Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy revitalized a dead film franchise. Of all the feature films starring the Caped Crusader, none have resonated tonally and thematically like the visionary director’s innovative series of films, especially the middle installment, The Dark Knight, which captivated audiences with a stirring (if unnerving) portrayal of The Joker, courtesy of the late Heath Ledger. There’s a mantra that perpetuates throughout the trilogy, though, which appears during the beginning of the first installment. Young Bruce Wayne has just suffered a minor injury when this exchange occurs:
Alfred Pennyworth: “Took quite a fall, didn’t we, Master Bruce?”
Thomas Wayne: “And why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
Despite the humanistic overtones of this otherwise paternal encouragement, there’s quite a lot of theological implications, here, if we were to ask a similar question: “Why do we fall? Why are Christians allowed to stumble? Why does God permit his people to suffer grave spiritual temptation and persecution?” These are puzzling inquiries but their solution is, perhaps, more profound than you realize.
We all fall down.
Every one of us falls — stumbling and bumbling through this life is the Christian’s modus operandi. There’s not one believer in all of human history that could truthfully claim that they’ve lived a pure and chaste life, for the very fact that sin and darkness are ingrained into our very DNA. We don’t become sinners, we’re born that way. The inescapable and insatiable pursuit of every living person is to try and evade this innate sense of inadequacy, to suppress this darkness in any way they can. Most, however, seek this solace among the pleasure-sieves that the world upholds, which promise gratification and fulfillment but leave you feeling emptier than before.
But still the question persists: Why would God let his people stumble? Why would the Lord let David and Bathsheba happen? If God’s really all about holiness, how come his people often look the messiest? Why does the Sun of Righteousness let his goodness get so muddied in all our filth and frailty? Why do we fall? Precisely because the Lord is a lover of the fallen.
The lover of the fallen.
God allows us to stumble so that he can perfectly exhibit his condescending grace. “He allows man to fall that he may show how he can love and lift up the fallen,” writes Horatius Bonar.1 Feeble, fallen man more wondrously experiences and exhibits the downpour of the Father’s favor than if unfallen. If man had remained in perfect harmony with righteousness, God’s love would still persist, but it would be God’s love to the holy. For God the Father’s love to be known in all its brilliant fullness and resplendent glory, we must see his love for the unholy.
A world unfallen reveals but half of God. The deep recesses of his character only come out in connection with a world fallen . . . To learn what holiness is, and how holy God is, we need not merely to see his feelings towards the holy but towards the unholy.2
This is what makes the gospel of God so remarkable, yes, even radical — that its very objects are the vile vagrants who transgressed against it. “The glory of the gospel is that it is a sinner’s gospel; good news of blessing not for those without sin, but for those who confess and forsake it. Jesus came into the world, not to reward the sinless, but to seek and to save that which was lost.”3 Jesus came for the ungodly — for the profane and the corrupt.
It’s for our iniquity that Jesus was incarnated. It’s for our mess that mercy has manifested. It was the mission and purpose of Christ to minister to the broken and sick, not exalt the healthy. “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Tm 1:15) “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” (Eze 34:11–12) The sinner is the very reason the gospel exists. The fallen are for whom forgiveness was purchased; the sordid are for whom grace was summoned. It was his mandate to seek us out, to come down to us, the lowest of lows (Phil 2:5–8), as he literally became nothing, thereby making it possible for us to have everything. This is our radical Redeemer displaying radical grace.
Unfit, unholy, and fully forgiven.
The sweetness of God’s holy grace is that its very objects are those who are unholy. The poor, the lost, the broken, the captive, the vile, the guilty, the worthless: these are its sole recipients. Those who feel as though they are unfit for grace are precisely those for whom grace has come. The rejects are its very targets. You who feel despondent and desperate must realize that you are the objects of God’s grace, his unmerited favor and unconditional acceptance and unfailing unilateral love. Those who think that they must improve before grace can meet them will never be “fit” for it. If you falsely believe that you must move in some manner before the gospel meets you, you’re, in fact, rejecting grace and resisting his free love.
Grace can only be understood when taken in connexion with the “exceeding sinfulness of sin,” and the entire unworthiness of the sinner. If sin be not altogether evil, and if the sinner be not altogether worthless, then grace becomes a word without a meaning. Hence it is that self-righteousness and grace are totally incompatible with each other; so that the moment we begin to palliate our sin, in order to obtain forgiveness, we are falling from grace. As soon as we begin to look for some good feeling or deed in us, in order to make us less unfit to apply to God for pardon, we are rejecting grace.4
Grace says to us, “I see that you’re depraved and desperate and despicable, with nothing in or about you that tends towards what’s good . . . but you are My prime objects!” Grace is for the vagabonds and ruffians, the thugs and thieves, the poachers and discreditors of God’s glory and authority in this world. The sweetness of grace is that we who don’t deserve it, are the very first to receive it. Our vast worthlessness of it makes us the chief targets of it. Despite all our failings and flaws, it covers us. We who are imperfect, unrighteous, and unholy are seen by God as though we are perfect and righteous and holy because of grace.
Why do we fall? So that we can see and know how God lovingly and graciously lifts up the fallen. “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made . . . The Lord upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down.” (Ps 145:8–9, 14)
Horatius Bonar, Family Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1954), 24.
Horatius Bonar, The Story of Grace (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1857), 47–48.
Charles Spurgeon, Christ’s Glorious Achievements: What Jesus Has Done for You (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2003), 27.
Bonar, Story, 97–98.