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The Stockdale Paradox

By Rick Lawrence
Vibrant Faith Executive Director

Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale was one of the most highly decorated officers in U.S. Navy history. At the outset of the Vietnam War, he piloted an F-8 Crusader during the aerial attack of three North Vietnamese torpedo boats, in what was later called “The Gulf of Tonkin Incident.” Later, in 1965, his fighter was hit by enemy fire and he was forced to eject. He parachuted into an enemy village were he was captured and severely beaten. Dragging a shattered leg from the beating, he was taken to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” where he was imprisoned for nearly eight years—the highest-ranking prisoner of war in the U.S. Navy. While there, he led a prisoner resistance movement and created a secret “code of conduct” that all prisoners pledged to uphold, including the “proper” response to torture. 

Because of his rank and his involvement in the resistance, Stockdale was relentlessly and ruthlessly tortured. Eventually, he and nearly a dozen other prisoners were taken to a nearby holding facility dubbed “Alcatraz,” where Stockdale lived in a 3-foot-by-9-foot cell with a light bulb that burned around the clock. He and the other prisoners at Alcatraz were locked in leg irons every night.

Remarkably, Stockdale survived this horrific experience. He was released in February 1973—his body so broken that he could barely walk. After he’d recovered from his injuries enough to live a more active life, he finished his naval career as president of the Naval War College. He went on to a distinguished career in public service and politics: He was Ross Perot’s 1992 vice presidential running mate when Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote—the best showing by an independent ticket in modern U.S. electoral history. 

When bestselling author Jim Collins was later introduced to Stockdale at a social gathering, he was quickly mesmerized by the war hero’s story. Collins asked Stockdale how he managed to not only make it out of the Hanoi Hilton with an unbroken spirit, but how he’d been able to live a productive, vigorous life after he was released. Stockdale responded: “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.”

Stockdale’s response was so profound that Collins made it the orbital center of one of the most popular business-leadership books of all time: Good to Great. Collins translated the vice admiral’s key to surviving and thriving in the midst of unendurable circumstances into something he dubbed the “Stockdale Paradox”:

“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.” 

As a P.S. to this “paradox,” Collins later asked Stockdale about those who didn’t make it out of the Hanoi Hilton alive, as he had. Collins wanted to know what was different about those who survived compared to those who didn’t. “Oh, that’s easy,” replied Stockdale, “[they were] optimists. 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.”

Optimism offers false hope, because it is not married to “brutal reality.” To experience true freedom, it’s necessary for us to embrace both our brutal realities and our prevailing hope at the same time.

There is a redemptive tension in the Stockdale Paradox that is crucial for us to embrace as we lean into the great challenges that confront us as ministry leaders today. Jesus, it turns out, operates all of the time in the tension of the Stockdale Paradox. He is always and everywhere exposing brutal realities while pressing forward into prevailing hopes… 

  • He blows the lid off the scandalous and humiliating secret life of “the woman at the well,” then offers her the “living water” her soul is desperately thirsty for (John 4:7-29). 
  • He responds to the “Canaanite woman,” desperate for Jesus to release her daughter from demonic bondage, by calling her a “dog” and refusing to help, but then quickly gives her what she wants when she rises to His challenge (Matthew 15:21-28). 
  • After his resurrection, he asks his closest friend Peter if he really loves Him three times, then follows each painful question with a life-giving invitation: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-18, NLT).

Following Jesus wholeheartedly means He’ll move us to face the “most brutal facts of our current reality, whatever they might be” while holding onto our absolute certainty that we will “prevail in the end” through His love and grace. Many are familiar with the preamble to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous “Serenity Prayer,” but few know well the “payload” portion of the prayer that follows. Here’s how it begins…

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”

A pithy quote that reads well taped to the refrigerator door, no doubt. But Niebuhr, one of the great intellectuals in Christian history, is no lightweight. He’s exploring deeper territory—Stockdale Paradox territory—in the conclusion of his prayer…

“Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
forever in the next.
Amen.”

Do you sense the Stockdale Paradox tension in Niebuhr’s confluence of brutal reality and prevailing hope? True serenity, we learn, lives in the liminal space of this tension. We cup our hands to hold both truths—the truth of how things really are, and the truth of how things really will be—and drink deeply. This is the “living water” Jesus offers us.

[Note: I adapted this piece from my book The Jesus-Centered Life.]

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith. He’s the general editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible, and author of 40 books, including The Jesus-Centered Life and the new daily devotional Jesus-Centered Daily. Coming in September, The Suicide Solution.

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