When Faithfulness Feels Barren

Recently, I read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.  It is well worth reading, but it's far from being a comfortable read.  Its vivid descriptions of wartime atrocities bring home the incredible depravity of man, and left me asking a lot of How can this ever even happen? questions.  There are familiar stories of how Christians have responded to these appalling situations -- the famous story of Corrie Ten Boom, for instance, or the bold cunning of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or the faithful work of others who risked themselves to preserve the lives of others.

Photo by Mikael Kristenson
But in Unbroken, another kind of hero emerged and has been occupying my thoughts lately.  Kawamura, a guard on the island where Louie Zamperini was first held after being captured by the Japanese, was a Christian and went out of his way to be kind to the prisoners, protecting them as much as he could from the brutality of another guard and generally treating them like human beings.

The prisoners understood almost nothing of what Kawamura said, but his goodwill needed no translation.  Kawamura could do nothing to improve the physical conditions in which the captives lived, but his kindness was lifesaving.

Yukichi Kano, a private who worked as a translator in a POW camp, is also held up as a hero.  He did everything in his power to protect the prisoners, trying to find the sick ones easy work so that their rations wouldn't be cut, showing kindness to a prisoner who was being punished, and eventually helping to restructure the camp to run in a more humane way.  After the war, many former prisoners of war mentioned him and spoke warmly of his kindness to them at such great risk to himself.

The stories of these two men have been making me think about what it means to be salt and light in a fallen world.  Neither of these men staged protests or refused to come to work, even though they were surrounded by conditions of incredible, animal brutality.  They didn't break the prisoners out or assassinate those higher up in the chain of command.

But the words his kindness was lifesaving are no exaggeration.  Throughout Unbroken, it's clear that while the physical abuse and deprivation of the prisoners was a life-threatening issue, the hostility that stripped their dignity in every way possible was just as dangerous.  And so I found myself wondering, What if Kawamura and Kano hadn't been there?  What would have happened to the POWs who they showed kindness to?  Quite probably, even more would have died.  Their decision to faithfully, self-sacrificially be kind saved lives.  They had no guarantee that it would end well for them.  They didn't know if any of the prisoners would survive.  Their faithful kindness must have felt like a barren wasteland of a decision, pointless and fruitless.

The well known quote All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing carries a lot of truth, but this book was a good reminder that doing something is not always dramatic and does not always involve overturning the entire system of evil.  Sometimes it looks like the quiet rebellion of slipping candy to prisoners or providing a blanket.  Sometimes it goes unsung for decades.  But small acts of faithfulness in the trenches of life are always life-giving, and have the potential to touch far more lives than we dare to dream.  The small, boring, apparently barren faithfulnesses are where evil is defeated and Christ's kingdom is pushed forward into the deep brokenness of the world.  From such faithfulness, God brings great fruit and is greatly glorified.


  1. Thank you. I am often struck by how valuable (and under-rated) kindness is, a lesson I first learned from the kindly elderly gentleman in Indiana who did not speak English but sometimes helped me load the double stroller onto the bus. I have prayed many times over the years that he has heard and responded to the good news of Jesus.

  2. Ha! I'm glad you remember him. How fun that we have different names for him: I've always called him The Kindly Old Gentleman.


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