“For the LORD your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.” – Deuteronomy 20:4
I had the chance to watch the movie Invictus recently. It was an enjoyable film, but the reason why I liked it is different than I would have expected. Yes, this is another of the long line of sports movies where the team that should not win defies the odds and overcomes – or as I often call this style of movie, “The Rocky of…” – in this case, rugby. You know the outcome before it happens, and so it makes the ending a bit anti-climactic. But that’s ok, because the true essence of the film is shared before the Rugby World Cup enters in.
Nelson Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, is portrayed as a man who is determined to bring peace and unity to a nation that has lived for decades in the firm grasp of oppression – a grasp that included his own imprisonment for many, many years. His positions are often met with opposition; publicly and privately, from both enemies and friends alike. However, he is shown to be unmoved by shallow thinking and knee jerk reactions. He has a vision of what South Africa must do in order to survive, and he is unwavering in his stance. This exemplifies effective leadership, and with determination, you have no doubt that his cause will ultimately win the day.
So you see this and recognize Mandela as a winner – a man who can make the difficult things look easy. A man like this must live an extraordinary and satisfying life. But upon closer inspection, we see something else – a line in the sand over which the landscape changes dramatically. At various times in the movie, we are given a peek at his personal life – one filled with far more failures than victories. He is estranged from his wife. His children do not spend time with him and when they do, it is evident that their relationship lies somewhere between strained and non-existent. The mere mention of his family by an unknowing bodyguard rocks Mandela – upsetting him and giving him cause to retreat. The political dynamo, the worldwide celebrity, the winner in the public realm is suffering from the effects of a far greater loss – a defeat within his family that has left deep, painful wounds.
This isn’t the public persona, but it is there behind every smile, wave, and speech he gives. How can it not be? So how does he do it? How does he separate the wins and the losses? How can he compartmentalize his life in such a way, and in doing so, is he doing himself a favor or a disservice?
I don’t have an answer to this question. I see both pros and cons to the way Mandela is shown to handle this (and I must be careful as this is based on a portrayal of an actual person about whom I’ve done little research other than watching a movie). The pros that I see are he is able to overcome personal difficulties, to not let an issue in one part of his life derail him from meeting deadlines and reaching goals in others. He would be no good to anyone if turmoil left him a basket case. I also see how this helps to keep things in a certain level of perspective. One might argue that a strained relationship with his daughter is less important than building a nation of 43 million people. The people of South Africa need him to address their issues – that is why they elected him. They have expectations of him and how he should live his life, but part of those expectations is the understanding that his personal problems must not interfere with affairs of state.
Then I look at the cons. I am immediately struck by the fact that they are less concerned with the needs of Nelson and not President Mandela. But you say they are one and the same – I disagree. They are two separate people with very different goals, needs, and interests. It’s not to say that leaders are schizophrenic, but true character and public persona are often very different. I know this all too well. For years, I was “Mr. Schu,” or just “Schu.” I found it flattering at first. There are a lot of other nicknames I could have had (and probably did in certain circles). However, in time I came to dislike and in many ways resent it. Mr. Schu was the funny one, the understanding one, the one who could accomplish things, who stood up for what he thought was right, and who did his best in educating children and growing a school ministry. He made plenty of mistakes along the way, but his heart was in the right place. At least that’s what they thought. That’s what I thought.
In truth, Rich didn’t know where his heart was. I had been chasing goals for so long that I forgot to take care of myself and the things that mattered around me. My compartmentalization continued and I kept convincing myself that I was strong enough to be able to go with it, that if I just kept pace, then all would be well. And so as the smile stayed on my face, the work got done, and the persona stood tall as the infrastructure of my life became more severely damaged every day. Eventually, things gave way. Issues that had been ignored finally erupted – their impact causing wide-spread damage whose consequences will be felt for the rest of my life. It was a low point. My many victories couldn’t counter-balance the losses and I was in need of rescue.
It was at that moment of defeat that I finally found myself seeking God in a meaningful way. In His word, I discovered that I wasn’t made to suffer defeat, or for that matter to plan victories. I was made to worship, to serve, and to obey. The Bible is filled with examples of people winning and losing but never failing by remaining true to the promises of God. The Israelites won many a battle in the Old Testament with the description reading: “the Lord delivered unto them…” Joseph spent years in prison before being delivered. Jacob worked seven years and was tricked into another seven in order to marry the true love of his life. Paul experienced blindness, beating, shipwreck, imprisonment and ultimately death as he obediently served God and evangelized the world. Christ Himself prayed to the Father, maintaining obedience to His will as he sacrificed his life for ours. I saw God at work in these ways and two truths came into focus: 1. My problems pale in comparison to the ones He’s solved, so He’s capable of helping me. 2. God loves me enough to send Christ for me, so He wants to help me.
By letting go of my need to win, by releasing my fears of losing, and by fully aligning my life to Him, I have found peace, comfort, stability, and the path forward for my life. Each day gives me another opportunity to put pieces back together, to correct wrongs, and to move ahead confidently knowing that God is leading me to that place He created for me. By losing, perhaps I better appreciate winning. By winning, I hope to inspire others to see that it can be done. In both, I give thanks to my Heavenly Father for loving me – win or lose.