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One of the most powerful stories I know: Present suffering and future grace

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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One of the most powerful stories I know: Present suffering and future grace
Louis Zamperini, former USC athletic star now a bombardier in the Army Airforce, peers out of hatch nose of bomber on Jan. 1, 1943. Zamperini was bombardier of one of the planes in recent raid on Jap-held Wake Island.

Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, was one of the most moving books I have ever read. Its incredible story would never have happened, however, except for the events of this day in 1943.

Louis Zamperini was born to Italian immigrant parents in 1917. Growing up in Torrance, California, he ran track in school, setting the national high school mile record. He went on to compete in the 1936 Olympics and was prepared to compete in the 1940 Games, but they were canceled with the outbreak of World War II.

Zamperini then enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He became a bombardier on the B-24 Liberator. In May 1943, he and a crew went on a mission to search for a pilot whose plane had gone down. On May 27, their plane suffered mechanical failure and crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

Of the eleven men on board, only Zamperini and two other airmen survived the crash. The men were stranded on a raft together for forty-seven days. They survived the unrelenting sun, strafing runs by Japanese bombers, and circling sharks. They drank rainwater and ate birds that happened to land on the raft.

One of the men died at sea. Zamperini and the plane’s pilot, Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips, finally washed ashore on a Pacific island two thousand miles from the crash site. They were soon taken as prisoners of war by the Japanese, who tortured them for the next two years.

Zamperini was officially pronounced dead by the US military. He was released only after the war ended in 1945, when he returned to the United States.

Scarred by his horrific ordeal, he suffered from alcoholism and came close to divorcing his wife. Then he heard a Billy Graham sermon in Los Angeles in 1949, and the grace of God changed his life.

He founded a camp for troubled youths called Victory Boys Camp. He also forgave his Japanese tormenters, some in person when he visited a Tokyo prison in 1950 where they were serving sentences for war crimes. He returned to Japan in 1998, when he carried the torch at the Nagano Winter Games.

Zamperini became a prominent inspirational speaker and author of two memoirs. His story inspired Hillenbrand’s biography, which was turned into the 2014 movie, Unbroken, and its 2018 sequel, Unbroken: Path to Redemption. He died on July 2, 2014, at the age of ninety-seven.

Present suffering and future grace

The crash of Louis Zamperini’s airplane on this day seventy-seven years ago was a calamity that led to horrific torture but eventually to God’s transforming grace. His story reminds us that suffering can seldom be understood at the time. When we are in pain, it can be difficult to see the providence of God.

But one day, we will know what we do not know today.

Years after Joseph was sold into slavery, he could tell his brothers: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). He did not know when he was being enslaved and imprisoned that God was arranging to use his suffering to preserve his people and their future nation.

When Moses was a fugitive in the wilderness, he did not know that he would one day lead his people from Egypt to the Promised Land. When David was running from Saul, he did not know that he would one day establish a royal line through which the Messiah would come. When Peter denied Jesus, the fisherman did not know that he would soon preach the Pentecost sermon. When John was exiled on Patmos, he did not know that he would receive there the book of Revelation.

Paul testified: “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

You cannot see today all the ways God is using your present circumstances for eternal good. But one day, you will.