Nothing short of world peace is hanging in the balance as Anya Forger sets off for her first day of school. As if the typical pressures of a first day—making a good first impression, finding her way around a new place, and figuring out where to sit in the cafeteria—weren’t enough, Anya knows (thanks to her mind-reading abilities) that the literal fate of the world depends on her doing well in school and/or befriending a certain unpleasant little boy. Talk about high stakes, am I right?
But what saves Spy x Family from turning into a terribly stressful series as expectation after expectation is heaped onto Anya’s diminutive shoulders, is what happens when she fails—and fail she does! (Quite extraordinarily.) Because when Anya fails, grace abounds and hope remains undeterred. This is the same beautiful tension that lies at the heart of the gospel.
To catch up the eight anime fans who are not watching Spy x Family this season, the “spy” of the title is Anya’s adoptive father, Loid Forger, aka Twilight, whose mission is to uncover the dastardly dealings of dictatorial Party Chairman Donovan Desmond and his group of stone-cold flunkies who are bent on scuppering the peace agreement between East and West and heating up the Cold War to the point of nuclear meltdown. Desmond is untouchable though, and the only chance of approaching him and deceiving him into revealing his network is through his son Damian, who is about to start school. That’s right, the way to preserve world peace is to activate the dad card, befriending a villain as a fellow PTA member or what have you. To succeed in this operation then, Loid has assembled a fake family for cover: clairvoyant Anya as his daughter and assassin Yor as his wife. Only he doesn’t know that they’re clairvoyant and deadly, respectively. And Yor doesn’t know about Loid or Anya either.
Only Anya is in the know, thanks to her aforementioned ability. Not just about her “parents’” secret identities, but also about the pivotal role she is intended to play in safeguarding world peace. Although Loid has of course not discussed it with her, she’s heard him thinking about it constantly. And so it’s a burden of awareness that she carries alone, freaking out expressively, if silently, every time she’s reminded by Loid’s thoughts of what all is at stake each time the teacher calls on her, every pop quiz she fails, and with every taunting encounter with Damian and his henchboys.
World peace is at stake every moment of Anya’s school day, with her every word, gesture and action. She can make or break the destiny of the world at any time.
Like when she punches Damian right in the kisser. Oops.
What’s crazy is that this is exactly the kind of scenario that the follower of Christ inhabits every day: these high stakes attached to every mundane move we make, however humble, however seemingly inconsequential, however unimportant and tiny in the grand scheme of things. This is because as believers, we are convinced of the power not just of grand gestures or the impressive actions of powerful people, but of regular people doing regular things, day in, day out.
We believe in the power and significance of the “day of small beginnings” and not just climactic history-making moments. We believe in the power of mundane actions, like stopping to help or listening to the marginalized and ostracized; welcoming a child, or sharing some food or a cup of tea. We believe in the power of the word, spoken in love and truth, with authority and kindness and the ability to heal. We believe in the power of the heart’s attitude that inspires these modest actions and our at times ineloquent words. We believe that heroes are hidden in the crowd, among those unseen and unrecognized by the world. We believe that a life can be saved and the world transformed through small acts, carried out faithfully, and small words, released from the heart of God and voiced through humble lips.
It’s mind-bending, isn’t it? The upside-down kingdom, where the small things can save the world.
It can also be pretty intense. Especially when we fail. When we snap at someone or gossip about them. When we do something hurtful, whether intentionally or not, or neglect to do something loving. When our heart is overwhelmed by the demanding drum beat of offense and anger and falls out of sync with the rhythm of God’s grace and mercy. It can feel like the end of the world. It can feel like it’s not even worth trying anymore, because we’ve already messed it up and missed our chance, letting ourselves and our God down.
Sometimes, we might be tempted to get clever about things, which is what Anya does at first after punching Damian. When the classic comedy line about the guy walking into her fist doesn’t convince, she quickly pivots, and pieces together a legitimate excuse for her use of violence, claiming to have been defending a victim of bullying. In this way, Anya wins herself the undying loyalty of Becky “Rich Girl” Blackbell (the victim in this scenario) and the swooning admiration of Master Henry “Elegance” Henderson, the teacher on duty. Clever girl.
We do the same thing, right? “It just happened!” “I didn’t mean to!” “You did this thing first, and my action/words were the natural consequence, a reasonable response on my part!” “He deserved it.” “She has done/said worse than me.” These are the excuses we often turn to when confronted by our misdeeds. But Anya knows these excuses won’t work when she gets home and faces her father, and we know the same thing too, though sometimes we admit it more reluctantly than others.
And sometimes, we turn the excuses inward, and aim the accusations against ourselves: “I’m a failure!” “I never get things right!” “I’ll never change, I can’t! It’s just how I’m wired.” “Oh what a miserable worm am I.” Maybe we even punish ourselves in some way, locking ourselves away from friends and family, or disqualifying ourselves from something we enjoy. Sometimes, we even do this in our relationship with God, vowing to sort it out ourselves first and clean up our mess before approaching him for forgiveness and the strength and grace to do better.
The morning after her altercation, this is exactly what Anya does as she cuts herself off and accepts shame as her just deserts. She is uncharacteristically reluctant to join the breakfast table, hanging her head low and refusing to meet her parents’ gaze. She is self-deprecating, her shoulders hunched over as if to make herself as small as possible in hopes of disappearing before what she doubtless expects will be an onslaught of well-deserved reprimand from Loid. She tries to beat him to it and starts to accuse herself.
But when Loid speaks, he flips the script. Instead of a tongue lashing, Anya gets an invitation, a promise, and an encouragement: “Come on out. I won’t get mad. …There’s no point in worrying about the past,” says Loid. When the correction comes, it turns out to be pretty mild, which makes it all seem so…manageable: “Just make sure you don’t get into any more fights,” he says, before concluding, “cheer up”.
The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: “So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.” This is the same invitation, the same grace and mercy that Loid is extending to Anya. If we take the two dialogues together, it might go something like this:
Stop hiding over there and come on out, into the presence of the highest authority, before his very throne; come sit at the table that your father has set and eat your breakfast. You must be hungry. Don’t be afraid of him, he’s not mad at you, though he knows all you’ve done. Yep, the principal called. But you don’t need to worry. You see, he’s already settled the accounts of the past, even if the past was as recent as yesterday or even this morning, just now. So don’t worry. After all, what has worrying ever fixed? Instead, receive mercy; here, see this grace? It’s for you—you need it right now so that you don’t fall into those traps again, so that you don’t get caught up in fights that aren’t yours to wage. So take heart, and cheer up.
Why is it that the writer of Hebrews encourages us to approach God so boldly? It’s got nothing to do with our performance, with getting the words and actions and intentions right. Instead, it’s all down to Jesus: what he’s done and just as importantly, what he is like. “For we have a magnificent King-Priest, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who rose into the heavenly realm for us, and now sympathizes with us in our frailty. He understands humanity, for as a Man, our magnificent King-Priest was tempted in every way just as we are, and conquered sin.” It’s on this basis that the invitation to the throne is made.
Just so with Loid and Anya: his words to her speak not of her achievements (or lack thereof), but of who Loid is (and is becoming) as a father. As Yor says with a smile, Loid is kind. So too is our Father.
Loid is also confident that there will be another way forward, even though both Plan A (be a brilliant student) and Plan B (befriend Desmond) seem to have collapsed into dust. And he’s right. If there’s anything that Spy x Family demonstrates consistently—and here I’m including the manga as well as the anime—it’s that there is always a way forward for our debonair spy and his harebrained Operation Strix, no matter how disastrously awry things go. Loid believes this out of sheer confidence in his abilities as a spy, and so is able to extend grace to Anya because “figuring out what we can do next is far more constructive than dwelling on the past.”
We too can have such confidence that no matter how we mess up, there will always be a way forward. Our confidence is not based on our own abilities though, but on the fact that our adoptive heavenly father will always make a way. This is such a core characteristic of who God is that Jesus even calls himself “the Way”. After all, he’s already moved heaven and earth to clear the way for us to be restored to relationship with him, now and forever, and to set into motion his plans for all creation to be renewed in this way. And God is a much better planner even than Loid Forger.
And so we have it: the glorious tension at the heart of Spy x Family, which sets the task of saving the world on the too slight shoulders of a child, yet remains a heart-warming comedy because whenever those shoulders droop, grace is waiting so that all is well and hope remains intact. It is the glorious tension that lies at the heart of the gospel too, where we, as little children, are invited into the most exciting adventure of all—to change lives and save the world—yet without the kind of soul-crushing pressure to actually do it ourselves. Instead, we are members of a family, with a Father who pays the cost and is ultimately responsible, yet who includes us in his beautiful grand plan to redeem all creation, one word, gesture and heartbeat at a time.
Like Anya, we get to play a part; but also like Anya, when we mess up, it’s still ok. We’re still part of the family, and the mission has not failed. A breakfast of new mercies is waiting for us every morning. A way forward will always come; indeed, he has already, and he promises to return, and in the meantime, to never leave us or forsake us no matter what we do or fail to do. We get the best of both worlds in the life of faith, just as we do in Spy x Family—see! the two worlds of adventure and global significance on the one hand, and of loving intimacy on the other, are both right there in the title.
So may we be filled with hope, as we say along with the psalmist (and Anya): “I’ll never forget what you’ve taught me, Lord, but when I wander off and lose my way [when I lose my temper and sock one to that brat Damian], come after me, for I am your beloved.”