Emerging from a late screening of Alejandro Iñárritu’s recent film, The Revenant, I was struck by the indomitable power of the spirit of man. The Revenant tells the story of Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, an early-1800s fur-trader, blazing the uncharted Western Territory of the United States. In 1823, Glass was mauled by a grizzly bear while venturing near Perkins County, South Dakota. Betrayed by his comrades and left to die alone in the cold, this film depicts the legend of Glass’ survival as he made his way back to Fort Kiowa, a 200-mile journey.
Throughout the film, Glass faces impossible challenges—blistering cold, starvation, and the indescribable pain of his wounds. The force of will it took for him to crawl mile after mile is both a gruesome and captivating act to behold. The entire film, in one respect, is centered on the power of man over nature; mind over body; soul over being. And Glass’s refusal to die is sheer defiance of what is natural, an act leaving audiences with a sense of awe and disgust. In one of the most powerful moments of the film, we find Glass seated in a warm cabin, having returned from his journey, describing how he was able to make it back. With distinct DiCaprio bravado, he states, “I ain’t afraid to die anymore. I’d done it already.”
It’s impossible to come away from this film without a feeling of reverence for being human. It’s the kind of film that—even though you’ve just sat for two and a half hours in a comfortable, air conditioned room, slurping coke and eating popcorn—makes you feel like an invincible badass. Like the feeling of standing in the middle of New York City, Chicago, or Washington and thinking, “We, humans, actually built this,” there is a profound sense of both humility and virility that begins to rise. The impulse to dominate, to conquer, and to succeed is weaved steadily throughout the fabric of the human soul.
As an athlete, this particularly resonates with me. All through high school and college, I spent and sacrificed my body and heart for basketball. Up early to lift weights. Out late to shoot shots. Basketball, and the thrill of dominating on the hardwood, consumed me. No matter how many sprints I had to run, I would do them. No matter how many shots I had to make, I would take them. No matter what I needed to sacrifice in order to overcome and achieve what I set my mind on, I would offer it on the altar of success.
Now, this is by no means an unfamiliar story. Ask any committed artist, musician, or businessman, and you will hear an echo of the innate desire to achieve something, and a willingness to endure immense pain and heartache to ensure it. “Success does not come apart from sacrifice.” “Wake up early, go to bed late, put aside whatever you must in order to accomplish your mission.” “There is no off day.” These quaint slogans represent the innumerable mantras of the devout. In fact, one can contend, these are the very mantras of the human heart.
We all want to achieve our dreams and accomplish our goals. We all want to share in the indomitable spirit of Hugh Glass. Men and women, adults and children, religious and atheist—there is no shortage of want to succeed. But, as Christians, how do we reconcile the thirst for success with a proper understanding of Scripture?
Specifically, how does the achievement-oriented follower of Jesus understand and live according to Psalm 127:1-2, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved asleep”? This question plagues me daily as I wrestle with how to live both a fast-paced, achievement-driven life and a life engulfed in the mercy and grace of Christ.
I am convinced there is no single answer to this question, for it is a deeply personal one. Each person striving in this way must reconcile her actions in relationship with Jesus. Practically, there are hundreds of strategies for time management, self-help blogs, and motivational videos. But at the end of the day, it is about a relationship with Jesus, and allowing that relationship to infiltrate and influence every area of life. The reality is that God created humanity with this drive, and we should not feel shame or guilt because of it. Like anything else, ensuring the right application of this drive is what we must concern ourselves with—namely, within a relationship with Christ.
In Psalm 127, and in hundreds of other verses throughout Scripture, God commands work. At the same time, and in hundreds of other places, God commands rest. Should we work? Should we rest? Should we stay up night after night trying to accomplish a dream, wearing ourselves thin? Or should we sleep, believing that God can do more for us in our sleep than we could do in an eternity of staying awake? The answer is both. We must endure struggles, pursuing our passions until exhaustion, and we must sleep in the confidence that God holds us and is working for us.
There is no simple, three-step method. Honestly, we should be grateful for that. God did not create robots who know exactly when to wake up and when to sleep. He created us as human beings who dream and aspire, and He commands us to pursue our various passions relentlessly in our pursuit of Him.
The spirit of man is indomitable, but it is also restless. In the words of Augustine, “Our heart is restless until it finds its rest in You.” Success apart from Christ is nothing more than a narcotic, satiating us until the high wears off. So, pursue your dreams. Pursue your passions. Pursue your goals. All the while, know that these ambitions will never wholly satisfy you apart from God. May we learn this sweet and arduous discipline of the Christian walk.
Ryan Burns works in government affairs and is a graduate of the 2015-2016 Capital Fellows Program.