Terrence Malick, “A Hidden Life,” and the Need for Patience

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Without a doubt, we live in a busy world. Fast food restaurants are always the world’s net income leaders. Curbside pickup has eliminated the 30 minutes to an hour needed to buy food and household items for families. Amazon Prime has even changed the minds of consumers to think that anything over 2-day shipping is just too long to wait. The world is moving fast, and keeping up with it, playing by its rules, seems to be the only way to measure success and faithfulness to what work God has called us to.

What are we to do then when we read in scripture about “patience” as a spiritual gift (Galatians 5:21-23)? Or about the Lord being patient in his justice by and through his mercy (Exodus 34:6)? Why is God patient with us and calling us to wait on Him and be patient with one another?

By God’s mercy, I am learning about this by going to the movies.

On New Year’s Day 2020, I went to the movies with my family to see A Hidden Life directed by Terrence Malick. I knew little about the film and even less about the director. In the two and a half years since, I haven’t recommended or thought about a film more frequently. I fell in love with the story, and through learning about what it took to make this film, I also grew to appreciate the artist behind it.

A Hidden Life, in all its beauty and emotion, revealed my own need for patience. In learning more about Malick as a person and filmmaker and reflecting on his film which captivated me from the first watch, I realized that I needed to address my own problem with patience sooner, not later.

Waiting on the Lord and being faithful to the Lord are critical ingredients for a posture of patience.

Patience Takes Time

Crafting beautiful things takes time. Van Gogh’s Starry Night took over 12 months to paint. Donatello’s David took over three years to sculpt, the same amount of time it took Malick to edit A Hidden Life. Crafting something beautiful takes time, and time requires patience. Some of the most notable directors in Hollywood, like Christopher Nolan or Steven Spielberg, take years to produce films that can be consumed in a matter of hours. Accomplishing goals takes time and discipline. It demands patience.

Patience Requires Faithfulness

What distinguishes Malick from other directors is how he prioritizes nature and score rather than drama and dialogue. His films are filled with beautiful landscapes accompanied by equally beautiful symphonies. In Tree of Life and A Hidden Life, the regular day-to-day makes up the majority of the films’ run-time, displaying the value in what the main characters have been entrusted with each day. In The Thin Red Line, despite the intensity and depravity of the Vietnam War, the company is tasked with capturing a strategic hill in the Guadalcanal region. Although the hill is only a mere 100 or so yards away, strategy and planning is necessary, both for success and survival. Faithfulness, patience, and waiting are all key themes in some of Malick’s biggest and most popular films. From the perspective of the viewer, these three are sometimes hard to distinguish. When thinking about what it means to be patient in the world today, waiting on the Lord and being faithful to the Lord are critical ingredients for a posture of patience.

Patience Leads to Endurance

A Hidden Life is the true story of an Austrian farmer living the simple life of faithfulness in his marriage, family, community, and work. Given the ultimatum between execution for “treason” or loyalty to the Nazi Regime through military service, Franz can’t bear to serve an oppressive tyranny, even if it means disgrace to his family and community. In the nearly 3 hours of run time allotted to tell this story, Franz lives in two waiting periods, both in which patience and faithfulness are cultivated within him.

The first waiting period comes when Austria, having now been conquered by the Nazi Regime, becomes involved in World War II. As an Austrian-born male, Franz regularly participates in mandatory military training. He eventually determines it is not a matter of “if” he will be called to pledge loyalty to Hitler in the military, but “when” — and that is when his fears become realized. The pain of seeing him and his wife, Fani, receive the dreaded letter gives credence to the reality that waiting with faithfulness doesn’t always end with the intended results.

The second period of waiting is reminiscent of a man on death row. The “how long” sentiment of the lament Psalms is hardly the plea of the imprisoned in Nazi jails. Rather, the silent plea of Franz and his fellow inmates is both a hope for the end of the war and a longing to survive and see their loved ones again. Sitting with the judge who will eventually sentence him to execution, a persuasive argument is presented to Franz:

“Do you imagine that anything you do will change the course of this war? That anyone outside this court will ever hear you? No one will be changed. The world will go on as before…Do you have a right to do this?” to which Franz replies, “Do I have a right not to?”

Franz’s patience throughout the film culminates in faithfulness and justice. His story is told almost 80 years later with the goal of challenging people to be faithful in all of life, even the little, hidden moments. Romans 8:25 says, “Now if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience.” Paul in his other epistles emphasizes patience as “fruits of the Spirit”, the virtues of one who has been born again. Patience, through his mercy, is the disposition of the Lord (Ex. 34:6; Nahum 1:3). A posture of patience is important to God, and it should be on our minds as we seek to love God and neighbor with the whole of our lives in a world that forfeits patience and faithful waiting for “quick fixes” and “efficiency over sufficiency.”

How could curating a posture of faithfulness lead to conflict in my work environment? Home? Personal life? Or even church? These are the questions we can begin to ask ourselves as we seek to cultivate a life embedded and attuned to patience.

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Cameron Hayner

Cameron Hayner serves as the Marketing Assistant in the Office of Marketing and Communications at SEBTS. He also is a New City Fellow with the Center for Public Christianity in Raleigh, NC. He is a member at Imago Dei Church in North Raleigh and serves in their College Ministry.

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