A catalyst is a substance that causes or accelerates a chemical reaction without itself being affected or changed. One example of this is the catalytic convertor in a car which contains the catalyst platinum which changes carbon monoxide (which is toxic) into carbon dioxide (which is not.)
In life, circumstances may act as catalysts to our lives, causing change to occur. The way we react to these circumstances will, however, be determined by our choices.
In the TV series ‘Breaking Bad’, Walter White, a mild-mannered chemistry teacher approaching fifty, married with a teenage son with cerebral palsy and a new baby on the way, is already facing change as an older parent when a terminal cancer diagnosis rocks his world. Faced with increasingly expensive treatments for his cancer and frustrated by his feelings of irrelevance and dissatisfaction that his knowledge of chemistry has not led to the fame and fortune he dreamed of when younger, Walt takes to a life of crime, becoming a leading manufacturer of the drug crystal meth.
The series charts his descent from a decent, ordinary family man into a drug baron not averse to deceit and murder with absorbing and chilling skill. We see how the cancer may have been a catalyst for Walt, but the choices he makes – ostensibly from ‘good’ motives, to provide financial security for his family after his death – are the things which determine his fate.
I have long been fascinated by motivation and how the same events – a cancer diagnosis, the loss of a loved one, life-changing events such as paralysis – affect individuals and how different people’s responses are. Ultimately, life’s catalysts are not the determining factor in how we live. Our choices are. How we choose to respond to life’s catalysts is the really important factor in our lives, not what catalysts come our way. Jesus said, ‘the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts – murder, sexual immoralityk theft, false testimony and slander.’ (Matt 15:18-19) He reminded us that a good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. (Matt 7:18) Who we really are will determine our chocies, which will lead to action. The road to hell is certainly paved with good intentions, as Walt demonstrates. Every choice we make determines to some extent how our lives will turn out. There is a deep irony in the series in that his actions actually end up alienating and damaging his family, even though he acted initially to help them.
In the final episode of ‘Breaking Bad’, Walt finally admits that the motivation for his actions was his own selfishness as much as any altruistic motive. He enjoyed the thrill of wrongdoing; it made him feel alive again. We have to be careful not to justify or rationalise sinful choices, for sin deceives us and is an inexorable taskmaster (worse than Walt or his previous boss, the equally mild-mannered but utterly ruthless Gus Fring!) Sin is a slave driver indeed. In Christ, however, we have the power to make wise choices, to live in a totally new way which absorbs all of life’s catalysts and allows these to become transformational forces. This is why Paul can confidently say, ‘we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ (Rom 8:28) We are predestined to be ‘conformed to the image of his Son’ (Rom 8:29) and every one of life’s catalysts can further this process of moulding us to be like Jesus – if we allow them to.