Recently I was reminded of a wonderful movie of faith, courage and redemption. It was the story from the book “Unbroken,” about the life of Louie Zamperini, an American who ran the 5,000 meter in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Louie was later drafted as a gunner aboard B-24 Bombers during World War II. He was shot down in the Pacific and endured two long years of captivity at the hands of the Japanese, one of whom seemed to take special pleasure in beating Zamperini because of Louis’ former status as an Olympian. This Japanese soldier, Mutsuhiro Wantanabe, wanted to break Zamperini. He tried very hard to convince the once great runner that he was in fact nothing and of no value to anyone in the world. Ever been there yourself? It is in such dark places that Satan likes to convince us of our uselessness.
It is well worth reading the Unbroken or even seeing the movie of the same title. What all of us might find particularly compelling is Louis Zamperini’s promise to God, one he offered while he was floating on a tiny raft in the Pacific Ocean after he was shot down, but before he was picked up by the Japanese. He promised God that if He would get him out of this and allow him to live, Louis would dedicate the rest of his life to serving God. He did not know then what would be required of him to be able to even begin his work in God’s service.
After his ordeal in the War and his difficult return to his life back in the States, large cracks began to form in Louis’ life and in his relationships with other human beings. Battling both alcohol and PTSD, Louis soon forgot his promise, but God did not.
After nearly coming to ruin and divorce in his marriage, Louis’s wife, Cynthia Applewhite, convinced him to attend a Billy Graham Crusade. He went back a number of times, and eventually gave his life over to Christ. Later Louis began his own career as a Christian evangelist, preaching continually on the theme of forgiveness. With the help of his new-found grace, Louis healed his own “brokenness” by forgiving his captors, even the most evil of them.
This is perhaps more detail on this story then you need, but I do encourage everyone to read or view this amazing story of redemption.
The real focus of the story, however, is not so much Louis Zamperini’s apparent external strength, much of which, as in any of us, can be largely genetic. Or such strength can simply develop as a consequence of our continued response to difficult circumstances. That was certainly true of Louis during his running career and his experiences during the War.
However, the challenges he faced after the war were not ones he could just tough out. Those interior challenges, demons, if you will, required an inner strength that quite frankly we humans do not possess on our own; it is a gift from God. And it is an interior gift we cannot do without.
“For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)
Whether or not we ask God into our life, or even whether we accept Him in our life, He is always waiting there with the gift in His open Hands.
“…that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man…” (Ephesians 3:16)
We all face difficulties in our lives, and we will all, at some point, experience coming to the end of our human strength; it is a time of grace, whether we believe it at that moment or not. For Louis Zamperini it began on a boat in the middle of the ocean, when he realized that he was no longer in control. He had to turn to a higher power in order to survive and find meaning for the rest of his life. But the meaning of his life was only fully realized when, after his return from the war, and broken by his inner demons, Louis realized he needed to fulfill his promise. His was the same promise we must all make in order to give ourselves over to grace, healing and eventually victory.
It is so important to recognize in the Scripture verse above, that Paul says he will pray that God would give strength and power from His glorious riches. We need to reflect on what this inner being is that Paul speaks about. We must understand that when we seek to fulfill God’s plans, it is not so much our action or our effort that is required. It is not so much a matter of achieving as it is of waiting, believing, seeking, praying and ultimately experiencing His power and His plans being fulfilled within us. They are fulfilled within that very inner being Paul wrote about.
The act of prayer is often like a skilled sailor hoisting and directing the sails of a great ship—our soul. And then it becomes a matter of positioning those sails in such a way as to catch the wind and allow it to carry us forward in the direction and fulfillment of God’s plans.
“For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
So, we need to position our sails, pray, offer ourselves to God, and then we need to wait with faith for Him to strengthen our inner being and fulfill His promise.
In the case of Louis Zamperini, it would literally be years before that promise would be realized. This included not only the two years he spent as a prisoner, but the years of interior struggle which followed after the war. But God was faithful. He had heard Louis’ promise while drifting in the ocean, and though the path to its fulfillment was not an easy one, God remembered and He gave Louis back not only his life, but a mission for his life.
Louis Zamperini’s message is not one of the indomitable human spirit, it is not one of courage, it is not even one of seeking God. Instead, Louis Zamperini’s greatest gift to us is the act of forgiveness, forgiveness in the midst of great pain, great suffering and terrible injustice – that is real forgiveness. Forgiveness was what Louis needed to heal his life. It is different for all of us.
We know we all have, to one degree or another, faced those moments when we might have begun to question our own value or what exactly it is that we were put on this earth to do. Some of us have also faced those moments when we find it very hard to forgive the wrongs that have been done to us. But the wonderful truth is that God uses all of the events of our life, and often, and most especially, the difficult ones, to not only form us into the person He wants us to be, but also to use us to help others around us.
It is unlikely that many of us will go on a life-long speaking tour as Louis Zamperini did for many years after his experience of grace. Instead, for most of us, our day-to-day life will speak volumes about what God has done for us, if we allow Him to strengthen our inner being through prayer.
Pray this week that we might find a way to use all the gifts God has given us to help heal ourselves and to perhaps also witness to those around us.
Copyright © Mark Danis
Image: “King David in Prayer” (detail) Pieter de Grebber [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons