The Man Who Played God
The Man Who Played God

The Man Who Played God

Many years ago an inspirational movie called The Man Who Played God starred a great actor named George Arliss as a famous and wealthy musician who was losing his hearing. This handicap made him very bitter and cynical, and he not only cut himself off from his friends and associates, he also turned his back on God. His attitude was, “God, if You could let this happen to me, I want nothing more to do with You; in fact, I don’t think You exist at all.” One day, from his penthouse window, the musician was watching people in the park below, using binoculars to observe their faces and improve his lip- reading skills. He saw a young man praying aloud, and was able to figure out what he was asking God for. Then a cynical idea occurred to the musician: since he knew the young man’s prayer, he would answer it himself as a way of mocking God. The musician sent his butler down to the park with just the right amount of money to meet the young man’s need, all the while laughing at God—if, in fact, God actually existed.

The musician began doing this every day: spying on people in the park, reading their lips as they prayed or shared their problems with one another, and then arranging for their prayers to be answered—with all these good deeds intended to be a mockery of prayer, religion, and God Himself. However, something happened which the musician hadn’t counted on: the more he performed these good deeds, even if for the wrong reason, the more he became a good and caring person. His awareness of people’s sufferings began changing his heart, and his response to their needs began making it possible for him to believe once again in a compassionate and loving heavenly Father—and by the end of the movie, the musician found God, and was happier than ever before in his life (Bausch, A World of Stories, p. 431). I’m not saying the best way to find God is to start out by making fun of Him, but this fictional story brought out an important point: we can discover what really matters in life by an honest effort to love and serve others in God’s Name.

Because of our limited human perspective, we not only have trouble imagining what God has in store for us; we can also unknowingly oppose or interfere with His plans here on earth, even to the point of placing obstacles in front of other people trying to come closer to Him. This was the case with some of the early Christians with a very strict Jewish background; they insisted that all Gentile converts must first become Jews themselves before entering the Church—thereby undermining the great missionary success Paul and Barnabas were experiencing. Fortunately, the apostles in Jerusalem— guided by the Holy Spirit—ruled that this was not necessary; the Church would welcome any person of good will who wished to follow Jesus. We human beings do not have the right to place limits on God’s love; His Kingdom—the new holy city of Jerusalem, come down from heaven—has room for everyone willing to respond to His loving call. Jesus emphasizes this great truth in the Gospel, stating that He and His Father will come to everyone who loves Him and keeps His word. As Our Lord says, the peace He gives is not like that of the world, which judges people on their physical characteristics, nationality, or social or financial status. Jesus looks into our hearts, and if He finds even the faintest glimmer of faith or love present there, He embraces us and blesses us and invites us to come ever closer to Him.

If we were to diagram the course of our lives, none of us—except for Jesus and Mary— would have a perfectly straight line leading us directly up to heaven. All of us, because of our sins, doubts, and failures, would have a very uneven, crooked, or squiggly line; even if the general direction was a positive one, there would be lots of little zigs and zags, representing our lesser sins and those decisions and actions which weren’t bringing us closer to the Lord. Holiness, morality, and a response to God’s love are never once-and- for-all experiences; these things must be an ongoing process and a continuing effort on our part, one stretching across the length of our entire lives. This is actually good news, because it allows for repentance, or for a U-turn if we’ve been going in the wrong direction; it even allows for God’s grace to be working within us without our realizing it, as happened to the musician in the movie I described.

A very important spiritual truth is that if we have a personal weakness and are lacking a particular virtue—such as humility, or compassion, or patience with others—the best thing we can do is to act as if we already possess that virtue. In other words, we should pretend to be the holy persons God wants us to be—for if we keep it up long enough, we’ll discover that we actually are becoming holier. This doesn’t mean we should put on an act to make ourselves look good or to draw attention to ourselves; rather, it means we should form the habit of keeping our negative thoughts and inclinations to ourselves, while instead trying to do the right thing even when we don’t feel like it. If we’re feeling miserable, for instance, we don’t have to lash out at others; we can choose to smile at people and remain patient with them, even as we’re counting the seconds until we can get away from them and unwind. That’s not a case of hypocrisy or insincerity, but of offering God the sacrifice of spreading His peace even when we don’t feel very peaceful ourselves—and such a sacrifice, while it may seem little to us, is very pleasing to the Lord. Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit not only to the entire Church, but to each individual believer—and if we ask for His Spirit whenever we’re miserable or confused or hurting or suffering or afraid, we will be given the strength and courage we need to endure our burdens and even to be living signs of God’s peace and love.

It’s unlikely that any of us will ever be able to spy on people with binoculars from a penthouse apartment, read their lips, and then arrange for people’s prayers to be answered in a mysterious and unexpected way—but God isn’t asking us to do that. Instead, He wants us to use the little opportunities we’re given each day to share His peace and bear witness to His love, by accepting, helping, and encouraging others in His Name—and the Lord promises that if we do this, even when we don’t particularly feel like it, we will grow in His grace and make steady progress on our journey to His Kingdom.

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Written by
Fr Joseph Esper