By: Keas Keasler
When was the last time you teared up watching a movie, not out of sadness, but because you were inspired? In the opening scene of the 1998 film Les Misérables, a criminal named Jean Valjean is brought by the authorities before an old bishop. A day or so earlier, the bishop had opened his home to this man and provided him with a warm meal and a bed to sleep on, only to be taken advantage of and robbed by him in the middle of the night. Now the man has been caught and, as they say, the chickens have come home to roost. Surely he will be sent back to prison and locked up for another twenty years. Yet instead of condemning Valjean and retrieving his stolen goods, the bishop offers him the silver candlesticks he had “forgotten” and lets him go free.
Although I’ve seen the film several times, this scene always leaves me all choked up. This unexpected and astonishing act of goodness on the part of the bishop moves me beyond words. “Goodness gracious” is a proper way to describe it, for goodness and graciousness conspired in a way that changed Valjean forever. It also left its mark on me. When I first saw the movie I remember thinking to myself, “I want to be like that old bishop.”
In his new book The Magnificent Story, James Bryan Smith looks at the story of the gospel through the lens of what are often called the three transcendentals – beauty, goodness, and truth. In my opinion, beauty and truth are more readily identifiable, but what exactly is goodness? Smith defines goodness as “that which works for the benefit or betterment of others.” That which is good makes us better, builds us up, and inspires us. And the power of goodness is its ability to benefit all who encounter it – even those who only witness it or hear about it.
The latest findings in science confirm this. Neurologists say our brains are chemically wired to reward us for performing acts of kindness and generosity. It only takes a small act of generosity for oxytocin to be released in the brain—and oxytocin is most people’s favorite chemical. It’s what makes us feel warm and fuzzy. It is also an antidote to depression. And here’s the thing: not only does the person performing an act of kindness get a shot of oxytocin: so does the person on the receiving end of the act. Even someone who merely witnesses the act of kindness gets a shot of the feel-good chemical. Just seeing or hearing about human acts of generosity inspires us to want to do the same. It would appear that God has structured human life in such a way that goodness is contagious.
I’ll mention one more movie that had me teary-eyed and inspired. In The Two Towers, from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo and Sam are engaged in a long, hard struggle against the dark powers of Mordor. At a certain point it appears that all might be lost. Frodo is exhausted and at the end of his rope, but Sam reminds him that all great stories have heroes who found something to hold onto when others would have given up. Frodo then asks, “What do we have to hold onto?” To which Sam replies, “That there’s some good in this world. And it’s worth fighting for.”
Those words grabbed me so tightly that I could feel my eyes starting to sting and my cheeks growing warm. Why? Because the great temptation today, living in a broken world with so much confusion and pain, is to become calloused and even cynical about what we see around us. It’s easy to become resigned to the way things are. Yet the beautiful, good, and true story of the gospel begs to differ. The gospel declares that God has not given up on this world but is at work healing and restoring it. The gospel insists that there is good in this world, and that it’s worth fighting for.
And as Smith reminds us in The Magnificent Story, we have a place in this story, too. “We were made not merely to hear it,” he writes, “but to be in it.” The gospel is an invitation to enter into this divine drama and join God in spreading his gracious goodness. Will we do so?