On 9 September 1965, while flying his Douglas 1-4 Skyhawk over North Vietnam, James Stockdale came under enemy fire and his plane was disabled. He ejected from his plane and parachuted into a small village where he was captured and held as a prisoner of war for the next seven and a half years. During the time of his imprisonment, he was tortured no fewer than 15 times. He was beaten, whipped and strangled with ropes. He was kept in solitary confinement, in total darkness, for four years, chained in heavy, abrasive leg irons for two years, malnourished due to starvation, denied medical care, and deprived of letters from home.
Being the highest-ranked POW during that period of time, the Vietnamese tried on several occasions to use him as propaganda and in order to prevent them from doing that, he would slit his own scalp and beat himself with a stool until his face was too swollen to be recognised. At the same time, Stockdale created and enforced a code of conduct for all prisoners which governed torture, secret communications and behavior that helped ensured the survival of many other POWs.
By the time he was released, his shoulders had been wrenched from their sockets, his leg shattered by torturers and his back broken. He also became one of the most highly-decorated officers in the history of the US Navy, including the Medal of Honor. The subject of how Stockdale survived his ordeal became of great interest, and in his book, “Good to Great”, author James Collins noted a conversation with Stockdale in which he shared about his attitude during captivity.
“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, which in retrospect, I would not trade.”
When Collins asked who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied, “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
Stockdale added, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail int 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.”
I believe that there’s something here that we can all learn from. If there’s one thing that we believers know, it’s that Jesus wins in the end, and the devil loses. We have the script for the history of mankind in this dispensation, in which we live in a world that’s in rebellion to the rule of its Creator God. We know that the Church ultimately triumphs and that we’ll prevail. Our mission is clear – Heal the sick, bind the broken-hearted, raise the dead, set the captives free and turn the unrighteous back to the righteousness of God. Jesus will triumph and His death on the cross will not be in vain. The Lamb will receive His reward for His suffering.
However, our faith in our ultimate victory should not blind us to the facts of the present reality. We need to realise that the earth is covered with gross darkness – violence, immorality, homosexuality, deceit, injustice. There’s much to be done today and the Church must not withdraw into a cocoon of false optimism and isolation. Instead we need to step out even more. We need to be prepared to be bruised, intimidated and discriminated against, and yet continue to operate in Kingdom ways of humility, wisdom, meekness and love.
Mordecai’s admonition of Esther in Esther 4:13-14 is worth our consideration: “Do not think in your heart that you will escape in the king’s palace any more than all the other Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
We’re all born for such a time as this and we must not shun the divine opportunities that come our way because of fears or an unwillingness to risk our comfort. Let Mordecai’s warning to Esther remind us of the great responsibility that has been entrusted to us. We who have entered the knowledge of His gracious salvation and received the baptism of the Holy Spirit must not draw back. Wherever the Lord has placed us, we need to press on in walking in integrity, establish justice, speak up against wrongdoing, pray for the sick, and most importantly, preach the Good News of salvation in Christ Jesus.
Habakkuk 2:14 tells us that “the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” This is our unwavering faith that revival is coming and shall again sweep over the earth. Nonetheless, we need to face the hard facts of reality that it’ll require for us to pray and contend, and to break up the fallow ground of the hearts of men and women. Let this mindset to prevail be upon us.