The entire Rocky franchise is, in my opinion, one of the best collections ever made. The characters, the perpetual under-dog story, the raw nature of the boxing scenes, the constant soul-searching that the characters engage in…all of these things and more have endeared me to these movies like few other films.
In the first movie, “Rocky”, there is a scene, and a statement within that scene that captures so much of who we are that it’s frightening. The night before his fight with Apollo Creed, Rocky visits the empty arena which has been set up and decorated with huge banners with the two fighters visages on them. Rocky walks around the ring and gazes out pensively over the sea of empty seats. He exchanges words with a janitor and then the scene cuts to the tiny apartment he shares with Adrian. It is the conversation that he has with Adrian in that little dumpy apartment that pushes this film from the category of entertainment into the realm of philosophy and theology.
Balboa knows that he can’t beat Creed. He knows that they are light years away from each other in skill, experience, and talent. He is under no delusions about the ultimate outcome of the fight, and as he meanders through his own thoughts out loud, based on Adrian’s questions, the issue that is actually being dealt with comes out.
Adrian: “You worked so hard”
Rocky: “Yeah, it don’t matter, cause I was nobody before.”
Adrian: “Don’t say that.”
Rocky: “C’mon Adrian, it’s true. I was nobody. But that don’t matter either, you know. ‘Cause I was thinking, it really don’t matter if I lose this fight…it really don’t matter if this gut opens my head either…’cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed. And if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standing, then I’ll know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood”
There is so much truth in this that it’s difficult to absorb fully. So much of who we are is wrapped up in his words that we we are apt to miss it. At the end of everything we aren’t necessarily looking for victory in the classic definition of the word. The contests and skirmishes that we all face everyday are important more for the context that they offer us than for their own value. It is what these “fights” reveal about who we are that becomes the most important thing about them, and what many of them reveal, on a rudimentary level, is that we have a deep desire to know that we are “not just another bum from the neighborhood”. We long to know that we are loved individually; that we matter not just as a member of the human race, but as a unique person. We are hard wired to search for meaning and purpose in our lives, and as best I can tell, meaning and purpose are not defined by what we do, but by who we are. And who we are is the question of identity that Rocky asks and that ask every day. Who am I? What does my life mean?
There is a famous exchange in the early part of Moses’ story that seems to relate here. The scene takes place at the burning bush, God and Moses have a conversation in which God enlists Moses to deliver the people of Israel from the control and slavery of Pharaoh. Moses has had a checkered past in Egypt. He left the place under less-than-ideal circumstances, and he isn’t too thrilled about the prospect of returning. God’s call, though, is clear, He wants Moses to go and rescue the entire Hebrew nation. At one point in the exchange Moses questions his own identity:
Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”
(Exodus 3:10-12 ESV)
Moses’ statement amounts to this, “who am I?” There is much behind this question. He was a kid abandoned by his family initially, then given back to his family by his family’s oppressors. He was raised in a house, palace, surrounded by people who were different than him. When he finally did something that warranted his own people’s praise and acceptance he was drummed out of town for it. His only solace was found in a country where no one had ever heard of him, and more than that his daily occupation was to spend long hours by himself with crowds of animals. If I may use the tagline from the Rocky franchise to describe Moses: “his whole life was a million-to-one shot”.
Moses’ life was not the charmed, sensible pathway of a prince and it wasn’t the hard, choice-less road of a slave. He was somewhere in between, he had freedom but not the kind of freedom he wanted. He had choices he could make, but rarely were they the choices that got him what he really wanted in life. So now, God comes along and offers him a chance to do something great, something really great, a world changing, life defining mission and Moses’ first question is not an enthusiastic, “where do I sign up?”, but a cautious and guarded, “why are You looking at me?”
God’s answer to Moses, in light of all the questions and the checkerboard past and, quite frankly, the audacity to question God Himself…His answer was NOT, “you’re special Mo’, that’s why I picked you out…you bring a lot to the table, you’ve got experience being both a Hebrew and an Egyptian, you understand how to get things done when everything’s on the line, etc…”. No, God’s answer to Moses’ identity crisis was different. When Moses asked, “who am I?”, God said, “I am with you.” This is either a bizarre grammatical dodge, or the only answer that could possibly make sense.
God swished His hand at all of the coddling and affirmation and self-esteem builders that we are so apt to think important and He told Moses that he was important for the job because God told him to go. God wraps all of Moses’ worth and value, not in his talent, ability, and preparation (which were present), but in the fact that he had an encounter with the eternal, living God of creation.
We long for meaning and worth and to know that we aren’t just another bum. We want to believe that we were built for so much more than what we feel we are. We long for these things and ask these questions because God has put them in our heart to ask:
I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
(Ecclesiastes 3:10-11 ESV)
God built in us the desire to seek and search for something beyond ourselves. This is why power, position, wealth, acclaim, control, and renown are such powerful motivators. We are seeking for those things that fill the eternal hole in our heart. But God has so designed it so that we are only able to fill that void with Him. Our identity will only be satisfactorily defined when we stop trying to define it for ourselves and we surrender our lives over to God. Only then will we know that even if we are just a bum from the neighborhood, we aren’t just any bum, but one that God loves and has created uniquely.
It’s interesting that at the end of the fight, after Rocky does indeed “go the distance” with Creed, the only thing that matters to the fighter isn’t a rematch for the title, it isn’t even really the acclaim that will certainly accompany his incredible display of “heart” and perseverance. The one thing, in that moment, that is weighing heavy on Rocky’s mind and heart is Adrian. Immediately after the fight the reporters start to shove their microphones into his bruised and bloodied face and they are peppering him with questions about how he feels he did and if he’s going to pursue a rematch and he ignores every question and begins to shout Adrian’s name. Where is the one he loves? At the end of it all the fight, the championship, “going the distance”, all of it pales in comparison to embracing the object of his affection. Though cliche’: love conquers all.
Love, in the end, is what we are all fighting for. We look at our opponents and we give everything we’ve got but not because of who they are, we do it because of who we are, and because of what we pray awaits on the other side. We fight because we love those things we are fighting for. Chesterton said it best:
The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.
– CK Chesterton
Was it not Jesus on the cross who emulated this most beautifully? He didn’t go to the cross, give His life, and pay the ultimate price because He hated something, Hebrews tells us that it was for the “joy set before Him that He endured the cross”.
In the end, our desperate, ingrained need for purpose, for worth, and for value, is inextricably connected to the most elaborate and grandiose display of affection ever offered, the cross of Christ. I know that I’m not just another bum from the neighborhood, not because I am good at something or because I’m tough, I know because in my worst moment the most valuable Being in the universe saw me as worth enough to die for. Just like God told Moses, it is His presence and His call to us that defines our value. This means that no matter who we are or how badly we’ve ruined our lives or what our past tries to accuse us of, none of those things have anything to do with who we are, only God’s love for us does. Even if we didn’t go the distance, He did.
I encourage you to watch Rocky sometime soon, and don’t let the power of what’s being said be lost in the movie, but let it echo in your heart.