“In this world, you will have trouble” (John 16:33b, NIV). Right now, could Jesus’ words be any truer? Just think of the past month’s headlines. Harvey. Wildfires in the Pacific Northwest. Earthquakes in Mexico. Irma. Jose. North Korea. Political Division. And yet, as Christians we are called to be salt and light, to shine like the stars in just such a dark world. How can we overcome in a world like this?
The question reminds me of Admiral Jim Stockdale. On September 9, 1965, Stockdale took off from the USS Oriskany (CV-34) on a bombing mission. When his A-4 Skyhawk sustained enemy fire, Stockdale ejected himself. So began a perilous period in his life that spanned parts of the next eight years. Captured and beaten by the North Vietnamese in a small village, Stockdale was sent to the “Hanoi Hilton.” Not only did he not receive medical treatment for the leg he injured in the ejection, he faced routine torture—upwards of 20 times—from 1965-73. But he didn’t let adversity keep him down. As the highest ranking Naval officer, Stockdale took the lead role in leading resistance efforts in the camp, which landed him and eleven others—the “Alcatraz Gang”—in special solitary confinement. Still, he organized a communications system so that prisoners could stay connected and exchange information. He devised an effective way of helping soldiers hold out under torture. He even slit his wrists, sliced open his forehead, and beat his face to a bloody pulp to prevent the North Vietnamese from parading him as propaganda for how well POW’s were being treated. If anyone knows anything about overcoming, it’d be Stockdale. So how’d he do it?
In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins shares Stockdale’s answer: “I never lost faith in the end of the story… I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life…” (85) Stockdale held out faith that the story would end well. And yet, the people he said didn’t make it out were the optimists! So what’s the rest of the story? “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be” (85). Collins called this the “Stockdale Paradox”—being brutally honest about current reality and yet never losing faith that things will be better in the end.
What strikes me about the Stockdale paradox is how biblical it is. There is Jesus who realistically predicts his death, but also hopes in God for his resurrection (Mark 8-10). Then there’s Paul in Philippians 1, who knows all will end well, even though he admits his life hangs in the balance. My favorite place to see it is Numbers 13-14. The twelve spies return from their exploration of the Promised Land. Ten spies fixate on the bad (there are giants!) and hold out no hope that God will fight for his people. Two spies acknowledge the bad but also hold onto their faith that God will keep his promises. What did God think? Numbers tells us that the ten died in the wilderness. Only two overcame the wilderness and claimed an inheritance in the Promised Land—the two who held both sides of this paradox together, who were brutally honest and yet relentlessly hopeful.
In the end, I think the Apostle John is right on target: “This is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” (1 John 5:4), and the Stockdale paradox is a good way to think about faith. Faith isn’t blind, futuristic optimism that “buries its head in the sand” and ignores present reality. Nor is faith a pessimistic fixation on present reality that ignores future hope. Both are ditches that will do us in. Rather, faith is an attitude born of a tension. On the one hand, it knows how the story ends—in Christ, “it is finished,” the battle is over, and Jesus is Lord. But on the other hand, it also frankly acknowledges our current reality. Faith produces a person who says, “Yes, God has won the war. And now, what, by God’s grace, can I do to make his victory a little more apparent in a world like this?”
Such faith hopes. Such faith acts. Such faith overcomes.
Matt Burleson is Minister, Choctaw Church of Christ