a teenager.
After Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, he receives the proportional speed, strength, and agility of a spider. At first, Peter wanted to use these amazing powers in selfish ways. He wanted to get some money to buy a car and impress a girl. His selfishness led him to avoid stopping a robbery. That robber then went out and killed Peter’s Uncle Ben. When Peter realized what had happened, he was devastated by the fact that he could have saved his Uncle Ben if he had acted. He remembered what his Uncle Ben had said to him a few hours earlier, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
At least at first, guilt is the driving motivation for Peter to become Spider-Man and use his great powers responsibly as a superhero. Peter felt tremendous guilt that he didn’t do the right thing when he could have. Because of his lack of action, his Uncle Ben had been murdered. Now he was going to honor the memory of his Uncle Ben by dedicating his life to the responsible use of his power. He decided to be a hero who would help those in need.
In the comics, Peter Parker is portrayed in the comics as a generic Protestant. But I think he could also be Lutheran based on the guilt he carries. I consider guilt to be our “Lutheran penance.” What I mean by that is that you and I as Lutherans know that we cannot earn God’s forgiveness. We don’t have to say any “Hail Mary’s” or “Our Father’s” in order to make up for our sins. We don’t have do any good works as penance to make up for our misdeeds. We are forgiven only by the sacrifice of Jesus. We know all of this as good Lutherans.
However, we good Lutherans can also feel deep down that this forgiveness is too easy. Jesus just takes away our sins and everything is good between us and God. And then we can move on. It all seems too effortless on our part.
So we make ourselves feel guilty. That’s the least we can do. Jesus can have our sins, but we should at least carry around our guilt for a little while. We think that allowing ourselves to feel guilty can drive us to do more, be better, sin less.
Guilt can be a tremendous short-term motivator, can’t it? You can get your husband and children moving through nagging and guilt trips. You can rouse yourself to quite a bit of energy at first through shame and self-scolding. You can incite yourself into action by reminding yourself of your previous inaction.
But it wears off … leaving you worse off. Consistently using guilt as a motivator eventually leaves you (and your spouse and children) with a strongly negative self-image: “I never do anything right.” Sadly, negative motivation gets addictive, and we instinctively reach for the stick instead of the carrot.
Guilt can be addictive, but it is also one of the most paralyzing of all human emotions. Guilt smothers hope. Guilt just keeps digging the hole deeper. Guilt keeps you from praying or reading the Bible. Guilt makes you hide from God, the very one whose voice you most need to hear.
In Psalm 38, King David writes of his experience with guilt: “My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear.” Then he describes the psychological and physical effects of his guilt: “My wounds fester and are loathsome because of my sinful folly. 6 I am bowed down and brought very low; all day long I go about mourning. 7 My back is filled with searing pain; there is no health in my body. 8 I am feeble and utterly crushed; I groan in anguish of heart” (Psalm 38:5-8). Guilt is a heavy physical and spiritual burden. It keeps us awake at night. It causes despair and depression. It can even make us ill.
Guilt is only good when it drives us into sorrow over sin and the arms of a forgiving God. That is all guilt was meant to do. It was never meant to linger.
You see, lingering guilt not only traps you. It kills your spirit. Shallow religious “experts” think that a luscious helping of lingering guilt is good. But God doesn’t agree. Guilt doesn’t bring us closer to Him; it drives us from Him. It ushers in ulcers and sleepless nights.
Guilt can be a powerful motivator. It was for Peter Parker. It can be the same for us. Guilt can cause us to become a more attentive husband after the affair or a more active parent after the divorce or a more supportive child after our parent’s heart attack. But that power is draining. It wears off. It pulls you away from God. The devil loves to motivate you by guilt.
We need something else. Our own power isn’t going to take care of it. We need the power of God. The power of God covers over the evil that we have done. The power of God sent Jesus to be our Savior through his death on the cross and His resurrection.
Jesus’ entire mission on this earth was to neutralize and remove your guilt. His death and resurrection provide an unlimited source of the forgiving relief that we all need. Not only did David experience the depths of despair brought on by his guilt, he also experienced the joy of forgiveness that came through confession. In the end David knew and embraced this truth: “Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD’-- and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”
This blessing of forgiveness is also yours — through Jesus. What a relief! What a joy! Your sins are forgiven! Your guilt is removed! Your iniquities are covered up. The Lord does not count them against you! Because your Savior Jesus has already accounted for them.
We may attempt to motivate ourselves into action with our “Lutheran penance” of guilt. But God motivates us through a different power – a better power – a lasting power. Jesus gives this power to His believers. Jesus gives us the power of the Gospel of forgiveness through the Holy Spirit working in us. “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans ). This is the power of the Gospel.
We have something better than the proportionate speed and strength of a spider. We didn’t get this superpower through a spider bite. This Gospel power was poured over us at the baptismal font. This Gospel power is placed into our mouths at the communion rail. This Gospel power enters our ears through the words of absolution. This Gospel power transforms our heart at the lectern and pulpit.
We need this Gospel power to remind us that we are forgiven for our past failures. For those times that we sinned by hurting our neighbors with vicious or slanderous words, the cross of Christ has taken away our guilt. We don’t have to make up for those sins by doing many good deeds in the future. Once we realize that we have this power, it completely changes our motivation for helping others and doing good. We don’t serve others from a sense that we are compelled to help in order to take away our feelings of guilt. We serve others motivated by love.
We are motivated by the love that our God has shown to us. He has forgiven us for the terrible mistakes that we have made in the past. He takes away any burden or compulsion we might feel to try to make up for our sins. This is Gospel freedom. We have the freedom to help others solely from a heart of faith. We appreciate what God has done for us and we want to joyfully help others. We can even help them by letting them know that our Lord Jesus wants to help them.
Jesus strengthens us in our faith. He increases our Gospel power and he helps us to serve others. Unlike Peter Parker, we don’t serve others out of a feeling of remorse. We serve others because we are joyful and thankful that our heavenly Father continues to forgive our sins.
Fellow Lutheran Christians, God has already forgiven you. Now it’s time to get busy forgiving yourself. God’s forgiveness is your new motivator. Get rid of your “Lutheran penance” by replacing it with the power of Christ’s forgiveness.
Spider-Man realized that it was his responsibility to use his powers to help others. We use the power of the Gospel to help others. We do this because God has helped us through that same power. He has forgiven our sins and guaranteed us eternal life. We want others to know that joy.Remember that with great gospel power comes great responsibility. Amen.