The 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan begins with an old man walking through a military cemetery. It is the American cemetery at Normandy in France where the thousands of soldiers who lost their lives in the D-Day invasion are buried. The old man, full of emotion, stops and kneels at one of the graves.
At this point, the movie goes back in time a half century to June 6, 1944, the day of the invasion. Over half of the men who were the first to hit the beaches that day were killed, and the movie vividly portrays the horrific barrage of bullets and bombs they faced. Bodies and parts of bodies were scattered all over the beach, and the sand and water were red with blood. But those who survived kept going. The whole world was depending on them, and eventually the beach was secured. The war would go on for another year, but Allied victory in the second World War depended on the success of that invasion.
The scene then shifts to a little farm in middle America, where a mother receives word that two of her sons died on that beach, and another son had just been killed in action in the Pacific. Only one of her four sons was still alive. He was a paratrooper on D-Day, and if still alive, was somewhere behind enemy lines. General George Marshall heard about this poor mother, and decided that she had suffered enough. He ordered that this Private Ryan be found and returned home. Captain John Miller and a squad of seven men were given the task of finding and ‘saving Private Ryan.’
This would be a dangerous mission. Private Ryan, if even still alive, and if he could be found, was deep behind enemy lines, and the Americans had not yet been able to do much more than secure the beach. They do learn where Private Ryan might be, but on the way to him, they are ambushed, and two of Captain Miller’s squad are killed. When they do find him, they again come under attack. This time, three more members of the squad are killed, including Captain Miller. But the battle was won, Private James Ryan was saved, and he would be going home. However, five men had to die in order to save Private Ryan.
In his dying words, Captain Miller said to Private Ryan, “James, earn this.” Private Ryan knew what he meant, and already felt it in his heart. Five young men had given their lives so that he might have a life. Now, it was up to him to live a good and worthy live so that that great sacrifice was not wasted.
The movie ends by going back to the opening scene. It is the 1990’s again, and we learn it is Private Ryan in the cemetery, now an old man, kneeling at the grave of Captain Miller. Overcome with emotion, he stares at the grave marker, and speaks to his long dead Captain. He tells him that he thought of the Captain’s last words to him every day of his life. He tells him he tried to live a good life, and hopes that he has. He says he hopes that the life he got to live was worthy of the sacrifice made by Captain Miller and the four others in his squad. But still he wonders how any life, however well lived, could have ‘earned,’ or could be worthy of such a sacrifice.
The elderly Private Ryan stands up, and his wife is there by him. He looks at her and he says, “Tell me, I’ve lived a good life.” She reassures him the best she can, Private Ryan turns for one last salute to Captain Miller, and the movie ends.
That scene is not only a profound look at one man’s story. For the viewer, it also becomes a profound look at one’s own life. We are prompted to ask that same question of ourselves and our own life. Have I lived a good life?
This leads one on to other questions. How do we define a good life? What does a good life consist of? What is good enough? There is a difference between ‘living the good life,’ and living a good life.
The phrase ‘living the good life’ brings to mind time off of work, plenty of money, rest, recreation, and relaxation; as in, “Ahhh– this is the life!”
But when the old soldier in the cemetery asked his wife, ‘Have I lived a good life?’ that is not what he was talking about. Living a good life means something far deeper than sitting on the beach all day with your feet up as you empty the beer cooler. Living a good life means living an honorable life, being good to other people, making an honest living, keeping your promises, paying your bills, helping those who need help, being kind, keeping the faith, and so on. And certainly, if you believe in God, you would want to know what God would have to say about ‘living the good life.’
God’s Word in Romans 14:7-8 says:
None of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord.
I read those words almost every time I do a funeral. At the time of death, they are words of great comfort. We are not alone in death. Even then, God is with us and we belong to Him. But the words also say something to the living about how to live our lives. In life also, it says, we belong to the Lord. Our lives are not our own to live however we want. None of us lives to himself alone, it says. If we live we live to the Lord, and belong to Him. And then Romans 14:12 says:
So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
Do you shudder when you read that? We all should tremble at the thought. Can you imagine what that means to give an account of our lives to God, who sees everything, and who knows everything, even your most secret thoughts; that God on whom you depend for everything? And this God is going to demand an accounting from you! Are you eager to give God an account of your life? Are you ready to face his cross-examination? Are you anxious to explain to God about those times when you should have told the truth, but did not; and those times when you should have said a kind word, but instead said a harsh word? Are you anxious to explain every wicked thought, every grudge held, every bit of forgiveness withheld, every selfish deed done, every good deed neglected, and every opportunity missed?
God gave you everything you have. Are you anxious to explain to him about those times when you could have been generous, but was not? In that accounting, God might ask you why you spent so much time complaining and so little time giving thanks. God might ask why you so often looked with envy at what others had, and failed to see your own blessings. And what will you say if God asks you if you used what He gave you to serve only yourself, or if you sought to find ways to serve Him with what you were given?
Romans 14:12 says that each of us will one day give an account of ourselves and our lives to God. How do you think that will go for you?
Private Ryan was overcome by emotion at the grave of Captain Miller who gave his life so that he might live, and then told him to live a life worthy of the sacrifices made for him. Captain Miller did not live to demand such an accounting, but Private Ryan’s own conscience moved him to demand it of himself.
We owe so much more to God, and He too demands an accounting of what we have done with the life and the gifts he has given us. Have you lived a ‘good life?’ Is it in your heart and in your soul to want to live a good life of virtue and faith? Or, are you more concerned about living ‘the good life’ of ease and pleasure? (continued…)
Ephesians 4:1b — I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.
Philippians 1:27a — Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.
Colossians 1:9b-10 — We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.
O Lord, let me not live to be useless.
–Bishop Nicholas Stratford, Church of England (1633-1707)