Five Spiritual Lessons I learned from The Boys in The Boat

Matt and I turned down the lights, curled up underneath a gargantuan fuzzy blanket, and settled in to watch The Boys in the Boat for the first time a few nights ago. I was so deeply moved by this movie. I do NOT endorse it, because it did have some foul moments. But I experienced profound spiritual lessons from the sport of rowing and in the storyline, and I’m longing to share them with you, if you’ll allow me:

We sit with our backs to the direction of travel

Rowers never see where they’re going. The last three years have been so hard for Matt and I, because we haven’t been able to know where God was taking us. I watched the boys in the boat give every ounce of energy they had, with their backs to the finish line. This is what it means to follow Christ: we walk by faith, not by sight.

The Spirit of Jesus is the Great Coxswain

Rowing was totally foreign to me before we hit play on this movie. I had never heard of a Coxswain, who is the coach in the boat. He fastens a megaphone to his head and shouts instructions to the eight-man rowing crew. He sets the pace and steers the boat. He is the one who sees the destination and the competition. It’s his job to get the men to the finish line. The rowers look only at him. They listen only to him. They can see nothing of what’s ahead, so they trust him completely. He is the one who pushes when the men need to be pushed and who encourages when they need to be encouraged. When I watched the rowing team win the Olympics in Berlin by a hair, I thought long about whether the victory was earned by the eight incredibly strong men who pulled on oars or whether it was the Coxswain who made it happen. The team had physical ability to move the boat through the water, but the Coxswain’s hard tapping of rhythm against the boat and masterful coaching was intensely a part of how they won the race. I will never again think of God’s Spirit within me without seeing that Coxswain.

God will ask us to go harder and longer than seems humanly possible

For the first time in my life, I thought about getting a tattoo after watching The Boys in the Boat. I won’t do it (although it might be worth the shocked look on my children’s faces), but if I were going to it would be “46.” The Coxswain sets the pace, and in the early races, we were amazed when he pushed the rowing team to row 35 times per minutes. But in the Olympic race in Berlin, with one teammate flagging from pneumonia, the Coxswain pushed the team to row 46 times per minute. I’m overwhelmed even now as I write this, because over the last three years, it has felt like Jesus has relentlessly asked Matt and I to row at a 46. The difficulty and pace has not let up. It has been one hard trial after another, rowing a 46 and all while sitting with our backs to the direction we’re going. Oswald Chambers, in If You Will Ask, says that we can stand a bigger revelation of God than we think we can. We can row harder and faster than we can imagine. Don’t ever make the mistake of listening to the people who say, “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Ha. The skilled Coxswain will ask us to go far beyond what we think we can do.

We are part of a team

Those young men who won the Olympics came from a poor school. They were living in the Great Depression. They didn’t grow up in the Ivy League schools, where the teams were made up of men who had grown up with an oar in their hands. The boys from Washington brought nothing but grit. This image of the church of Christ is beautiful: a boat full of people who are desperate to be on a team, have nothing to offer, and learn how to row in perfect unity in order to go anywhere. Every man in the boat has a unique job, and every man doing that job well matters to the overall success of the team. You matter. If you drop an oar, your whole church is going to feel it.  

We are living for a great purpose

Hitler watched those boat races. His team was on the water. It was his team that lost by a split-second difference to the Americans. It was painful to watch that race, which happened in 1936, knowing the terror Hitler would wreak only a few years later. That race was an important victory, with an evil dictator looking on. Why pull a 46 again, again, again, again? Why keep going? Because we’re in a great race that matters to the whole world­­–a race that matters for eternity. We must persevere. We cannot give up.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the Great Coxswain.

Let him set the pace.

Let him steer the boat.

Let him call out the instructions.

Eyes forward.

Keep rowing.


  1. Donna Hannah says:

    This is an occasion where the book is better than the movie…although the movie was good. I don’t remember anything impure in the book which reveals much more about the lead character’s life. How he grew up in extreme proverty I’m the North East lumber camps with an emotionally abusive father, a step-mom who didn’t have a second thought for him, then abandonment in his early teens where he learned to survive on his own. He did have a good male role-model. The farmer that employed him to dig up stumps on his property. The miss by Hollywood was that they didn’t develop the characters more deeply. Few on that boot were from privilege. Being on that team was, for some, the only way to stay in school and out of property. Sadly, there are few young people these days that would work that hard to survive, rather becoming dependent on the government for a “ride”. Hollywood could have done an even greater service to those men in the credits at the end of the film, telling a 10 second history on what each did after they graduated, their life accomplishments etc. I believe almost all served during WWII. It is worth it to read the book, then read Christy Fitzwater’s comments again.

  2. I read this book with my boys when they were younger. It was so inspiring! I hope the movie does the book justice.

  3. Lindsey Norman says:

    Wow. I have never heard of this movie, It always amazes me how God can use all things to point to His goodness and glory, even the most unassuming movies. Thank you for sharing this perspective. My greatest takeaway: I fix my eyes on Jesus not on the future. I listen to his voice, trust in his direction, and keep at his pace. Thank you so much for sharing.

  4. Wow. This was so good I hardly know what to say, but I didn’t want to say nothing! I just want to re-read it a few times and let it sink in, and then maybe watch the movie once it’s available in a medium that allows me to mute and/or fast forward! Thank you for writing, Christy. And especially thank you for writing *before* you have a rosy “victory” story to share.

    1. You might try reading the book. Maybe it doesn’t have the Hollywood impurities.

  5. What a beautiful post, Christie! I have never read the book or seen the movie, but I am putting it on my list now. The connections you make to our Christian walk will take hold more strongly in my brain if I share the images that so impacted you. Thank you for providing yet another way for us to understand our journey in this world with Jesus as Lord.

    1. You might want to try reading the book, which hopefully wouldn’t have the Hollywood impurities.

      1. Thank you so much for sharing this Christy ! This is just the encouragement I’m needing. As I just now finished reading your post, the excitement I’m feeling inside, not only resonates from this exciting true story that happened decades ago, but also in how this story relates to our walks in this life with our Father God as our ultimate guide. I am so very inspired by this powerful analogy you presented. I pray to keep this visualization to my memory to keep on pushing ahead in the comfort of trusting God.

        1. I’m glad if you were encouraged. Thank you for taking time to write me a note.

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