‘Small, Contained’ Moral Failures

My wife and our 18-year-old daughter recently finished watching over 50 hours of the hit television crime series Breaking Bad. We very intentionally waited for the series to end before we began our viewing so that we would not be overly-influenced by the hype, multiple Emmy awards and rave reviews that seemed to sprout up everywhere while the series was still airing on AMC. The three of us simply wanted to engage with the series on its own terms, and by and large it was a very rewarding (albeit gritty) experience.

From nerdy high school teacher and family man
to meth cook and worse, Walter White must
lie to himself more than he does anyone else.

Despite the fact that this was, ultimately, “just entertainment,” I found that my experience of this series was intensified by the part-time work I do in recovery ministries. More than likely, my love/hate relationship with the characters was fueled by what a great job the writers did at portraying how the slow-but-steady descent into sin and death inches forward over time. In the series, a decent family man starts out cutting corners to quickly provide for his family and ends up contributing – directly or indirectly – to the untimely death of hundreds.

There are not many overt references to “sin” or God in the series, yet the entire fabric of the show is drenched in the reality of biblical truth:

  1. No one ever entertains a small amount of sin for very long. Most people I know did not wake up one morning and suddenly decide, “You know what? I think today would be a good day to throw away my family and career to become addicted to meth.” As with the character of Walter White in Breaking Bad, sin prefers to start off small – “Wow, I need to make more money quick!” – and is content to slowly infiltrate our very character before it moves onward and upward. Once an individual is sufficiently compromised to the point of needing to protect and cover up the entry-level sins, the escalation commences: “If we don’t kill him, our business plan will be seriously impacted.”
  2. Sin brings unintended consequences. Simple enough idea, but it usually comes bundled with the foolish-yet-compelling corollary of pride; “I’ll succeed where every other person has previously failed. I won’t let it get out of control.” Right.
  3. Sin is a process…and an event. Most of us tend to see sin as an action, not a process. It’s both. There is the sinful act that we can point to as a moment in time – Walter runs over two drug dealers and finishes them off with a handgun – but there is also an inner degradation of moral standards that is taking place over the course of days, weeks, months and years. Sinful thoughts and dispositions, unchallenged by anyone (let alone Christ), settle into the soul over time and bear increasingly-horrible actions.
  4. Sin is patient. The enemy of our souls does not care if we abandon Jesus all at once or over the course of decades. In fact, his smartest tactic is to allow us to think that we belong to Jesus right up until the moment we die, neglecting to take any sort of moral inventory for fear of what we might find there or simply because we are so proud of our moral standing. Sin will almost never ask up-front for a full-fledged commitment; it will more often ask that we fudge a bit on our commitments.
  5. Sin can initially present itself as virtue. In Breaking Bad, Walter spends the bulk of the series restating his rationale for entering into the violent drug trade as something he did “for his family.” After all, he simply wanted to cook really good meth that fetched a high price so that his family had something to live on after his death from cancer. Tellingly, it is only as he finally approaches his death that Walter breaks down and admits that he did it “for myself.” In the interim, the “For My Family” mantra gave him the intestinal fortitude to lie, steal and murder.
  6. Sin blinds us to the obvious. One of the very first episodes of “Breaking Bad” features a scene in which Walter is being held at gunpoint and “forced” to teach two gangsters how to cook meth. Under the guise of doing just that, he instead constructs what amounts to a poisonous-gas grenade and ends up killing them. One of the thugs dies immediately, but the second has the bad taste to remain alive for a few more episodes, gradually drawing Walter to the conclusion that he must kill him, too, though in a far more gruesome and hands-on fashion. A few episodes later, Walter passionately insists to his young partner Jesse that, “We don’t kill people! We don’t do this sort of thing!” That ironic exchange landed particularly hard on me; it seemed to me as though there was not enough air in our viewing area for me to draw a breath.

It’s been three weeks since we ended our Breaking Bad fest, but I am yet haunted by the series and particularly how clearly and accurately it portrays the slide of “good people” into headline-making monsters. Walter White was without doubt the most compelling character in this sad tale, but he was not alone in his descent into cutting corners, using people and manipulating “the system” to accomplish goals. Sadly, there were any number of people willing to leverage Walter’s expertise in chemistry to further their own agendas, “decent” people who backtracked on their principles and assumptions of morality when it suited their more immediate purposes.

Nowadays, I see manifestations of Walter White everywhere, though I can’t ever predict when he will show up. Sometimes I will find myself talking with him on the phone. I often exchange text messages with him. I sometimes meet with him for breakfast, lunch or dinner, or maybe just a cup of coffee. We e-mail, we chat in hallways and we can even sit together for Sunday morning worship services. The guy does get around.

But the place I see him most often is when I look into my bathroom mirror every morning. It’s for that reason that my next move is to walk back into our bedroom, put a crucifix around my neck and prayerfully commit my thoughts, my day, my heart and my entire life to the care and command of Jesus Christ. I came to Christ because I needed a Savior, but all these years later I am uncovering my deepest need, to have Him as my Lord.

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

Jeremiah 17:9-10 (ESV)
The heart is deceitful above all things,
   and desperately sick;
   who can understand it?
“I the Lord search the heart
   and test the mind,
to give every man according to his ways,
   according to the fruit of his deeds.”

Psalm 139:23-24
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
   Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
   and lead me in the way everlasting!

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