The Impossible Weight of Earning
If you have tasted bile as it burns acidic in the soft tissue at the back of your throat, you don’t need me to describe it. I wonder how many of those young boys were tasting it for the first time as the boats neared the beach close enough to hear the whine of projectiles overhead. I wonder how many bit their tongue in terror, the taste of blood diluting the bitter bile. I wonder how many wished in haunted dreams that that bitter taste was the only bitterness they had to endure that fateful day.
It has been 75 years since the tide of war swept across those bloody beaches in Normandy. Every year since, the waves of those beaches have not been able to fully erase the stain of horror that unfolded on the distant shores of France. Surrounded by thousands, young boys still died alone, thinking of home and loved ones. Victory extracted a heavy price. The eventual celebration still carried with it an almost unbearable weight.
Like many others this year, I turned again to a movie to help embed the tragedy of this great victory. Arguably the greatest of its genre, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is one of the few war films that puts forward a story that truly engages the viewer by simultaneously portraying the nobility of characters yet without glorifying war. It is not a movie for the feint of heart. Yet even as I still feel my pulse quicken and my breathing grow shallow, it pales into insignificance compared to the terror these young boys faced down for the sake of my freedom. They should be remembered. It is right to honour them, even while lamenting the tragedy of war.
The film is confrontingly, but not gratuitously, violent. Yet it isn’t the visual intensity that regularly brings me to tears, instead, it is the gentle moments of humanity wrapped in the abrasive machination of warfare that cuts deep into my emotions. Scene after scene unfolds with the masterful touch of the director, building a story that eventually climaxes on a lonely bridge and spills over amid all the confusion of battle into a conversation that always leaves me in tears.
I don’t cry because of the tragedy of war, nor do my tears flow for the tragic death of a much loved and revered character. My tears fall in that moment because it is there that I see the hollow hope of this world. ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is a film that in almost every way echoes grander themes of redemption and sacrifice, of sinners and saviours. As a minister of the gospel, my heart is drawn to the premise of the few who would traverse hell itself in search for the one who must be brought home at all cost. The canvas is set, the paint is laid down layer upon layer, and when at the end my heart is soaring in expectation for the final triumphant stroke, it does not come. Instead, the image is marred by the empty anthem of this world, “Earn this.”
Days later, I still feel the aching throb of a narrative which is greater than the film. The closing scenes still haunt me. A grey-haired man standing before a memorial stone with tears streaming down his face, desperately seeking the affirmation of his family that he has somehow earned the gift of life he’d been given, a gift bought with the blood of those who’d sacrificed their life for his. “Have I been a good man? Have I been a good husband? A good father? Have I earned this?”
We are rightfully inspired by stories like these, yet they carry an awful weight. Devoid of the gospel, stories like these impart the impossible weight of earning. Ryan was given a gift, yet the very gift he was given became the weight of despair that would shackle him for the rest of his life. How good would be good enough? Were all my efforts able to carry this weight? Has my life been sufficient to balance the sacrifice made on my behalf?
The tragedy of this story is that it is played out in countless pastoral conversations across our country. I sit and hear the same desperation echoing from hollow hope even of those who call themselves Christians—“Have I earned it?” Couples who hold back from the remembrance table because they don’t feel worthy. Men who silently fade away from fear that their past failures have forever tainted their position before Christ. Women who settle for far less, their vision so consumed by shame that they have no room for the embrace of Christ.
And I want to scream. I want to scream to those men and women who wonder in desperation. I want to scream to them the very same words I want to scream to Ryan in the closing scenes of this great movie. I want to embrace them in firm arms, I want to press my hands against the side of their sagging heads and lift their eyes to mine. There, gazing past all the fear and despair, I want to shout, “He is worthy! Jesus is worthy! That’s the whole point of the gospel. His worth in the face of my failure, his sacrifice for my freedom, his death for my life, his sorrow for my joy, his stripes for my healing—all of it points to the fact that I will never earn this, everything is about Jesus. It’s all about grace!” That’s what I want to yell.
Instead, I quietly pray for a miracle of the Spirit, and I open my Bible with them and read.
1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins
2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience-
3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,
5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-by grace you have been saved-
6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,
9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. - Ephesians 2:1-10