Character development is an interesting art. The characters that draw us in are often the ones we connect with on some level. Good storytellers have a way of taking characters who might seem nothing like us on the surface, but they are given layers so we find a piece of them that is exactly like us.
On the surface, the Hulk is one of those characters who is completely unrelatable. He’s green, he’s huge, and he throws city buses around when he’s angry—which is all the time.
Back in 2012, Joss Whedon and Zak Penn introduced the world to the Hulk as portrayed by Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers. When we first meet him, he’s hiding. Aware of the destruction he is capable of imposing on all those around him, he chooses to live in isolation. He lives in constant fear of “Hulking out.” Despite the constant reassurance from those around him that he’s not a monster, he believes that’s exactly what he is. He insists that his only option is to live life with people at arms-length, because that’s the only way to keep them safe.
In the franchise’s most recent depiction of the character in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Hulk destroys a city under the influence of an antagonist. After coming to himself, he sees the terror on the faces of innocent people who look on him in horror. Wheadon also wrote Hulk’s final scene with great intentionality. As another team member pleads for him to return, a clearly conflicted Hulk shuts them out and goes off the grid, exiling himself—again.
If we’re honest, we all “Hulk out.”
We might not throw taxis in a fit of rage, but like Paul, we do things we know we shouldn’t and we don’t do the things we should. We sin. And like the Hulk, the shame we feel afterwards compels us to exile ourselves. The last place we want to be after we sit in the aftermath of our sin is church.
Somewhere along the lines, believers have adopted the idea that God is ranking sin. This builds a culture of law and comparison in our churches, rather than a culture of grace and compassion. In essence, we prefer people who sin in the same ways we do.
I prefer to see my sin as “an issue God is dealing with” but have no problem seeing your sin as dark and horrible.
Without question, sin has different consequences and forms, I am not suggesting otherwise. Neither am I referring to the exceedingly rare and isolated case Paul presents for removing someone from our congregation who is willfully belligerent and unrepentant about their sin, disturbing both the church and it’s community.
I’m talking about those who feel great shame, guilt, and condemnation over their sin; but feel they can’t come to church until they clean themselves up. Each time they “Hulk out” and return to their persistent sin, they feel the need to exile themselves. Somewhere along the lines, they saw the church as a place for the strong, the overcomer, and the champion. A place where people go from good to great—and they are none of those things.
Whether that is explicitly taught from the pulpit or implicitly caught in the pew, may God reform our hearts, our preaching, and our churches, so that we might become a place for those who, “Hulk out.”
May our preaching of God’s Law, be such that it levels the playing field. None can stand. None can look across the aisle at the one who “Hulked out” that weekend, and say, “thank God I’m not like them.” May God’s Law do its work in us, causing us to see we are exactly like, them.
May our preaching of God’s Gospel, be such that it gives hope to the most dejected and suffering people in the room. May the shackles of sin that overwhelm them with shame, fall to the floor. May the accusations screaming in their ears, telling them to exile themselves until they are presentable to return—be silenced. May the grace of God sound like prison doors swinging open.
May we be a church for those, who “Hulk out”—for the sinner, for the one who suffers, for the one who needs grace.
Which is all of us.