“Warrior” and The Hard Road Of Forgiveness

I was introduced to the film Warrior, starting Nick Nolte and Tom Hardy, by my pastor and friend Norm Dufrin. He introduced it to me because he knew I liked fighting…but also because the film is more than just a Rocky-style fight movie. It certainly isn’t a “Christian film” in the conventional sense of the term…but it had manifestly Christian values and has, I think, much to teach about what repentance and forgiveness and grace can look like in human terms.

In very simple terms, forgiveness is hard because we’re not Christ. But forgiveness is possible at all because we’re made in His image. Without God’s common grace, there would be no forgiveness in this world, by anybody. And while Warrior was “about” MMA, it was about MMA in the same way that Friday Night Lights is just about football. Meaning, that it’s not really about MMA.

Warrior is about a broken family. They’re broken because of a not-fully-disclosed lifetime of drinking and (ostensibly) abuse that the Nick Nolte character inflicted on his children. His children were both wrestlers that he trained. They were both very successful at it. They both hate their father. They, too, are estranged from each other until they (spoiler alert) find themselves in the same mixed martial arts tournament.

The Tommy Reardon character (Hardy) is bitter and mad at his father, mad at his brother (Joel Edgerton) and mad at the world in general. He was a Marine. He left the service under dubious circumstances. Brendan (Edgerton) is a schoolteacher in Philly and moonlights as a low-rent MMA fighter. He’s about to lose his home to foreclosure. Nolte’s character is a recovering alcoholic going on 1,000 days sober. Tommy approaches his father because his father, while bad at fathering, was very good at training him for battle.

The Importance of Hanging in There (for the Offending Party)

The Nolte character is genuinely broken, and tearfully and humbly seeks the forgiveness of both of his boys. They don’t give it. But because he loves his boys…he takes it. He takes their passive-aggressive comments and their aggressive-aggressive comments. He risks the heartache of trying to reach out to them and being rebuffed. He quietly hangs around and hangs in. He wants to be near his boys. He is broken and sad, but he takes it.

The Importance of Realistic Expectations (for the Offending Party)

Tommy’s father doesn’t expect to be fully reinstated as Father and Head of the Household, the moment his sons walk back into his life. He doesn’t expect things to go back to “the way they were” right away. He acknowledges, in fact, that they will probably never go back to the way they were. He maintains hope, but he’s smart enough to not ask for the moon, because it would be insulting and inappropriate to do so.

Sometimes when we offend, and have our brokenness/redemption moment, we expect the whole world to get on board immediately. We want things to immediately go back to a pre-offense state. But this difficult dynamic is summed up well in the film by the Edgerton character when he says, “Pop, I forgive you, but I don’t trust you.”

The Importance of Being Broken (for Both Parties, but Especially the Offended Party)

For each character in the film, there is no chance of extending or receiving grace until they see the other completely broken and vulnerable. The hardened and embittered Tommy doesn’t relent, finally, until he sees his father physically broken…in the grips of a relapse. Then he finally relents and holds him…caring for him. It is one of the beautiful moments in a film that is really barbaric at times. I am not an MMA fan. I don’t love the chest-beating, Tapout-t-shirt style bravado of a fight game that happens, literally, inside a chain-link fence. It may be the ultimate hypocritical pot-calling-the-kettle-black scenario for me (as a football player and once-in-a-while boxer) to say that I find the sport base and barbaric. But I do. And yet the film works, because of the forgiveness element.

Sometimes people who have been hurt hold onto it because it gives them leverage. They feel that withholding forgiveness and hope is the only power they have. One of the humblest and Godliest things that an offended person can do is acknowledge that, in Christ, there is a shred of hope. That in Christ, all things can somehow be made new.  This is extremely hard to do.

Tommy, himself, doesn’t relent and forgive until he is physically broken in the ring, by his brother. It is only in the embrace of a submission hold, with his brother saying, “I’m sorry…and I love you,” that Tommy finally taps-out, both literally and figuratively. In that moment he gives up on being mad. He gives up on grinding the very large and in many ways legitimate axe that he had been grinding for years, vis a vis his father and brother and the unfairness of life. He gives up. He forgives.

And that’s where the movie ends. It doesn’t go into what happens tomorrow or “How often are we going to hang out?” or “What will it look like at Christmas?” It ends, simply, with a very important promise to forgive.

Ted Kluck

Ted Kluck is the author of many books, on topics ranging from Mike Tyson to the Emergent Church. Both "Why We're Not Emergen"t and "Why We Love the Church" (with Kevin DeYoung) won Christianity Today Book of the Year awards, and "Paper Tiger: One Athlete's Journey to the Underbelly of Pro Football" won a Michigan Notable Book award in 2008. His work has also appeared in ESPN the Magazine and Christianity Today. Ted has played professional indoor football, coached high school football, trained as a professional wrestler, served as a missionary, and taught writing courses at the college level. He lives in Grand Ledge, MI with his wife Kristin and sons Tristan and Maxim.