The Stockdale Paradox
In this morning’s scripture the Israelites are finally escaping from captivity, slavery in Egypt after what the Bible says is roughly the past 400 years. In the wilderness, following Moses, they’ve left the only home they’ve ever known – ones with roofs and food and families intact – and followed Moses, the great messenger of God who promises them the promised land, to live as God's chosen and beloved people. Only now, in the wilderness, the desert, with no shelter, no predictability of where the next meal is coming from, no guarantees of how much longer they will have to endure, they are being chased by the Egyptians who will at best take them back into slavery and at worst kill them if they catch them.
They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” (vs. 11 – 12)
We have never suffered slavery, most of us do not come from ancestors who suffered slavery or oppression, many of us have never served in war or been held prisoner, and most of us have never served time behind bars.
But it is not uncommon, that those freed from any kind of oppression, whether the Israelites out of Egypt, or slaves in this country after the emancipation, entered into a world of unknowns, with promises of land, of work, of a new life that never materialized, facing poverty, illness, and insecurity, it was not uncommon to wonder whether the new freedom was better than what they had before. Prisoners often fear release when all they’ve known is prison. Even victims of abuse will sometimes resist change because of the fear of the unknown, even when the unknown comes with a promise for something better.
While most of us may never know what it means to live as slaves or to be victims of oppression, we do know what it means to travel in the metaphorical wilderness of our lives, with fear of the unknown before us. We’ve all experienced chaotic periods of our lives personally, but now we’re living it collectively: as a state on fire, as a country on the brink of a volatile election, and as a planet experiencing a global pandemic. We are experiencing a wilderness time. And I don’t know anyone who isn’t experiencing some individual challenge on top of all of that, as if that weren’t enough. A time when the foundation of what we’ve known seems to crumble from underneath us, and just when we begin to accept one challenge, another comes our way.
And a few of us, like the Israelites, have lost faith in a God who seems absent to us now.
Admiral James Stockdale
Author Jim Collins, in doing research for his bestselling book, Good to Great, interviewed Admiral James Stockdale, who was a POW at the Hanoi Hilton for seven-and-a-half years.
And out of that interview with Admiral Stockdale came what is now referred to as the “Stockdale Paradox.”
If you look up the Stockade Paradox, you’ll find these titles:
- Stockdale Paradox--How to Prevail in Times of Crisis
- Stockdale Paradox--Why Confronting Reality is Vital to Success
- What the Stockade Paradox Tells Us About Crisis Leadership
Admiral Jim Stockdale was the highest-ranking United States military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. Tortured over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again. He shouldered the burden of command, doing everything he could to create conditions that would increase the number of prisoners who would survive unbroken, while fighting an internal war against his captors and their attempts to use the prisoners for propaganda. At one point, he beat himself with a stool and cut himself with a razor, deliberately disfiguring himself, so that he could not be put on videotape as an example of a “well-treated prisoner.” He exchanged secret intelligence information with his wife through their letters, knowing that discovery would mean more torture and perhaps death. He instituted rules that would help people to deal with torture (no one can resist torture indefinitely, so he created a step-wise system–-after x minutes, you can say certain things–-that gave the men milestones to survive toward). He instituted an elaborate internal communications system to reduce the sense of isolation that their captors tried to create, which used a five-by-five matrix of tap codes for alpha characters. (Tap-tap equals the letter a, tap-pause-tap-tap equals the letter b, and so forth, for twenty-five letters.) At one point, during an imposed silence, the prisoners mopped and swept the central yard using the code, swish-swashing out “We love you” to Stockdale, on the third anniversary of his being shot down. After his release, Stockdale became the first three-star officer in the history of the navy to wear both aviator wings and the Congressional Medal of Honor.
In his interview with Stockdale, Collins asked Stockdale how he dealt with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?
Stockdale answered, “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.”
Finally Collins asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Stockdale said. “The optimists.”
Collins said, “The optimists? I don’t understand.”
Collins was completely confused given what Stockdale had said earlier.
“The optimists (Stockdale explained). 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. 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.”1
When the Israelites faced death, blaming Moses for bringing them into the wilderness:
Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today....The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
Stand firm, be still, does not mean to freeze in fear. To stand firm, and to be still, is a leaning in, or a leaning on God, standing firm is to stand in your convictions, and being still is to allow God to fight for you, not to give up, but to find a deeper faith. Deeper faith comes from leaning into the brutal reality of this time, and leaning on a God who is filled with mercy and grace as God fights for you.
Or, in Stockdale's words, “Confront the brutal truth of the situation, yet at the same time, never give up hope.”
Perseverance and resilience does not come from being told to not worry, just be happy, or to keep smiling, or to stay positive. Perseverance and resilience as understood by people who have been through whatever the brutal reality might be: war, life threatening illness, oppression. Facing circumstances like the ones we face today builds faith, not because we’re told to keep it, but because we cannot afford to lose it. Joe Biden’s mother once said to him, “Bravery resides in every heart and one day it will be summoned.” Our bravery is being summoned now.
Some of you have had a lifetime of church, others just the past few years of your life. Either way, you’ve been practicing faith in God, in Christ. Faith is put to the test, when everything is entirely unknown, when fear lives in the body, sadness in the heart, this is the time we cannot afford to lose it, now more than ever, is a time to trust that God will fight for us, as we lean into God.
This is a great paradox of our entire faith. In the words of Jesus, “to find your life you must lose it.” The more we accept that we are not in control of this life or our death, and lean into God, the more peace we find in the grace of life itself.
There’s an African American spiritual hymn titled “Come Out the Wilderness,” or “How Did You Feel When You Come Out the Wilderness.” I’ve seen it listed both ways.
That’s a question we can’t answer just yet. But I can tell you we can’t go back to business as usual, nor should we want to. Those of you who have been through struggles in this country before – World War II, polio, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, 9/11 – we know that we can never go back, because as brutal as those times were, we came out changed, having leaned on God in the process.
The full line of that hymn, is “Tell me how did you feel when you come out of the wilderness leaning on the Lord.” It’s a shame that the last part of that sentence gets left off the title because it’s everything in that title. And the refrain affirms it.
“I am leaning on the Lord, I am leaning on his Word. I am leaning on the Lord who died on Calvary.”
Leaning is not passive. It’s our faith; it’s a constant state of being. One that carries us in the wilderness, through the wilderness, until we come out of the wilderness once more.
Or in the words of Moses:
“Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today....The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
To be still, by leaning on God.