How Does Sanctification Work? by David Powlison, Free for CAPC Members
David Powlison dispels the myth that there is a “key to sanctification” and then lays the biblical groundwork for spiritual growth.
This column will be a mash-up of essays, thoughts, and episode synopsis, all triggered by watching season three of The Good Place, a terribly unique and clever show. Needless to say, there are spoilers. For a more traditional recap (as well as excellent behind the scenes stuff), check out the wonderful The Good Place: The Podcast, hosted by Marc Evan Jackson (otherwise known as Shawn the demon).
I was a person who had grown up hearing how wonderful heaven would be, how every good and true Christian longed for their heavenly home. But when push came to shove, when my own body was in the hospital, when I was being kept alive by medicines and machines, I found I didn’t want to go to heaven at all. I was shocked at the ferocity of my will to live. I would have dug my fingernails into the very ground if it would have kept me tethered, if it would have done me any good at all. When I was dying, I could care less about going to the good place. Instead, earth, and all of the beautiful and terrible things that happened on it, became increasingly precious. So precious, indeed, that I might have given up my concept of heaven just to experience a few more days in the real world.Being bound up in another person’s life—trying to love our neighbors as ourselves—actually does cost us something.
Why did I so badly want to live? It’s an interesting question that most of us try and forget about. But in those moments in the hospital I knew: I didn’t want to go to heaven because I didn’t want to leave behind the people that I loved like my husband, my children, my sisters, my mother and father, my friends and neighbors and community. My people were the ties keeping me tethered to the earth.
The Good Place, in its own way, is on a quest to remind us of the importance of these ties. Season three launches us into the reality where the four humans we have come to love—Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason—are saved from death by Michael, the demon-turned-angel (he is an angel now, isn’t he?). We watch as all of them are changed by their near-death experience—at first, trying to be good and slowly devolving back into their old ways of selfishness. Eleanor tires of working a menial job trying to convince people to help the environment; Chidi continues to alienate everyone with his indecision; Tahani tries to work on her inner need for attention but instead decides to spectacularly capitalize on it; and Jason returns to a life of petty crime after trying to make it straight with his 60 person dance crew.
In the first two seasons, the four humans were dead and their fate sealed according to the Judge: they were all bad people, deserving of eternal torture. Now, the show is primarily concerned with fleshing out what it means for these humans to grow and change and become more moral (and therefore better) people in the real world. Chidi, the moral-philosopher (and audience proxy) spells out what this means. In his lecture on What We Owe to Each Other he declares that the meaning of life is based on our relational connections. And it is our connections to each other that make us good.
I think this show will hinge on this belief—that our bonds to each other have eternal consequences. It is setting up the case that being bound up in another person’s life—trying to love our neighbors as ourselves—actually does cost us something. Trying to be a moral person will not get you very far in the American Dream (which values Eleanor’s autonomy, or Tahani’s desire for power and fame). And there are real forces at work trying to hinder progress—demons like Trevor who show up at the end of the episode for the purpose of undermining Michael and his plans to save the humans. There will be trouble. There will be drama. There will be more incredible puns. And there will be the acknowledgment that the more we are bound to each other, the harder our life can get.
The Good Place continues to be the most profound comedy on television. It is also delightfully weird. It is obsessed with asking better questions—around the meaning of life, and how our actions might affect those around us—and this season I suspect those questions will continue to be ever more relevant to the viewer. As we watch and laugh, we are also indicted into the central premise. And while not all of us have had a near-death experience, The Good Place is trying to offer us the chance to reflect on our mortality, and to resolve to try and strengthen our relationships while we still can. It reminded me of what Victor Frankl, holocaust survivor and author, wrote in his magnum opus Man’s Search for Meaning:
Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted wrongly the first time.
I still remember how guilty I felt after I almost died—how for months and years after I recovered I felt like I had betrayed God in a way. But recently I have realized something. It’s not that I wanted to reject heaven and therefore God—it’s that God had given me so many good gifts here on earth that I didn’t want to leave. I, like Eleanor, and Chidi and Tahani and Jason, survived what should have been my end. And this time around, I am leaning into loving those around me.
Favorite joke: A tie between Michael’s human names and Jason gloriously dancing his heart out.
Favorite pun: We Crumb from a Land Down Under.
Favorite ethical moment: Eleanor thinking Aristotle rhymes with Chipotle.
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