In my young adult Sunday School class at church, we’re doing a series on portrayals of God in culture and how they compare to the God of the Christian faith. This blog post is an adaptation of some of the discussion points from the third lesson.
One important thing to know about me is that I’m not easily offended. Jokes that poke fun at the Christian faith don’t bother me. In fact, I kind of like them, as long as they’re funny. On its surface, the 2003 comedy Bruce Almighty seems like an extended joke with Christianity as the punchline. But as we dig deeper into the story’s plot and meaning, we see that it’s really grappling with some difficult issues that each of us will confront at some point in our lives: Why does God let bad things happen to me and to other good people? Why does it feel like God doesn’t care? Could I do a better job at running the world than God does?
These are the very questions we find the protagonist asking at the beginning of the film. Bruce (played by Jim Carrey) has hit a rough patch in his life that comes to a head when he’s passed over for a big promotion at work and subsequently fired for his negative (over)reaction. In his frustration, Bruce lashes out at God, claiming that instead of him, God is the one who should get fired since he’s doing a pretty cruddy job at running the world.
And whether we like to admit it or not, we’ve all been there. When bad things happen to us, it’s natural to question God. We ask why he allows these things to happen. We wonder whether or not he really cares about us. We lose patience because we know how we want the world to be, and God seems to have a different agenda. Bruce’s sentiment is relatable, if not universal.
But what happens to Bruce next is certainly unique. Instead of being met with silence, he starts receiving messages on his pager prompting him to come to a certain address. After a while, he gives in, and when he arrives at his destination, he comes face-to-face with God himself (played brilliantly by Morgan Freeman). God tells Bruce that since he thinks he can do a better job at running the world than God can, he’s going to be granted the full power of divinity. Bruce walks away believing that he’s just conversed with a crazy person, but he soon finds what the mysterious man told him to be true: Bruce is suddenly all-powerful.
As you’d expect from a Jim Carrey movie, this premise sets off a series of hijinks that make viewers laugh, cringe, and sometimes blush. But as Bruce gets more familiar with his power and the responsibility that it entails, he learns a few important lessons about God’s governance of the world, lessons that we would do well to learn ourselves.
Our frustration with God often comes from our own lack of openness to him. In the scene where he lashes out at God, Bruce starts by asking for some kind of sign. He immediately drives past traffic signs that say, “Stop,” and “Caution,” before wrecking his car and having a total meltdown. He was so blinded by his anger that he couldn’t see the signs of God’s warning and presence right in front of him. God was giving Bruce exactly what he was asking for, but he refused to acknowledge it.
And if we’re being honest, we’re guilty of this as well. We get frustrated when God doesn’t respond to us the way that we want him to, and that blinds us to the many ways that God is, in fact, reaching out to us. We serve a God who is always present with us, a God who wants to do life with us. But we can’t see it if we’re too preoccupied with our anger at him. In order to hear from God, we must first make ourselves open to him on his terms. And when we do, we find that he’s been right beside us the entire time.
If we ran the world, it would be a catastrophe. Bruce is initially excited by his newfound powers because he thinks that he can use them to set everything right. Of course, by “everything,” I mean everything in his life that he finds unsatisfactory. He uses his powers to excel in his career and his love life. Eventually, he is forced to grapple with the question of how to use his power for the good of others when he has to answer their prayers. But Bruce fails fantastically on all accounts, ruining his relationship with his girlfriend and plummeting the city into chaos by replying, “Yes,” to everyone’s requests, resulting in so many lottery winners that everyone gets a measly sum of a few dollars.
Before we rush to judge Bruce for the destructive ways in which he uses his divine power, let’s ask ourselves: Would we do any differently? We often imagine how much better the world would be if we were in charge, but in those hypothetical scenarios, who benefits the most? It’s us. And the sad truth is that we aren’t even capable of properly leveraging the small amount of influence we have for the benefit of others. What makes us think that we’d do a better job if we were given even more responsibility? No, when we really consider the implications of having unlimited power, we quickly realize that we are woefully insufficient for the challenge. Which leads us to one simple conclusion.
God knows what he’s doing. There is only one person fit for the job of ruling the universe, and he’s already got it. As the creator and sustainer of everything that exists, God knows what is best, not only for the world and history as a whole, but also for each of us individually. In light of our own inadequacy and God’s position as the sole person qualified for governing the world, what more are we to do than put our trust in him, believing that he cares for us and that he knows what is best?
That’s the conclusion that Bruce comes to, at least. After causing catastrophe in his life and the lives of those around him, he finally admits that he isn’t fit to be in charge. He pleads with God to take his powers back, committing his fate to God’s hands. Then and only then is Bruce able to repair the damage that he has done and find contentment in the wonderful life that God has blessed him with. Sure, he may not have a flashy job or a perfect life. But he has enough to get by, and he has faith that God is out there watching over him.
Scripture tells us that God has an ultimate purpose for the world and that, in the end, that purpose will become reality. We may not understand everything that happens in our lives. In fact, we may not understand any of it. But we can trust that God is in control and that he is working history on both the grand, meta scale and the individual, personal level to his ultimate purpose, and we can trust that it is good.