I didn't know a lot about Mandela before watching Invictus. Admittedly, the movie is one-sided. It focuses exclusively on his efforts to reconcile the races in post-apartheid South Africa and his contributions to human rights. There is controversy, of course, about his criticism of US foreign policy and his early activities while leader of the armed wing of the African National Congress. But his conciliatory tone during his five years as leader of a nation torn by years of racial strife is inspiring. He admirably illustrates Romans 12:21 - "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
The movie points out that while Mandela was in prison, the poem "Invictus" was his inspiration. Written from a hospital bed by William Ernest Henley, English poet of the 19th century, "Invictus" eulogizes man's "unconquerable soul." It ends with these well-known words,
I am the master of my fate:Umm, no. Not true. One of the most basic truths of human existence is that there is a God, and we are not him.
I am the captain of my soul.
Henley wrote his poem from a God-less worldview. In the first stanza, he thanks "whatever gods may be" for his perseverance through suffering. He goes on to boast that his head is "bloody, but unbowed." And most stoutly, in the third stanza he writes,
Beyond this place of wrath and tearsThat is an extraordinary boast for a man who at age 12 developed tuberculosis of the bone. If his poem accurately reflects the state of his heart, Henley should have spent less time praising the human spirit and more time fearing the one "who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him" (Luke 12:5, NIV).
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
Henley's poem may have inspired great deeds of victory for Mandela and the Springboks, but it is a lie that will lead to spiritual defeat.
The Bible says to boast in nothing but Christ (Galatians 6:14). Every beat of our hearts is a gift of God's grace. He alone is sovereign. To be sure you will be safe on Judgment Day, you must enter the "strait gate" that Henley talks about in his poem - the one that Jesus offers in the gospel (Matthew 7:13). That gate is Jesus himself, who took our place on the cross because of "how charged with punishments [is] the scroll" of our lives.
If you are trusting in Jesus, who winced and cried aloud under the bludgeonings of the cross, and whose head was bloody but unbowed, then you can face death with courage. Until then, be willing to be conquered by the grace and mercy of Christ.