I was reading Jim Collins book ‘From Good to Great’. He coins a phrase called ‘Stockdale Paradox’ which I think is a great analogy to explain Christian hope. The story is about an American Colnel Stockdale who was tortured as POW in Vietnam. He was one of the very few who made it through the brutal POW life. Below is the narrative of the meeting between Jim and Stockdale.
When Jim asked Stockdale what gave him the strength to make it through, Stockdale replied…
“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.”
Collins was confused. He thought Stockdale’s statment about not losing faith make him sound like an optimist. Collins questions him on how optimists were different from him.
“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.”
The POWs had two types of faith. One prevailed, the other did not.
1. One faith believed that circumstances would change. When that did not happen, the faith died along with that the person too.
2. The other faith believed that no matter what the circumstance, the self was powerful enough to make it through. The self remained powerful enough to make it through.
Among Christians too we have two kinds of people. The optimists believe that life will provide for them what they want at just the right time as long as they have the positive attitude and work hard enough. They expect they’ll be married when they are 25, have a beautiful suburban house when they are 27, kids when they are 30, a great executive position when they are 40, become a Church Elder when you are 45, a director when you are 50 (if not a CEO) and have grand kids by 60. For whatever reason when that does not happen, they’ll begin to grumble, they’ll be angry at God, go in to a bout of self-pity or even depression or worse end up in mid-life crisis induced addictions from alcohol to drugs to illicit sex.
Then there are the Stockdale believers who don’t quite expect that everything in life will turn out the way they expect it to. But no matter what happens, they TRUST God would work it all out for good (Rom 8:29). The Christian believer’s faith has a better foundation than Stockdale’s. Where Stockdale has faith in his self, the Christian’s faith is based on the finished work of Jesus Christ. The Christian does not just say he’ll make it through because he has a strong will. The Christian says he’ll make it through because Christ has already secured a place for the Christian in Eternity.
Stockdale then added:
“This is a very important lesson. 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.”
This an important point we need to remember. We should not try to deny or trivialize the brutal realities of life. Instead, we should acknowledge that life is tough and that we live in a fallen world. We need to remember that NOTHING in this world can separate us from Christ.
Romans 8:35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
The positivist Christian who expects external realities to turn for the good will be disappointed, because in a long enough timeline we will all die. On the other hand, the faithful Christian is more than a conqueror, not because he has a better attitude or luck or marriage or achievement or pleasure, but because even if life deals its worst cards, he has faith that he will not be separated from our Lord who has secured for us a place in Eternity by dying on the Cross for us.