Memorial Day Devotional: “Earn This”

Saving Private Ryan is an iconic war movie, deeply moving and powerfully composed. Unfortunately, it’s also the sort of film that were I to recommend it at all, I would do so only with the most extreme reservations (at a minimum, one should skip the entire 25-30 minute opening sequence where about 90% of the violence is concentrated, though other problematic issues such as pervasive foul language still remain). However, I would like to share and discuss the movie’s (non-violent) closing moments today, because they are very beautiful and offer fertile discussion ground for Memorial Day.

To briefly fill in the background for those who are unfamiliar with the film, it tells the story of a small unit tasked to find the youngest and last of several sons in the war. All of his brothers have died in action, and the army has decided to find him and bring him home so that his mother won’t lose all her children. It is only towards the end of the film that they finally find Ryan (Matt Damon), so the main character is actually Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks), the leader of the unit. In an honest moment, he’ll admit that he doesn’t relish any part of what he does, and he wants to get the war over with as quickly as possible so he can get back to his wife and her rosebushes and continue being an English teacher.

The quest to find Ryan is slow and painful, as they know only that he is MIA somewhere in Normandy with no further specifics. Miller loses two of his six men in the process, causing him to opine bitterly that Ryan had better “cure some disease, or invent a longer-lasting light bulb, or something…” to make this all worth it. But when they find the young soldier, they’re surprised to find that he refuses to leave his brothers in arms (“the only brothers I have left”) until they have carried out their orders to defend a bridge against an approaching German mechanized unit. So Miller makes the choice to stay with Ryan and take command of the operation. In the brief calm before the storm, he gets to know the kid a little better and even seems to find it in his heart to start liking him.

When the final battle hits, most of the rest of Miller’s unit dies, including (ultimately) Miller himself. As Ryan comes and sits with him in his final moments, Miller draws the boy to himself and whispers, “James… earn this. Earn it.” While on the surface this just seems like a continuation of his bitter early rants, the earnestness with which he makes this last request indicates both that his meaning is deeper and that it comes from a deeper place within himself. Then he dies. The camera focuses on Ryan’s face as we hear George C. Marshall in voiceover, informing Mrs. Ryan that her son is coming home. Then it cross-fades to the old Ryan at Miller’s grave. Instead of continuing to describe how the last few minutes of the film unfold, I’ll let you watch it for yourself(or re-watch it if you’ve seen it before). It never fails to put a lump in my throat. If you are unfamiliar with the scene, you should take a minute to do so here (Godtube link) before continuing to read my thoughts on it (the clip begins with Miller’s death and continues to the end).

I don’t see how you can’t be moved as the aged Ryan looks his wife in the eye and pleads with her, “Tell me I have led a good life… tell me I’m a good man.” She doesn’t understand the question. She looks at him, confused for a moment, then firmly responds, “You are.” What else would she say?

We walk away unable to forget the doubt and urgency in Ryan’s eyes, because we know he’s lived his whole life trying to measure up to Miller’s challenge, and he’s still unsure whether he’s done enough. And the question lingers—has he? Or did Miller give him an impossible command? Is Ryan uncertain because deep down he believes he will never be able to “earn” this gift? As the camera lingers on the cross marking Miller’s grave, our minds are inevitably drawn to the unspoken but subtly implied parallel to another sacrifice which seems impossible to earn. I have far too much respect for Spielberg as a film-maker to believe that this is pure accident. (And this, by the way, is an excellent example of a case where it is profound and meaningful to think about a film’s Christian applications.)

It would be very easy to answer definitely, “No, Ryan will never earn the gift, just like we will never earn Christ’s gift, and so it would be unbiblical to use the illustration like some Christians have to ask whether we have ‘earned this.’ ” I’ve seen more than one person take exactly this approach. It’s a natural, reasonable reaction.

Still, if the alternative approach that’s being criticized feels shallow and incomplete, this one seems somewhat shallow in the other direction. Is it true that we cannot earn our own salvation? Yes, of course. But we shouldn’t rush to discard Miller’s final words as completely flawed and misleading either. Consider the challenge posed in Twila Paris’s excellent song, “What Did He Die For?”

I believe we will answer each to heaven

For the way we spend a priceless liberty

Look inside and ask the question,

What did he die for

When he died for me?

It seems like the word “earn” is the sticking point for people, so let’s take it out of the picture for a moment and re-phrase Miller’s last words like this: “James, don’t waste this. Make our sacrifice mean something.” And when you put it that way, you see that Ryan did just that. He recognized his life as a gift, and he lived it well and honorably. He lived a life that bore fruit instead of throwing it away. He honored the sacrifice that had been made on his behalf.

I don’t think one has to adopt a works salvation approach to see that this can still apply to the Christian life. Jesus said that if we love him, we will keep his commandments. And if we keep his commandments, he will welcome us as good, faithful servants. Why “good and faithful”? Because we lived our lives in such a way that the cross was not wasted on us. We took our stand beneath the cross. We seized its offer of grace with both hands, and we followed in Jesus’ footsteps all our days. This doesn’t mean that we deserved the sacrifice in the first place. But once it was given for us, we accepted and honored it.

So join me today in honoring. Join me today in remembering. And join me today in resolving that we will not throw away the priceless legacy of freedom that has been left to us.


8 thoughts on “Memorial Day Devotional: “Earn This”

  1. Lydia

    I have really mixed feelings about the “Earn this” scene. If one thinks of it literally, there’s something a little manipulative about it. I can’t imagine dying for someone and saying, with my dying breath, “Earn this!” It puts an almost intolerable burden on the other person. It doesn’t seem to flow from love or a genuine desire to give oneself for the other person. It’s like the ultimate guilt trip.

    There seems to be a delicate difference between that and, on the other hand, letting the other person know that you are dying for him or made a sacrifice for him and letting that sink in. In either case, the person who benefits from the sacrifice is going to feel that weight and responsibility to try to “walk worthy” of the sacrifice that has been made for him. If he just goes and blows his life, he’s letting down those who gave their lives for him, whoever they might be, those who sacrificed for him. It’s good even on the human level for people to feel that sense of responsibility to someone else who has given you an opportunity. And all the more so if he actually literally gave his life for you. I would imagine that it could help to fend off a lot of temptations: Hey, if I commit suicide, I’m throwing away what so-and-so did for me. If I become a drunk or a drug addict, that’s not what he died for.

    But I think that a scene where someone literally grabs you and says, “Earn this,” and then falls back dead would go over the line so much into guilt-tripping that it would be all too easy to resent it, to say,”Darn it, I can’t spend the rest of my life trying to work off my guilt over being a survivor by ‘earning’ what you did for me.” It’s to Ryan’s credit that he doesn’t resent it and does try to live a good life as a result.

    1. Good thoughts. I actually agree with all your points. What’s interesting is that while Ryan lived a good life, he obviously didn’t cure cancer or anything exciting like that. But I think the idea is supposed to be that by the time Miller dies, he’s come to see Ryan as a person, not just a name. He recognizes that he’s basically a good kid. So he hopes that he’ll simply live well, never mind about making a longer-lasting light bulb or whatever. I still agree with you that there’s something manipulative about it. But in an odd way, it may be a step forward for Miller when one considers his overall character arc. I also suspect he’s thinking in large part about the other men in his unit who have died.

      From a strictly literary perspective, it’s actually VERY believable the more I think back to the film as a whole and how his character is portrayed. So if the goal was to portray what his last words might have been as realistically as possible, it succeeds brilliantly. On the other hand, what you’re pointing out is that it seems as though the film wants to have its cake and eat it too–Spielberg is a good story-teller, so he gives us a very believable moment, but then he doesn’t want audience reaction to be mixed, so he tries to turn it into this dramatic, inspirational ending. And it certainly worked for me when I first saw it–I dutifully reacted exactly the way I was supposed to, in a sense. But you’re rightly noting that if we divorce the scene from its emotional context, it’s a bit easier to evaluate it rationally.

      All the same, from the perspective of Christian applications, I think it was useful to write this post because like I was saying, everything else I’ve seen that goes for the parallel seems to be sort of incomplete, in one direction or another.

      1. Lydia

        Yeah, I think it’s hard not to react to the word “earn.” And of course when we bring that over to the Christian context, all this theology comes in like a ton of bricks.

        I think there’s a connection between the theological reaction and the human, emotional reaction. In both cases, what we don’t want is to be guilt-tripped into trying to earn something that we can never earn. By the way, there is an actual phenomenon–with a Wiki page all its own :-)–called “survivors’ guilt.” It was first noted in Holocaust survivors and also sometimes arises for survivors of combat. Some people who struggle with it commit suicide. It seems to me like that would be the kind of thing Ryan would be at risk for. Anyway, on the other hand, both theologically and in the human scenario, we want to acknowledge that we “owe a debt” to the one who has given his life and that we should try to “live accordingly.”

        Probably we could envision human scenarios that would even more perfectly capture that balance.

      2. Sometimes even great story-tellers will make a misstep by placing their moral in the “wrong” character’s mouth. An even more extreme example of this is Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” where the old woman’s _murderer_ is giving her this lecture about how she’s no good and someone should shoot her! Of course there the “moral” itself is a huge stretch, but it’s compounded by the fact that we’re supposed to think of this rant as a legitimate judgment of God through the person of this killer.

        The _Saving Private Ryan_ scene by comparison is way less unpleasant and implausible, but there is a bit of a similar feeling there, where we know there IS something profound to be taken away from this, but it doesn’t seem like exactly the right way to go about it.

  2. Lydia

    Exactly. One’s tempted to think, “Yes, it’s appropriate for Ryan to feel that he needs to try to live up to the sacrifice of your life and the lives of your men by being decent and making something of his life. That’s understandable. But it’s really pushing it for you to be saying that to him that way.”

    On the other hand, in a movie, I don’t know if it would have been possible to do it more understated. Here’s an interesting question: Suppose that Miller hadn’t said that. At the moment I’m not having any brilliant ideas for famous last words he could have said instead. Maybe he would just die without any last words. And suppose the whole rest of the movie went on almost the same. You’d have to change what Ryan said at the grave a bit, because he couldn’t say, “I’ve always remembered what you said.” So something a little different would have to go there, something about always remember what Miller and the others gave for him, maybe. Then he asks his wife, “Tell me I have led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.” Would that have worked? Possibly. Not sure.

  3. Chuckles

    I have always enjoyed war films/tv series/mini-series, but the best ones are the ones that capture the extreme emotions of being subjected to the kind of horror, shock, and absolute terror that most people will never ever come close to tasting. I do enjoy the violence of these movies because it retells these moments in history that are so alien to the human experience, and it reminds us of the sort of men who underwent that hellish event and came back from it. What I find myself enjoying the most in movies like this are the moments where you do choke up with tears, but for the longest time I did not understand why the tears were fighting to escape my eyes. In time I recognized what it was that generated such powerful emotions; love. Once while I was still unsaved a friend shared with me a piece of Scripture that spoke to me even in the depth of my God denial, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

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