Saving Private Ryan is one of the most realistic war movies ever filmed. Stephen Spielberg set out to create a film that not only provided an interesting plot, but to deliver combat scenes with a greater level of authenticity than ever before. For many that is its claim to fame. For me, the most memorable and impactful element in the story is the significance of saving the life of James Francis Ryan.
Capt. John H. Miller, played by Tom Hanks, is an interesting everyman turned hero. In many ways, he exemplifies all of the men who responded to the call to defend our country. He was intelligent, humble, and a natural leader. After successfully storming the beach and destroying German defenses at Normandy, he was given the assignment to lead a small band of soldiers into French countryside in search of Ryan, played by Matt Damon. As the men travel into harm’s way, the constant discussion is about the absurdity of the mission. Their basic question – what is so important about one man that the U.S. Army would risk the lives of eight to find him? It seems to them an unnecessary risk and an insult to the men who must risk their lives in order to find one ordinary soldier who to them is no more important than anyone else. Even Miller, who as a good officer defends the mission, privately questions the logic, confiding in his sergeant that, “He better be worth it. He better go home and cure a disease, or invent a longer-lasting light bulb.”
Along the way, they encounter German soldiers and in the fighting, two of their men are killed. This further exacerbates the men. As they near their breaking point, Miller reveals information about himself to quell the fight, but to also give the men some clarity into the purpose of their mission.
“ I’m a schoolteacher. I teach English composition… in this little town called Adley, Pennsylvania. The last eleven years, I’ve been at Thomas Alva Edison High School. I was a coach of the baseball team in the springtime. Back home, I tell people what I do for a living and they think well, now that figures. But over here, it’s a big, a big mystery. So, I guess I’ve changed some. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve changed so much my wife is even going to recognize me, whenever it is that I get back to her. And how I’ll ever be able to tell her about days like today. Ah, Ryan. I don’t know anything about Ryan. I don’t care. The man means nothing to me. It’s just a name. But if… You know if going to Rumelle and finding him so that he can go home. If that earns me the right to get back to my wife, then that’s my mission.”
To Miller, this and every other mission accomplished helps him to earn his way home. Everyone would clearly rather be home, but they realize that in order to get home, they are going to have to earn it. Ironically, the one man who has the free pass home realizes this just as well. After being found and told about his brothers and his orders to go home, Ryan refuses to leave because in his mind, he had not earned it. He couldn’t leave his post when they were about to come under a serious attack. Miller and his men decide that in order to complete their mission, they too would join in the defense of Rumelle. Unfortunately, all but two of the original eight would be killed in the attack, including Miller. But before he dies, he speaks two words to young Private Ryan that would define his life and create the signature moment of the film. As Ryan kneels over Miller, he pulls him close and simply says, “Earn this.”
I can’t begin to imagine how those words must have affected Ryan. To know that these men followed orders and willingly gave their lives specifically for him, so that he might live had to be an incredible burden. For us as believers today, we ought to take a lesson from Saving Private Ryan when it comes to how we see the sacrifices made for us by Jesus Christ. God gave the order – go and redeem what has been lost with the shedding of your own blood. And so He did. Like Ryan, we didn’t deserve this grace, but it was given to us so that we might live and know the love of God in its fullest measure. The words of John 15:13 ring true: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”
Ryan lived the rest of his life with that constant reminder there, pushing him to make himself the best man he could be. How tragic would it have been if he would have been saved only to return home and become a bank robber or a bum. He didn’t deserve the grace that was given to him, so for him to fail in life would have cheapened the great sacrifice made on his behalf. For this reason, Ryan was compelled to live a good life. We too must look at our lives and the opportunities that lie ahead as a part of our God-given destiny as a gift from the Father. To not pursue our destinies, to avoid the work laid out before us, to push away from the table too soon would likewise cheapen the gift and injure the one providing it – in this case God Himself. Let me be clear: we can do nothing to earn our salvation, it has been given freely. But with the gift of salvation and the power of the Holy Spirit alive within us, we can show how much we appreciate our Heavenly Father through our diligent obedience and willing commitment to pursue the kingdom endeavors for which we were created.
Thank you to the soldiers who gave their lives so that we might live in freedom from tyranny and oppression. Moreover, thanks be to Jesus Christ who died so that we would have freedom from sin and live eternally in heaven. May we live every day of our lives with the constant reminder to live for the One who gave us life, who saved our life, and who sustains our life until we finally make it home to eternal life.