Getting A Beautiful Mind

How an Oscar Winning Film Provides an Unforgettable Picture of Sin
“The Diet” | Column by Richard Wagner |

Sin is crouching at your door. It desires to have you, but you must master it. —Genesis 4:7

…If you’ve ever fought a bout of food poisoning, you know that there’s not much worse until your body has gotten the poison out of its system. Tainted food may look enticing, but once inside, it begins to invade, inhabit, and revolt against you. Sin enters your life much in the same way. It comes wrapped inside of an appealing package, but what lurks underneath is an enemy that aims to overpower every aspect of your life. And while most cases of food poisoning go away on their own in a day, sin never gives up – that is, unless you actively do something to get rid of it.

The nasty effects of sin and temptation can leave you searching for answers. In a most unexpected way, the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind offers a vivid picture for how to deal with sin in your life, reinforcing what the Bible teaches about the poisonous stuff.

A Beautiful Mind tells the true life story of John Nash, a math genius who could solve problems that baffled even the greatest thinkers of his day. While in graduate school at Princeton, he makes an amazing discovery that propels him to much fame in the late 1940s. However, behind the scenes, Nash is a desperate man, plagued by schizophrenia that leaves him unable to separate fantasy from reality. Unknown to him consciously, his troubled mind produces imaginary people that become an intimate part of his life. It is only through the selfless love shown by his wife, Alicia, that Nash is eventually able to overcome his battles and, late in life, receive the Nobel Prize.

While A Beautiful Mind is gripping and inspiring drama, the film, quite unintentionally, offers something more for Christians. Watch the film with an eye on his delusions and think of them as representing sin and temptation. If you do so, the story of John Nash paints an unforgettable picture of sin’s damaging effects and the way to successfully conquer temptation in your Christian walk.

Ground Zero

The Bible is says flat out that Satan is going to lose in the end. But, until the day that you can exclaim “hasta la vista”, the master tempter is going to identify and target your weak spots. In particular, he’s going to locate an area of your life in which you have an unmet desire and then offer a cheap imitation as a substitute to fill that hole.

A Beautiful Mind illustrates how this kind of bait-and-switch routine is pulled off inside of a person’s mind. In spite of his arrogance and brilliance, Nash is needy. Very needy. His schizophrenic mind dreams up three make-believe people to fill in these missing pieces of his life.

First of all, Charles Herman, his imaginary roommate, meets Nash’s need for friendship. Nash describes himself as a “lone wolf” and as the film begins, you immediately see how much of a loner he is. When Dr. Helinger, the head of the math department, addresses the incoming graduate students, Nash sits at the very back of the room, visibly separate from the others. Then, on various occasions afterwards, Nash’s cockiness and clumsy social skills drive a wedge between others and himself. His diseased mind decides that an imaginary roommate is much easier than dealing with real people. Charles enters the scene and quickly becomes Nash’s buddy and the only person Nash opens up to during his college years. When Nash admits to Charles that he doesn’t like people much, and they don’t much like him, Charles responds with words that Nash wants to hear, “Maybe you’re just better with the old integers than you are with people.”

Second, Nash has a deep hunger for significance, the desire to “be someone” and to make a name for himself. At Princeton, he is obsessed with finding a Truly Original Idea for his research paper. In his mind, an original idea is the only way to distinguish himself, the only way he’ll matter. One scene in particular reveals Nash’s view of the world. Dr. Helinger and Nash are watching a special ceremony honoring a professor who has made the achievement of a lifetime. When Helinger asks Nash what he sees, Nash replies, “Recognition.” Helinger counters, “Try seeing accomplishment”. Still failing to understand, Nash concludes, “Is there a difference?”

Nash does end up coming up with his Truly Original Idea and lands the “top prize” for math graduates – a prestigious job at Wheeler Lab, a military think tank. But as the years go by, Nash’s hunger for recognition surfaces again: what he’s doing just isn’t important enough for him. He gripes of being called to the Pentagon just twice in four years, and when he appears on the cover of Fortune magazine, Nash is irked that he has to share space with three other scientists. To compensate for the lack of “being someone”, Nash’s mind invents a second imaginary person named William Parcher. Parcher is a top secret Pentagon agent that recruits Nash to be a government spy responsible for cracking Russian codes.

Third, even though the Nash miraculously lands himself a beautiful wife named Alicia, he seems to have a need for love that goes beyond her. His mind introduces Marcee, the niece of Charles, who looks up to Nash like a puppy does its owner – simple love with no demands on his part.

Nash subconsciously invents Charles, Parcher, and Marcee to fill needs he had for friendship, recognition, and love. In the same way, temptations will arise in your life that, on the surface, have every appearance of being able to complete that hole you feel inside of you. Premarital sex or an extramaritial affair can seem like a shortcut to getting the intimacy you are searching for. Giving into peer pressure may appear to be a worthwhile tradeoff to feel important. Bending the rules in order to make the promotion or the grade doesn’t seem so bad. But you sin the moment you give into the temptation by fulfilling your needs through these handcrafted schemes rather than waiting on the Lord. And, just as in Nash’s case, when you do this, these phony solutions quickly take on a life of their own inside of you.

What do you most long for in life? Is it relationships or recognition like Nash? Or is it something else? After coming up with an answer, consider that as temptation’s “ground zero” in your life – that’s the most likely spot where you’re going to be attacked. To put up a strong defense against temptation, come up with ways in which the Lord could fill that need and ways in which he would not, and then stick to that plan. Satan will surely lure you into filling that empty space with sin – if you allow him to.


The tricks that lure Nash into his own private fantasyland remind me of the same assault tactics that Satan uses to tempt you and I. Think first of the timing of the make-believe characters; they had the punctuality of a Swiss watch – always showing up at the high point of stress and vulnerability in Nash’s life. Charles arrives as the new roommate when Nash sits alone in an empty dorm room looking out the window and seeing other students walking together. So too, Parcher makes his entry onto the scene when Nash is rebuffed at the Pentagon and feels unimportant. And much later in the story, Parcher re-enters Nash’s life after he becomes depressed about the side effects of the medication he is taking.

In the same way, Satan loves to time his attacks at a person’s peak point ofvulnerability. Think, for example, of his temptation of Jesus during his extended fast in the desert. The Gospel of Matthew says that he waited until Jesus had gone without food for forty days until he made his move. So too with you. You’re most susceptible to sin when you are weak or down about life. Even though sinning only makes a bad situation worse, you can still find it easy to escape into a moment of sinful pleasure rather than dealing with the tough issues of life head on.

Tactics go beyond mere timing, however. Consider also the way in which Parcher entices Nash into going along with the fantasy. As Parcher attempts to recruit Nash, he flatters him, pumping him up and feeding his ego. When Nash craves recognition more than anything else, Parcher feeds him the dream line: “What distinguishes you is that you are quite simply the best natural code breaker I’ve ever seen.” At that point, Nash is putty in the hands of Parcher, so he enthusiastically joins in the plan. Similarly, Satan will use the exact same tactic as he tempts you. He’ll flatter you and tell how great you are, all the while manipulating you to do exactly what he wants.


When you give into temptation and make sin a part of your life, you quickly become pretty good at hiding the sin and burying it in your heart away from the rest of the world. But just like Nash’s imaginary friends, sin eventually surfaces in your life. Alicia, friends, coworkers, and students all notice the effects of the delusions in Nash’s physical appearance and personality. He’d occasionally act in a bizarre manner, go unshaven and unkempt for days, and be completely absorbed in his own little private world. They may have had their suspicions, but all want to give Nash the benefit of the doubt; he was a genius, after all. Because Nash had no sense of accountability with anyone during this period, he was able to continue in stealth mode – for a time.

But Nash’s worlds eventually collide together in a most public, humiliating manner when he was in the middle of a lecture at Harvard. Then, when Nash is confronted by a psychiatrist, Nash’s world of make-believe is so real to him, he refuses to see the problem. He ends up twisting reality all around – believing the psychiatrist is a Russian spy out to get him. Even when Alicia talks to him, Nash denies the truth; it is easier for him to blame others instead of facing up to the unthinkable. It isn’t until he is able to see through the “smoke and mirrors“ that he recognizes the difference between truth and lies. During a climatic scene in which he seems to threaten Alicia physically, he finally grasps that Marcee couldn’t be real. In the midst of flashing delusional images, Nash has the sudden realization that for as long as he knew Marcee, the young girl never gets older. That insight then becomes the crucial turning point in Nash’s life – he is finally able to see the world of make-believe as it really is, rather than how he wanted it to be.

Likewise, any hidden sin inside of you will become exposed if you continue in it and try to deny it. It is only when you see sin from God’s perspective and repent of it that you can start the process of overcoming sin in your life.

But even when you recognize sin, you’re still not out of the woods. Sin’s appeal is long lasting, even when you genuinely want to get over the sin. The Apostle Paul agrees saying, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Rom 7:15). Therefore, even the most sincere Christians can fall back into sins they thought they were rid of. This relapse happens for two reasons.

First, you may begin to rationalize and pretend that what you’re doing is not really a sin after all. That’s exactly what Nash does when he falls back into his fantasyland and meets up with Parcher once again. So desperate is he for a return to make-believe, Nash responds to Parcher, “I was so scared you weren’t real.”

Second, even when you know it is sin, you may still not want to bury it. Once again, Nash shows a parallel. Late in the film, even after he has made it several steps on the road to recovery, he confesses to Alicia after a particularly bad day, “On the way home Charles was there. Sometimes I really miss talking to him.”

In the same way, you can grow to love your sin and long for it, because it helps keep you company when you are down.


For many years, the schizophrenic mind of Nash is one big, non-stop playground for his delusions. So too, when you fail to deal with temptation, your mind becomes transformed into a playround for sin, in which sin goes hog wild, looking like a bunch of sugar-eating kids climbing all over a jungle gym.

Nash couldn’t even start recovery until he understands that his mind is the battleground. As you deal with temptation, it is critical to follow suit and transform your mental playground where sin has free reign into a battlefield, setting up a struggle with three actors: God, Satan, and your will. If you team up with God’s power, then you can overcome Satan’s attacks in your life.

But remember, according to Ephesians 6:12: “Our struggles are not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world’s rulers of the darkness of this age, and against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” In that light, think of your mind as a castle, surrounded by Satan who is constantly shooting arrows and cannonballs at it, attempting to penetrate and break down your fortified walls. When you are distracted with temptation and let your draw bridge down, Satan will attempt to invade your fortress through any openings you have in your castle walls. If he’s successful, then the small invaders can distract your thought life and prevent you from crying out to God for help.


Even after Nash recognized his problem, he can’t just make a change by a snap of his fingers. Oh, at first he thinks he can do it with sheer will power. He considers schizophrenia as a simply problem with no solution. And since he is a genius, he is convinced that he can figure out a solution. All he has to do, Nash believes, is apply his mind. But as the psychiatrist reminds Nash:

“This isn’t math. You can’t come up with a formula to change the way you experience the world…You can’t reason your way out of this. Your mind is where the problem is in the first place.”

His wife confirms to Nash that conquering the delusions is more than just head power, but also a matter of the heart. Maybe the part that knows the waking from the dream, says Alicia, is in your heart not in your head. Nash listens and begins to slowly conquer the delusions by combining his head, heart, and will into a unified, lethal force that is able control them.

Similarly, no sin is too great in a Christian’s life that can’t be conquered. 1 Corinthians 10:13 emphasizes this, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” And while God promises to give you the strength, you are still the one who has the actual task of responding to temptation. He won’t do it for you! On each occasion when temptation knocks at your door, you must respond like Nash does the final time he talks with Charles: “Charles, you’ve been a good friend. The best. But I won’t talk to you again. I just can’t.” Nash’s decision was an act of his will backed up by his head and heart.

At the same time, one of the biggest misunderstandings of the Christian life is that once you’ve conquered a sin once or few times in your life, you’re on easy street. Yet, such a perspective is dangerous and will lead you to falling into the same trap once again. God will give you the power to overcome temptation, but he doesn’t say that he’ll ever remove that temptation altogether.

As a parallel, Nash never gets rid of his make-believe people in his life. Even after years of success, Charles, Parcher, and Marcee are always on the sidelines, ready and willing to be talked to. Asked late in his life whether the delusions are gone, Nash responds:

“No, they’re not gone. Maybe they’ll never be. But I’ve gotten used to ignoring them and I think as a result they’ve kind of given up on me. You think that’s what its like for all our dreams and nightmares, Martin? You’ve got to keep feeding them for them to stay alive?”

The point Nash hits on here is exactly the same for Christians: you have to keep feeding temptation in order for it to stay alive in your life. If you starve it, Satan will begin to give up on you. Not that temptation will ever leave, but its power over you will become less and less over time.

In the end, conquering temptation is your choice on a day-in, day-out basis. As Nash says, “Like a diet of the mind I choose not to indulge certain appetites.” Victory over sin, it seems to me, is much like avoiding food poisoning. It’s a temptation diet.

In Spite Of

While Nash is able to successfully overcome the delusions in A Beautiful Mind, he wasn’t able to do it on his own. It took the selfless love, help, and perseverance of his wife, Alicia. More than any other film character I can recall, Alicia gives the most realistic portrait of what God’s agape, selfless love must be like. In spite of every reason to leave Nash or commit him to a mental institution, Alicia perseveres and, in doing so, offers a glimpse of exactly how God loves you. In one of the most memorable lines of the film, Alicia is asked by a friend about how she copes. She responds:

“I look at him and I force myself to see the man that I married. And he becomes that man. He’s transformed into someone I love.”

Alicia’s attitude towards her husband parallels closely the way in which God loves you. If God were to look at the way in which you really are, then, quite honestly, he’d be sickened. He’d be prevented from loving you because of your sin. But, if you are a Christian, your sins have already been cleansed by the blood of Christ, changing you into, as C.S. Lewis liked to say, a “little Christ”. As a result, you’re transformed into someone that God can indeed love.

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