Written By Max Jeganathan
Priyan (Max) Jeganathan is an international speaker and Director of Thinking Faith. He is passionate about helping people make sense of current issues and life’s big questions through the lens of the Christian message. A former lawyer and political & policy adviser in Australia, Max is currently undertaking a PhD in Law. He lives in Singapore with his wife, Fiona, and their two young children. He loves movies, watching basketball with friends and playing with his kids.
The movie The Martian—starring Matt Damon—tells the story of fictional astronaut Mike Watney. Watney finds himself stranded on Mars after an emergency evacuation of his space station. The story follows his incredible ingenuity, innovation, and resilience, in fighting for survival.
Having returned to earth, the final scene of the film depicts Watney talking to a group of National Aeronautics and Space Administration cadets. Speaking from his harrowing experience, he expounds on the importance of dedication, insightfully stating that “. . . If you solve enough problems, you get to come home!”
Watney’s declaration is a powerful reflection of the creed that increasingly drives modern society. We are repeatedly told to study hard, to work hard, to apply ourselves, and to live out the truth of who we are.
This mantra of self-sufficiency is one we have taught ourselves for thousands of years. The sociologists call it self-sufficiency, the psychologists call it self-actualization, the seminal thinker Carl Jung called it individuation. It is the same idea that underpins so much of the self-help, life-coaching, and new-age philosophy we see today. We are called to look into ourselves and pull ourselves up by our own moral, physical, emotional and existential bootstraps.
Having worked as a lawyer, I found this mantra baked into the legal profession. Status, worth, and personal value were inextricably tied to how well we performed in our work. Having seen the professional journeys of my friends and relatives, it is increasingly clear to me that this illusive goal of self-sufficiency permeates every profession and workplace across the world.
The universal call to self-discovery and self-help has been the great cultural driver of the 20th and 21st centuries. However, the results have been questionable at best. We are more technologically, academically, intellectually, and financially advanced than ever before in human history. We are told to find ourselves, to please ourselves, and to define ourselves.
We’ve Always Fallen Short
Yet the indicators of human flourishing are in free-fall. Suicide, depression, divorce, anxiety and social dislocation are at all-time highs globally. It is the so-called “era of human rights”, yet there are more slaves now than ever before in history. Increasingly powerful mobile technology sees us more connected than ever before and yet loneliness is the greatest cause of teen suicide globally. We claim to be on a march to moral perfection and yet we killed more of each other in the 20th century than in all 19 preceding centuries combined. Our moral condition remains—as ever—dangerously untethered and our technological advances have made our struggles ever-more visible to us.
In his letter to the churches in Rome just a few decades after the resurrection of Jesus, the evangelist Paul wrote that “we all fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Many centuries before Paul put ink to parchment, the Psalmist powerfully agreed with him, declaring the universal human need to be rescued from our failures, our imperfections, our immoral nature and ultimately, from ourselves (Psalm 51). We see these truths in our lives every day. Not only do we fall short of God’s perfect moral standard, we even fail to live up to the imperfect moral standards we invent for ourselves (Romans 2:14-15).
We Desire Help
We need look no further than our own hearts to see evidence of our deepest needs. We seek justice, forgiveness, belonging, identity, peace, and fulfilment. Yet our tendency to put ourselves first to find these things seems to constantly leave us wanting more. Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously wrote that the line that divides good and evil cuts through the heart of every man and woman. He was undeniably correct.
Of course, there are those that deny the human need for help. Society tells us that we have everything we need within ourselves and therefore, all we need to do is look deep down inside for the answers we seek. Superficially reassuring though such sentiments may be, experience points in another direction. The more we look inside ourselves, we not only see an absence of answers but even more questions. The evidence is undeniable: We need rescuing from ourselves.
As much as we try to convince ourselves that we don’t need help, our struggles pour out in every aspect of our self-expression. When we run into trouble, we seek help from beyond. It is an instinctive and automatic reaction. We seem to know that our needs within must be met from without.
When we look closely at the great superhero stories, some common themes emerge. The selflessness of Ironman as he flies weapons of mass destruction beyond reach of the Earth; the compassion shown by Superman when—even with his life on the line—it is said of him by his enemy, “He cares. He actually cares for these Earth people”; the fearlessness of Wonder Woman who fights to protect the human race, even after discovering their inherent capacity for evil, for the sake of their inherent capacity for good. Superheroes offer us a unique combination of sacrifice, justice, and compassion, all brought together in acts of rescue.
What if the ideals we admire most in our superheroes—power, sacrifice, compassion and justice—were brought together in a Savior that actualized them to rescue you and me? What if the offer of rescue was made outside of the fictional world? What if our imaginary superheroes were but hopeful glimpses of a rescue mission that was not fictional?
It is in this context that the Christian story emerges with three life-changing pillars unsurpassed in human thinking:
- A uniquely honest understanding of the reality of suffering in our world (1 Peter 1:6). The Christian message doesn’t pass off suffering as an illusion, meaningless, a product of karma or something that can be avoided. It correctly acknowledges it as an unavoidable reality.
- An accurate diagnosis of the struggles of the human heart’s desire for justice and forgiveness (Psalm 51); and
- A rescue mission of the most unlikely kind: The entrance of God himself into His world as a person, Jesus Christ (Colossians 1). God as man who died on a cross to do away with all of our brokenness, shame, guilt and wrongdoing.
In these three Christian truths, we find the most compelling analysis, diagnosis, and response to the human condition in human history.
Jesus not only satisfies our deepest need, that of rescue. He also satisfies our deepest desires, those of belonging, purpose, identity, and fulfilment (John 10:10). And He does it through grace, by taking away our guilt and shame, covering over our imperfections with His perfection and adopting us into the family of God, where we are assured of an eternal identity as his children. It is the greatest rescue mission ever carried out, on any measure.
I had practiced law, worked in politics and sat at cabinet tables with Prime Ministers. Professionally, things could not have been going better. However, something wasn’t right. It wasn’t until I accepted the fact that I was never going to find the fulfilment my heart longed for within myself, that I saw what had been staring me in the face for so many years. The love of God chased me down. Jesus Christ, the only Savior the world has ever known, came after me, and my life has never been the same again.
Interestingly, even the film The Martian—amid its explicit sub-theme of self-reliance—makes a glaring concession. Yes, astronaut Mike Watney deserved the praise he received for surviving all those weeks on Mars. However, in the end he was not able to save himself. All of his ingenuity did nothing for his ultimate situation. He needed rescue. His final journey back to the safety of Earth only occurred by virtue of a rescue mission from beyond.
Perhaps what we see in film scripts is what we find in our hearts: that our greatest need is for a Savior from beyond. Thankfully, in the person of Jesus Christ, that’s exactly what we have offered to us. He has done everything for us that we could not do for ourselves. The question for you and me is: Do we reject Him or accept Him?
Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a four-part series on who Jesus is. Read the second article, “Why Did Jesus Have to Come As A Human?” here, the third article, “How Was Jesus Both God and Man?” here, and the last article “What Difference Does Jesus Make?” here.