Now that we are well into summer blockbuster season, I recently found myself thinking about a summer film from the past year—Marvel Comics’ Iron Man 3. Moviegoers have seen a lot of Iron Man in recent years. In addition to three Iron Man movies, Robert Downey Jr. also played the role in the box office hit, The Avengers.
While I don’t spend a lot of time in movie theaters and even less—none, to be exact—reading comic books, there is something about the Iron Man story that captures my imagination. The protagonist of these movies, playboy billionaire Tony Stark, is unlike most superheroes. He is not born with superpowers like Superman, nor does he acquire them through exposure to a radioactive substance like Spiderman. Rather, his power comes from his wounded heart.
Early in the first Iron Man movie, Stark is caught in the middle of a firefight and takes a load of shrapnel in the chest before being taken hostage. Prompt medical attention from a fellow captive named Yinsen pulls him through the immediate threat of death, but some of the shrapnel cannot be removed and continues to gradually make its way deeper into his heart. It is thus only a matter of time before Stark meets his fate… at least that’s what would have happened if he had given in.
As it happens, Tony Stark is possessed of both a strong desire to live and a real mechanical genius. Using only the limited materials available to him in his prison, he and Yinsen construct and implant a device that will keep the shrapnel from shifting further into his heart. As an added benefit, this miniature “arc reactor” does more than just keep him alive. It generates an abundance of energy–so much, in fact, that it is able to power an armored suit that enables Stark to escape his prison and later fly at supersonic speeds, rescue others, and perform a whole slew of superhuman feats. In short, his new mechanical heart empowers him to become “Iron Man”.
A flashy, Hollywood-produced film might strike some as an odd place to go looking for spiritual illumination, yet this story offers several analogies for the Christian life that I have found spiritually fruitful. Like Tony Stark, we are all walking wounded. Where his menace is shrapnel aimed at the center of his heart, ours is temptation to sin aimed at the same place. The form varies for each of us – addiction to substances that would destroy our lives and relationships, envy of a coworker’s promotion or a neighbor’s summer home, ambition to be known and revered in one’s professional or social world. Whatever the particular manifestations, these temptations, if left unchecked, will gradually make their way to the heart’s core and cut off the lifeblood that sustains everything else we love and care about – our values, our friends and family, our relationship to God.
However, like Stark, we are not defenseless against this threat. Someone has comes to our aid in our most dire moment and given us the chance to fight for our lives. Our savior is not a co-captive – for we are all afflicted with the same condition and so cannot save each other – but rather God, the sinless One. And the means of our salvation is not a mechanical transplant but rather a spiritual transformation: “I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh,” says God, “and give you a heart of flesh” (Ez 32:26). The ways in which God works this transformation are countless. It may come in the form of a midlife crisis, an inspiring book, a moving worship experience, a conversation with a friend.
However it comes, this initial intervention only gives us a fighting chance. If we are to live on, we must seize the gift we have received and make good use of it. In the movie, Stark builds upon the life-saving device Yinsen constructs to keep him alive and creates the arc reactor that empowers his escape and his new life as Iron Man. Our response must be to build an ark of another sort—a tabernacle to house God’s Spirit within our hearts. Inevitably, this construction project will be ongoing. As Stark’s continued survival depends upon periodically opening his mechanical heart for repairs, so too does our reception of God’s life-giving Spirit depend upon our willingness to keep our hearts open to God’s will, even when God calls us to do something we’d rather not or challenges us to confront a fault we’d rather ignore.
As scary as open-heart surgery can be, opening our hearts to God can be even scarier. We fear that, if we do so, everything will change… and rightfully so. Everything will change. But what we inevitably fail to recognize on the near side of conversion is that everything will change for the better.
Thanks to Yinsen’s meddling with his heart when he could not help himself, Tony Stark was able to escape his prison and reclaim his life, complete with hitherto unimaginable powers. Should we likewise welcome God’s working upon our hearts, we will find that we are not only able to escape the prison of temptation and fear that confines us but also empowered to live a life fuller than we ever imagined. We will find ourselves going places we never foresaw, accomplishing things we never thought possible, and entering into relationships that are more loving than any we knew before. What is more, we might just discover that, without ever donning a mask or acquiring a superpower, we have become the means by which God brings salvation to the world.