The Stockdale Paradox

Jun 22, 2011 |Candice Watters

Keeping an unwavering faith in the midst of a difficult reality

Sitting in church, I noticed him — the new guy. I wondered if he’d notice me, feeling pretty in my new outfit. And then I wondered if maybe he’d be “the one.” Sounds loopy, writing it two decades later. “See him, notice him, marry him,” the journey from “hello” to “I do” played out in seconds in my mind.

Now married 14 years, with a house full of kids, I realize that’s not how it works. Yet I took that mental leap of faith repeatedly as a single woman. (I suspect single guys play their own version of this game.) I lost a lot of time daydreaming about guys I’d never even had a word with, let alone reason to hope they’d one day be my husband. And then when nothing did come of it, the hopeful high would crash into yet another dose of reality: He has a girlfriend; or is engaged; or being the sort who shuns jewelry, is already married. Often it was more mundane: We just never met.

I suspect I’m not the only person who can relate to the rush of adrenaline that comes with new hope that maybe there’s a good mate left to marry, and certainly not the only one to swing between wild hopes and deep despair that marriage will never happen.

There has to be a better way. Enter Admiral Jim Stockdale. I read his story in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He was among the few who believed rescue would come but never despaired when it was much slower than he hoped.

Collins explains it this way,

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 20 times during his eight-year imprisonment … 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.

Collins says that in just reading his story,

I found myself getting depressed. It just seemed so bleak — the uncertainty of his fate, the brutality of his captors … Here I am sitting in my warm and comfortable office, looking out over the beautiful Stanford campus on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. I’m getting depressed reading this, and I know the end of the story! I know that he gets out, reunites with his family, becomes a national hero, and gets to spend the later years of his life studying philosophy on this same beautiful campus. If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” Stockdale said, when Collins asked him about it. “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 Stockdale, “Who didn’t make it out?” Stockdale said, “Oh, that’s easy. The optimists.”

“The optimists … the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. 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.”

Stockdale said, “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.”

And so Collins extols the merits of the Stockdale Paradox for its use in building successful businesses: You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be (Page 13).

Unwavering faith in the midst of a difficult reality: It seems to me the Stockdale Paradox has a vital application for the single Christian hoping to get married. As a believer, your faith can be rock solid because the object of your faith is unchanging (Psalm 102:26–27, James 1:17, 1 Samuel 15:29, Psalm 33:11, Hebrews 13:8). God is trustworthy, and marriage as He designed it is good (Genesis 2:20–25). He’s still in the business of making good matches, and you have every reason to hope that marriage will one day happen to you. (It does for 80–90 percent of Americans, often more than once.) But unwavering faith isn’t enough. You also need to face the brutal facts of your current reality.

1. Today's Men

If you're a single woman, you've probably often thought or said these words: "All the good men are already married." While there are plenty of men to go around, they’re increasingly less educated than women and often make less money. They tend to be less involved in church (and many Christian men have shunned church life altogether). They’re not easy to find and often are unmotivated to get married.

2. Today's Women

If you're a single man, you may have noticed a lot of 20-something single Christian women are a lot more focused on their education and careers than they were in eras past. They often outnumber you on campus, often outpace you professionally and many will out-earn you. When you get up the courage to ask one of these super-achievers out on a date, you're just as likely to get a no as anything, even though you hear that Christian women still hope to get married.

3. Culture

Positive pressure to marry has diminished to the point that many young people are convinced it’s best to delay marriage until after college and even graduate school. Many parents tell their kids that they should wait until they’re financially stable to consider marriage. Consumerism abounds, even in our perceptions of our options for spouses. It’s tempting to think, With so many singles to choose from, it’s best to stay in shopping mode. Settling down is often recast as the undesired “settling,” and buyer’s remorse applies even to marriages.

4. You

You imagine marrying a beautiful (or handsome) spouse, but you neglect your own appearance. You hope to be a stay-at-home mom, of if you're the man, to be the sole breadwinner, but you’re saddled with double-digit college debt (and worry that she will be, too). You want God’s will for your life, but you’re lazy about the spiritual disciplines. You believe in marriage till death and sexual fidelity post wedding, but you’re sinning sexually in your relationships. Whatever your personal areas of weakness or sin, you know you have areas that are liabilities, but still you imagine overcoming and eventually marry well.

Stockdale would say don’t lose hope, but don’t gloss over your problems. Be brutally honest about them. And I think there’s much wisdom, backed by life-experience, in what he says. But for the believer, there’s also biblical revelation to exhort us to faith in the midst of a brutal reality.

Esther came to understand that her ascent to royalty had a purpose bigger than her own beauty. She believed she must violate the law in order to plead for her people’s safety. But she was fully aware of the risks she faced, saying, “I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16).

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego knew God was able to save them from Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment. They also were in reality about what those flames would do to them if He chose not to: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Daniel 3:17–18).

They took the Stockdale Paradox a step further. They, and David, Elijah, Moses and Nehemiah, and Peter, Paul and Timothy, as well as all the men and women of Hebrews 11, lived boldly in view of God. They had faith in Someone bigger than themselves and their beliefs. The author of Hebrews encourages those of us coming after them saying,

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart (Hebrews 12:1–3).

Those who are in Christ have the promise that regardless of the suffering we endure on earth, God’s plans will prevail. It’s the ultimate reality — that this reality isn’t all there is — that gives those of us who are in Christ (Colossians 3:2–4) reason to hope when all hope seems lost.

Copyright 2011 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.

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