Louis Zamperini: Every Hero Has a Story

I ran into former Olympic track runner and World War II prisoner of war (POW) survivor Louis Zamperini in the bargain bin—his book was going for $5. “An extraordinary true story of courage and survival”, said the book cover. A review by Vanity Fair magazine called it “One of the most remarkable survival tales ever recorded. Do yourself a favor and buy the book”. So I did—I bought Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken. Besides, I love a good story on courage and hope.

Hillenbrand’s book chronicles the life of Zamperini—his early years as an unrepentant teenage ratbag; his time as a track star and as a young lieutenant serving in the Pacific; his imprisonment and torture at a Japanese POW camp; and how he emerged victorious from it all. The man was so inspiring that late last year, actress and director Angelina Jolie made a movie on Zamperini’s life. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association filmed a video on Zamperini’s testimony of how God found him in a hot, stuffy tent, at one of Billy Graham’s evangelistic meetings that he had reluctantly agreed to attend with wife Cynthia. What a man!

It is easy to skip through Zamperini’s brokenness, gloss over all the hardships he endured—the endless torture under enemy hands, his dreams haunted by former Japanese camp commander Mutsuhiro Watanabe, also known as Bird—skim through his gambling and alcohol addictions, and just focus on Zamperini the hero. Zamperini, the redeemed man who sought out his Japanese captors and forgave them. Zamperini, who went on to establish a camp for wayward teenagers. Yes, we all love Zamperini the hero.

But what I loved most about Zamperini’s story was how Jesus met him at his lowest—when he was a broken mess, a nothing, an alcoholic about to lose his marriage—but still used him. Zamperini was a big fat zero, but Jesus turned him into a hero.

Heroes are moulded in the most fiery and trying of circumstances. They possess the fortitude to press on despite overwhelming challenges, and are admired for it.

Instrumental to Zamperini’s conversion was Graham, who probably felt like anything but a successful evangelist when he spent the first few weeks preaching to a half-empty tent. In Unbroken, Graham is described as having preached “for many hours a day, seven days a week, he preached to vast throngs . . . Graham’s weight was dropping, and dark semicircles shadowed his eyes”. Yet he pushed on, because the “success of it made him sure that Providence had other wishes”. The result? Zamperini was one of the many whose lives he touched.

Every hero has a story. And God has an impressive, unbroken record of turning nobodies into Very Important People. The Bible is full of heroes who started out as nobodies. David was a humble shepherd, Gideon was found hiding in a winepress, and Joseph was sold into slavery.

Maybe your life is hardly looking like that of a superhero. Instead of living in a mansion with a dedicated butler and cruising in a Batmobile, you’re in a cramped one-bedroom apartment, with a bank balance that has seen better days, and overwhelmed by the idea of life. Hardly hero material.

But just like the Zamperinis and the Grahams and the Bible greats, you have God. Life can be difficult, but He can make you victorious, more than a conqueror, an overcomer. You’re precious, you’re redeemed, and you’re loved by Him.

Because of God, you can achieve beyond your wildest imagination. Give your life to Him, and trust and obey His word. Be the hero that God wants you to be.

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