What “Unbroken” Can Teach Us About Resilience, Hope, and the Christian Life
“However dark the night, however dim our hopes, the light will always follow darkness.” While stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific for 47 days, Louis Zamperini reflected upon the words he had heard years previously at an ordinary Sunday Mass. He clung to those words as Japanese planes shot holes in their raft, as a fellow crew member died of dehydration, and as with each day passing the hope of survival seemed less and less. “Light will always follow the darkness.”
For those who have not seen Unbroken or are not familiar with the story of Louis Zamperini, he was an Olympic runner who endured possibly the most challenging and defeating circumstances during his service in World War II. The bomber he was on crashed 850 miles south of Oahu in May 1943, killing all but three of the crew members. Only Zamperini and one other survived the 47 days they were lost at sea, eating albatrosses and fish and drinking rain water. When they finally washed ashore in the Marshall Islands, they were taken captive by the Japanese Navy. Unsure for their lives, Zamperini and his companion suffered under beatings and mistreatment during their 42 day captivity before being transferred to a prisoner of war camp near Tokyo. Zamperini spent two years in that camp, where the commander Mutsuhiro “Bird” Watanabe regularly beat him, humiliated him, and even once ordered every single prisoner in the camp to punch him in the face.
These circumstances would have killed many people, but Zamperini displayed remarkable resilience as he remained unbroken by this series of events. After darkness followed by even more darkness, finally the light followed. The movie portrays a scene where, while on the lifeboat, Zamperini vows that he will dedicate his life to God if he survived. Years after the war, once he overcame PTSD and alcoholism, Zamperini followed through on that promise and became a leading member of Billy Graham’s evangelism crusade.
While hopefully none of us endure experiences as trying as those Zamperini suffered through, the movie Unbroken can teach us about the importance of resilience in the Christian life. Often, in American Christianity, we get different variations of the prosperity gospel: that if we are good Christians, God will bless us with good things, and if we are less than perfect Christians, God will send hard times upon us.
Catholics, Orthodox, and Lutheran theology (among others) understand suffering and hardships in a different way. Because we live in a sinful and fallen world, suffering is inevitable. As sinful human beings, we bring about suffering by our actions. However, this suffering can have redemptive purposes.
The Christian life is not an easy life. Whether we suffer because of the sinfulness of the world, because of tragic circumstances beyond our control, because of our own sin, or because of persecution, resilience and perseverance through the suffering can bring us closer to Christ. Even as we suffer from temptations, we must persevere in the Christian life. It is easy to despair and give up when life gets tough; or, like Zamperini, we can cling to hope in Christ. Christ too suffered, as we celebrated this past Friday. Yet at the end of that suffering, Christ saved us from sin. Likewise, if we cling to faith and endure through the sufferings of this world, we look forward in hope to the future glory with Christ in heaven. We are, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote, saved by hope.
In Unbroken, Zamperini holds his head high, even as he is repeatedly beaten and fears for his life. When offered a chance to stay in Tokyo, in luxury instead of the prisoner of war camp, if he broadcasts anti-American propaganda, he refuses and returns to the brutalities of the POW camp. As Christians, we can learn from this what resilience and perseverance look like in the Christian life: it is not bemoaning our circumstances, giving into temptation, or neglecting our faith. It is holding firm to our belief in Christ. Pope Francis, in his Joy of the Gospel, encourages Christians to smile and be happy, for our gospel is a gospel of joy and good news. Even in the worst circumstances, rejoicing in Christ and his love for us can help us hold our heads high and never waver from the faith.
This is not to say that we should seek out awful circumstances. As Ecclesiastes 3 states: “There is a time for everything…a time to weep and a time to laugh…a time for war and a time for peace” (Eccl. 3:1, 4a, 8b). Whether we are experiencing a time of joy or a time of suffering, resilience in the Christian life means holding steadfast to our faith and fixing our hope on eternal life with Christ rather than being washed away by the emotions of the day.
For the light of Christ always follows the darkness, and the darkness of this life cannot overcome it.