Sometimes our life experiences turn out to be more amusing than any joke, and the military gives us plenty of material to laugh about. Just as we think we understand the system, something happens to make us realize how ridiculous we look.
In the late 1960s I had the opportunity to serve with the Royal Marines in England. While I was there I went through their commando course in Lympstone. After I graduated, I was sent to the Ministry of Defense (similar to our Department of Defense) to find out the details of my next assignment. It was an old musty-dusty building with old musty-dusty people in it.
After roaming several hallways, I found the office. Entering through the creaky doorway, I observed a rather senior colonel hunched over his desk. Hoping I hadn’t interrupted his afternoon nap, I walked a bit closer and proceeded to introduce myself. “Good afternoon, sir, I’m Major Hemingway…”
“Yes,” he muttered, as if expecting me.
“…and I’m here to find out about my next assignment.”
As I stood there waiting for a response, he slowly looked up and answered matter-of-factly in his stodgy British accent, “Actually, you’re going to be the Operations Officer for the Third Commando Brigade in Singapore.”
(Man, I thought, that sure sounds like fun! I’ve never been to Singapore, and here they are paying me to go there.)
Before I continue, let me explain that their system of doing things is very different than the way we handle administration in our military. We have a tremendous amount of paperwork. If we haven’t got 43 copies of it, nobody can take any action. Just to go to a six-weeks course you’ll need an inch or so of paperwork. And if it’s a longer course you’re headed for, say several months, you’ll need at least three inches worth of papers. Well, their system is very different, as I was about to find out.
I waited for him to continue…but he didn’t, seeming to feel he’d answered my question completely. “Well, sir,” I responded, “That sounds great. Can you tell me a little more about it?”
“Yes, Major Hemingway. You’ll be catching the 1650 flight out of the Royal Air Force Base at Lineham on the 17th of January, then report to Singapore as the Operations Officer of the Third Commando Brigade. Major General Whitely is the brigadier there, and you will work for him.”
“That sounds like a great assignment, sir! When will I get my orders?” The musty old guy slowly looked up at me, rather puzzled, and said, “You just got them.” “No, sir, I-I really-I meant the written orders.”
“Oh,” he said. “Would you like for me to write them down for you? I’d be happy to. Let’s see…the 1650 flight out of…” (all of this time implying, you idiot.) Now, if I’d had any sense at all, I would have quit right there. I would have said, “Yes, sir, I’ll be there.” But I didn’t. Not me, no way. Being a good Marine infantryman, I plowed right in with both feet.
“No sir, I mean the sort of printed orders that we have all the time…” “Yes,” he muttered, “that always puzzled me about you Americans. You know you’re going. They know you’re coming. What is it you do with these ‘orders’?”
At that point, I was hard pressed for an answer and getting in deeper with each response. Not to be deterred, I continued vigorously digging my hole. “Well, sir, we verify our travel claim. That’s why we have them.” (In our system you can fill out all the paperwork in the world, but until you put in copies of those orders, you aren’t going to get a penny of your travel money.)
Now he was positively sure I was an idiot. “That puzzles me even more,” he replied. Slowing down his words, he continued. “You are here. You arrive there. And you will have traveled from here to there! It’s rather obvious.”
Realizing I’d do best to end the conversation at this point, I had to laugh. I knew I’d been licked. The old codger had gotten the best of me. “Sir, I’ll be there. I’ll catch the airplane. You don’t need to tell me anymore. I’m going to go. I really am. And I’ll go peacefully.”
As I wandered back down the hall, I could almost hear him thinking, “Strange, these Americans. How in the world do they manage at all?”
I’ve had some wonderful and some not-so-wonderful experiences in the military, but it’s the place God called me to serve. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the finest men I’ve ever met, and along the way the Lord has taught me much about Himself.
Recently, I was on a panel at a college answering questions about the war in Viet Nam. I served two tours over there, one as an advisor to the South Vietnamese Marines, and one with the U.S. Marines. On this particular evening, I’d been invited to a forum to discuss the war. In the course of the evening, one of the students directed a question to me. “What was the toughest part of your experience in the war?”
I answered the question as honestly as I could. For me, the toughest part of the war in Viet Nam was coming home. And the reason was that when I came home, I was treated like some sort of dog. Of course, my wife was supportive of me and had been all along. My family was tremendously supportive of me because my dad was a Marine and my brother was a Marine. All of us were involved, so there was a great deal of understanding and honor within my family.
But when I got out into the civilian community, and particularly into the churches, I was treated like I had bubonic plague or some other dreaded disease. In so many places we heard cruel anti-military rhetoric, and that was tough. I’d gone over there and done the best I knew how and tried to do my duty. When I came home, it was a real struggle to be treated like a criminal.
Now I knew that the Lord had called me into the military. When I was in high school and a new Christian, I had searched the Scriptures to prove to my dad that a Christian couldn’t be in the military. In the end, I had to apologize to him because throughout the Scriptures there are wonderful examples of soldiers who are commended as models to follow.
So there I was, freshly home from the war and dealing with the rhetoric of hate and disgust. I began to ask myself, and to ask the Lord, “What is this all about? Why in the world have you called me specifically into a ministry of serving in the military?” I would have loved to do something else. I could have coached football, or been a Wycliffe Bible translator, or headed off to the mission field. Why did I find myself in the military?
As I asked, and as the Lord answered, there were some things he told me that were a huge encouragement to me. And I hope they will be to you too. He began to show me similarities between the walk of a Christian and the work of a soldier–things that are common to both.
In Timothy we find these words. “Timothy, endure hardship as a good soldier. For no man that goes to war entangles himself with the affairs of this life that he may please him who’s chosen him to be a soldier” (1 Timothy 2:3).
What do we think that’s all about? Paul says to Timothy, “I want you to be like a good soldier.” Note he didn’t say like a good plumber. He could have chosen the example of a good plumber or mason or farmer or anything, but he chose a soldier. There it was again. He chose the soldier not as something to be looked down upon, but as someone to be a role model for Christian development. And whether or not we like that example, it’s true.
To those young folks who have set their sights on serving in the military, or are contemplating that option, I would encourage you that there are some great similarities between those things that are expected of a soldier and those things that are demanded of a disciple.
Paul continues, (paraphrased) Don’t get yourself tangled up in the affairs of this life. Don’t get weighed down by the things and the relationships that are involved in this life, or you’re going to get yourself in the mess where you can’t do the things God has called you to do, and you’re not going to please Him.
To those young folks who have set their sights on serving in the military, or are contemplating that option, I would encourage you that there are some great similarities between those things that are expected of a soldier and those things that are demanded of a disciple.
One of the things I enjoyed most about my time in the service was the tremendous sense of what simplicity was about. I was in the infantry–a professional pedestrian–and the most expensive thing they let me have was an entrenching tool. I had to sign about six pieces of paper to get that, and even then, there were four guys checking to make sure I turned it in!
When I was in Viet Nam and I first started working with long-range reconnaissance units, we got resupplied every twelve days. When you take your backpack, food, and gear and add a couple of batteries, a few grenades, bits of ammunition, a weapon and other odds and ends, it gets a lot heavier than you’d like it to be. Pretty soon we had one simple rule: “If in doubt, leave it out.” If there was any hope of getting by without that thing, we didn’t take it. We pared down to the bare essentials very quickly.
My basic rule was that if we went to the field for five days or less, I didn’t even take a backpack. I carried everything in my pockets. If we went for two or three days, that’s really all you’d need. You’d carry things in your pockets, and your food would be tied around you in a little cloth carrier. It looked like the camouflage version of the bandana on a pole as depicted in cartoons of little kids running away from home.
This simplicity was imperative for an infantryman because if you’re loaded down with too much gear, you don’t move very well or very fast. And that’s what an infantryman is called to do. An infantryman that can’t move is useless, absolutely useless.
It reminds me of the story of the soldier going through tank school out at Fort Knox. The curriculum was divided up into understanding three main parts of the tank: the drive train systems, the radio operations system, and the gunnery operations system.
Each time this soldier went to a different class, the instructor told the students that his particular tank function was the most important. The drive train systems instructor told them, “In this vehicle, the engine is by far the most important element; if you don’t keep up the engine and the drive train, this thing is useless. All you’ve got then is a big iron pillbox to sit in!”
Next the soldier goes to the class on radio operations. “Men, I’m here to tell you that the radio is the most important part of this machine. It’s where command and control take place, and without it you can’t communicate and coordinate attacks with other weapons. Yes, sir, the radio is the most crucial part of this machine.”
Finally, the student-soldier gets to the gunnery operations class. Without skipping a beat the gravel-voiced instructor barks, “You’ve heard those other guys telling about this machine, but the guns are absolutely the most important part of the tank. You can protect yourself if the other parts break down, but if you don’t have these guns working on the front of this thing, all you ‘got for yourself is a big honkin’ 62-ton portable radio moving along the ground!”
Anyway, when you view our role in the military, and we understand what God is calling us to be, when I talk about the infantry–the whole point of what I’m trying to say is there is a real value in this whole concept of simplifying your life.
When I think of that example of “no man that goes to war entangles himself in the affairs of this life,” I also think of Moses standing up in front of his group of folks and saying to them, “I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is the Egyptians are turning us loose and we can take everything we want. The bad news is that there won’t be a Greyhound bus. You’re going to have to carry it out there on your back for about forty years. And if there’s anything you’d like to carry for forty years, you’re welcome to it.
(Of course, they didn’t know they were going to be there for forty years. It was one of the world’s worst compass marches. I don’t know who was navigating that outfit, but he certainly wasn’t a Marine!)
The point is, have you ever sat down and asked yourself, “What do I need? What are the things that I really need in this life?” When I look around, the biggest problem I see is that most people don’t have any idea what they need and what they want, and what the difference is between the two.
If I was going to a new duty station and said to my wife, “What do you need?” she might say, “I need a washer and a dryer for the laundry.” But if I said, “We’re going to have to carry those on our backs,” I’m sure that would quickly move from the “need” list to the “want” list.
As a Christian, have you really thought that through? What do you really need? We all get ourselves tangled up with the affairs of this life, don’t we? We have to have such and such a sound system with the latest speakers. We need to have a car with all the bells and whistles. We need to have a bigger house, even though we can’t afford it. Or a credit card with a high limit. There’s a real tendency for all of us to get carried away with things that we want–and think they’re things we need.
I’m not for a moment going to tell you what you need. That’s something each of us must work out with the Lord. God is gracious to us, and He does indeed delight in giving His children presents. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. The difference is, what are you a good steward of, and what owns you? Are you being a good steward of what God’s given you? Great! But do you own anything you couldn’t walk away from?
Before I went to Viet Nam the first time, I was sent down to Ft. Benning, Georgia to go to jump school, a three-week course in how to parachute out of a plane. You do a lot of training before you ever see a plane, but when that plane arrives, you don’t ask questions. You get in, gain altitude, and listen for your instructor’s voice. Once the door’s open, it’s stand up, hook-up, shuffle to the door, stand in the door, and go. No questions asked.
When do you make that decision to jump out of a perfectly good airplane? Is it over the drop zone when you shuffle to the door? No, you make that decision when you board the airplane. After that, you’re on autopilot. The decision’s been made.
As a Christian, I need to make up my mind about some things in advance. And one of them is to lead a life of simplicity. The first major characteristic of a good soldier that is absolutely, totally transferable to the Christian is that he leads a life of simplicity. Not simplemindedness, simplicity. He’s made up his mind in advance to deal with things in exactly the pattern that Timothy was admonished to do. Don’t get tangled up in the world.
If I see something in my life that I can’t visualize giving away, I need to give it away that day because it’s already begun to own me. There’s nothing you own that is worth having it own you–nothing–because you’ll cease to be useful from God’s perspective on that day. As a soldier, and as a Christian, I want to live a life that’s unencumbered and unentangled. I want to be willing to hold what I own loosely.
As a young bachelor, I was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I was a company commander as a First Lieutenant down there in the Second Marine Regiment. In those days, a private drew $68.21 a month, before taxes. One of the exercises in simplicity that I used to enjoy greatly was to sit down and look through my rifle company and find the kid who made the least amount of money. It was usually some kid from West Virginia or from the Bronx who had a couple of courts martial, was busted to private, and had several fines to pay for one thing or another. By the time he got his paycheck, it came to about $40.00. Even back then, $40 was a very meager amount to try to live on.
So here I was, a young lieutenant at Camp Lejeune, and I decided as a way of simplicity, I’d live on the same amount as my lowest paid Marine. I used to live on $40 a month and give the rest away. I knew a number of missionaries I could support doing that, and it was my joy at the end of every month to sit down and see where that money was able to go. I made about $500 a month in those days, and to be able to live on what the poorest man in my unit lived on was a good exercise, literally. I didn’t own a car. I ran to work about five or six miles, or I rode a bicycle.
When the troops in my unit said, “Boy, we’re really hurting for money,” I knew exactly what they meant. I didn’t have any trouble empathizing with their situation. It was a struggle to get by on that amount of money, and on that budget I certainly didn’t have much of a social life! But it did give me a lot of time to pray for those kids and to get to know them. For that season, it was a wonderful and joyous exercise in living simply, and God blessed it.
As we think about where we are in life, no matter what God’s called us to, we need to keep in mind the simplicity of a soldier’s life. We want to be unencumbered and free to serve the Lord wherever He has us. It can play out in myriads of ways, but the principle remains the same.
The next similarity between the passage in Timothy and the life of a soldier is that a soldier learns very quickly the concept of authority. In Luke 7 there is a story of an encounter between a soldier, a centurion, and Jesus.
And a certain centurion’s slave, who was highly regarded by him, was sick and about to die. And when he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders asking Him to come and save the life of his slave. And when they had come to Jesus, they earnestly entreated Him, saying, “He is worthy for You to grant this to him; for he loves our nation, and it was he who built us our synagogue.”
Now Jesus started on His way with them; and when He was already not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof; for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I, too, am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.”
Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude that was following Him, “I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith.” And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health (Luke 7:2-10).
A centurion is hard to equate with anything in our system. We don’t know whether he was a senior non-commissioned officer or something up to the rank of captain. He reminds me somewhat of the Regimental Sergeant Major in the Royal Marines who outranked everybody I ever ran into. He’d been around a long time and knew more than most of the officers. He was tough as nails and made us all feel like schoolboys. I was a major over there and I never crossed him because I don’t think I had enough gear to handle the repercussions!
But the centurion was a guy in charge of a hundred people. He had a very sick servant, and had heard about this Jesus, a man of God who could heal. So the centurion dispatched several Jewish elders to find Jesus to ask Him to come and heal this beloved servant.
As the elders arrived to speak with Jesus, they began to tell him about the centurion, saying, He is worthy for You to grant this to him; for he loves our nation, and it was he who built us our synagogue (Luke 7:5).
Now this centurion was part of an occupation army. Most of these troops were not popular guys! They’re not the kind of out-of-towners that people run around trying to get to know more personally. But he had helped the locals build a synagogue, and he was well thought of by them. So we can see he must have been a pretty decent sort. And Jesus had compassion on him and responded.
As he was on his way to the centurion’s house, another party was dispatched to him, and they brought a message from their master. The centurion had said,
Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof; for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I, too, am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, “Go!” and he goes; and to another, “Come!” and he comes; and to my slave, “Do this!” and he does it (Luke 7:7-8).
This man understood authority. Let me emphasize how we can tell he understood authority. If the Scriptures had recorded that he said, “Well, I am a man with authority,” we might be seeing him in a different light. But he doesn’t say that. He says, “I am a man under authority.” And that tells us he knows what that’s all about.
The truth of the Christian life, or for any system that operates with authority, is that you only have authority when you’re under authority. The moment you step out from under authority, you no longer have authority.
Today I see young people in our society who are struggling and working so hard to get out from under authority. We have kids all the time that come through the Marine Corps, and from time to time I used to ask them, “How did you get in the Marine Corps?”
More than once I’ve had a kid look at me with a straight face and say, “Well, sir, I got sick and tired of people telling me what to do at home, so I joined the Marines.” Now that’s a novel approach.
In our Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) we have it spelled out in depth for us. And we ought to be grateful that we have a system that in some ways, believe it or not, mirrors godly and biblical principles.
Under the UCMJ, what do you get in trouble for if you don’t do what you’re told? “Disobedience to a lawful order” is the charge brought against you. Do we hear that world “lawful”? In the investigation process, one of the elements of proof is that the order you disobeyed must be a lawful order. If the man who gave it to you was out from underneath authority and exceeded what the law allowed him to do, then there are no grounds for a charge against you. He can only order you to do what he’s authorized by those above him.
We need to be grateful for the way the system works. It’s a good illustration of a worldly system of law within the military that parallels the godly principle: you only have authority when you’re under authority.
When I went through basic training years ago, I had a drill instructor, a guy from Biloxi, Mississippi. His name was Staff Sergeant Wright. He wasn’t the friendliest man I’ve even known, He certainly was a good man, but “friendly” would not be the word I’d use to describe him. I learned a lot about the meaning of authority one hot summer day as we were training out in the field.
There were about fifteen of us in the group, and we’d been joined by the usual inhabitants of that area: sand fleas, gnats, ants, and the like. At that point we’d been on our feet for about five or six hours, and SSgt. Wright said in his slow southern drawl, “When I blow this whistle, I want you to simulate that you’re supposed to hit the ground and don’t move!”
Well, I was so tired, that was music to my ears. I was so ready to get off of my feet and relax a little, so hitting the ground sounded wonderful. I could hardly wait for that signal.
About ten minutes later we were out there tromping along, and I heard the whistle blow. We hit the deck, and hallelujah! For six hours we’d been moving and hiking, and now we’d finally stopped. The order was “Don’t move!” and I was so ready not to move. This was a welcome relief for a while. But as the afternoon wore on, I developed a problem. There happened to be a small sand flea that was attempting to tunnel from my right ear into the left, through the vacuum in the center of my head. He was buzzing and biting, tunneling and boring, and buzzing some more. It began to sound and feel like a jackhammer right there inside my ear, not to mention the growing itch he was causing.
It wasn’t long before being still on the ground ceased to seem like such a grand idea. As the buzzing continued, I could barely keep my hand from reaching up and ending this excavation process. But the order was, “Don’t move!”
So I’m lying there on the ground remembering those orders, and I think to myself, “If I move slowly, imperceptibly, I can eventually get to this thing and end the misery without being noticed.” Boy did it itch! Slowly, I relaxed the grip on my rifle and began my invisible mission–I was sure even time-lapse photography couldn’t have caught me I was taking so long. Ever so slowly over a period of about twenty minutes I moved my hand up to my ear and at last put that little devil out of his misery. Aha! What a great feeling of victory. I had won. What relief !!!!
Or so I thought. But all this time, what I didn’t realize was that SSgt Wright was standing right behind me, watching every micro-move. And the instant my finger made contact with the varmint, SSgt. Wright commenced to do what could only be described as the Mexican hat dance all over me, jumping up and down, and saying a series of very unkind things about my lineage, parentage, morals, and ancestors for several centuries back. I thought to myself, “This is really not a nice man. This is not the kind of guy I’d like to take home to meet my mother.”
At his command, I jumped up and snapped to attention, and from there I got more of the up close and personal touch from him. Screaming into my ear at about three times above the threshold of pain, he continued to berate me and everything about me. When he finally finished his tirade, my conclusion was that although I knew he meant what he said, and although he was in charge of my training, his behavior was beyond reasonable. He had overreacted, and was clearly over the line–so I thought. I was more than a little annoyed.
Well, fast forward about ten years. There I was lying on the jungle trail about twenty miles deep into enemy territory. We were the long-range reconnaissance unit for the South Vietnamese Marines, and LT Roi, six other guys and I, had crept along a narrow trail and halted to listen. It was about one or two in the morning, and there was an assortment of creepy crawlers, winged insects, and enough slithery things to keep a biologist happy for six or seven weeks.
As I lay there, I concentrated on our mission. “Our job here is to capture a prisoner.” We were back in enemy territory, and our job was to snatch a prisoner to find out who was operating up there. So we lay there. Every one of us was trying to stay awake and every one of us was trying to be invisible.
Pretty soon, a couple of guys appeared, walking down the trail. They were relaxed, wearing khaki uniforms and carrying AK47s over their shoulders. I slowly turned my head and looked at Lieutenant Roi, who was technically the commander of the unit.
He looked back at me and in a very subtle motion moved his head side to side, like, “No, don’t get these guys.” And I thought, “Okay, we’ll get the next group.” So they went on by. I couldn’t figured out why we didn’t stop them, but I figure LT Roi had a reason.
A few minutes later, six or seven more men came walking by. And then more. Suddenly I realized why we hadn’t jumped those first two. They were the point men for about seven or eight hundred troops. There was a North Vietnamese regiment moving from our area, and they were all around us. We could hear them behind us. We’d hear them in front of us. They were all over the place.
As I lay there almost afraid to breathe, do you know what I was thinking? Foremost in my mind at that moment was the thought, “Man, I hope these guys I’m with had a drill instructor like SSgt Wright. I hope their idea of authority and don’t move is Don’t Move!”
Have you ever been afraid to blink, because you’re afraid your eyelids will squeak and somebody will hear them? I’m not kidding. These men–hundreds of them–were literally within ten feet of us as they passed on either side. And so we didn’t move!
As we lay there, the bugs and gnats and mosquitoes bit. The leeches tanked up and dropped off. Strange things crawled over us, up our sleeves, and down our necks. Oh, they had a field day! And we were so scared we hardly noticed them. Fortunately out of our eight guys, nobody wiggled, and nobody moved. If any one of us had, we would all have died right there that night.
Hours passed before we felt it was safe to shift a muscle, but when the dawn broke, and we slowly dragged our exhausted bodies to the standing position, I thought of SSgt Wright. At that point, if he’d been anywhere near me, I would have, without hesitation, thrown my arms around him and kissed him! His “excessive” lessons on authority had literally saved my life. And I was grateful beyond words.
What is God’s standard for authority? Yes is yes. No is no. Period. There’s nothing in the middle. We live in a gray world where everybody’s saying things are relatively this and relatively that. Well, God is not relatively impressed at all. The answer is either no or yes.
In chapter 15 of First Samuel we find a guy named Saul who’s the king. Now Saul had been given orders from the Lord to go smite the Amalekites–all of them. He was told, “Don’t bring anything back.”
A few verses later we find Saul walking down the road, and Samuel, a prophet, approaches him and asks, “Saul, what have you been up to?”
And what does Saul say? Note his words: I have performed the commandment of the Lord (1 Sam. 15:13).
But Samuel said, What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear? Why am I hearing cows lowing and sheep baaaing? Because, Saul, it wasn’t part of God’s instructions to bring anything back with you.
Note that up to that point Saul had claimed that he was out “performing the commandment of the Lord.” Now he replies, The people (not I, Saul, of course, but “the people”) brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and oxen, to sacrifice to the Lord your God; but the rest we have utterly destroyed (1 Sam. 15:15).
Does King Saul understand authority? He doesn’t live under it, and he doesn’t have it.
Saul has replaced the authority of the Lord with his own opinions and authority. Over that one simple issue, even though Saul repents of his sin, God removes him as king. The Lord, through Samuel, says to Saul, I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel (1 Sam. 15:26).
From that point on, God withdrew His spirit from Saul, Saul lost his mind, and in the end, he died without God’s presence. Once he stepped out from under the authority above him, he lost the privilege of having authority over others. Is obedience important? Is our understanding of authority important?
I hear all kinds of buzzwords in evangelical Christianity. And one of the words I’ve heard over and over the last few years is “discipleship.” You know what bothers me? I don’t hear anything about discipline. Disciple. Discipline. Do we think they might be related?
If we don’t have discipline, there is no discipleship. And if we’re going to talk about being a disciple, if we’re going to live under the authority of God, we’re going to have to learn to be disciplined. Now discipline is not punishment. Unfortunately, we’ve confused the two in our society.
When I went to The Citadel, a fine military college in South Carolina, we were made to memorize all sorts of things in our plebe year. Most of the innocuous things were totally useless, but there were a few things in there that were valuable. One of them was the definition of discipline. When called upon, we had to quote:
Discipline is a trait of character, which makes punishment unnecessary.
Punishment is the result of not being disciplined. And if we’re going to understand the authority of God, we have got to understand the concept of living under God’s authority. That means when He says, “Yes,” He means yes. When He says, “No,” He means no. We may agree. We may disagree. It doesn’t matter what we think. Our job is to obey, to be under the authority of the living God.
The last thing I want to address is humility. Some people might say, “I’ve got to see this. A Marine, talking about humility?” Well, we often get the wrong picture of what humility really is.
We see guys out on parade in the military, and the parades are impressive and exciting to watch. I’ve been in enough of them to last a couple of lifetimes. But when you watch those guys out there in a parade, what do you see? All the buttons are shined, and all the brass is gleaming. They have white webbing, and some of them even wear hats with feathers sticking up three feet taller than they are. The thing to remember is that these guys are on parade. In a sense, they’re military men at play, not military men at work.
Have you ever seen the same guy in a firefight? What happened to all that brass? Painted it black–that’s what he did, or got rid of it. Their striking uniforms have been traded for camouflage suits. What happened to the high hat with the plumes? That guy’s traded it in for a form-fitted helmet, and there are times he tries to get his entire body inside that helmet when the bullets are flying. If you really hustle, you can get a couple of hundred pounds up inside one of those things, in the right conditions.
All of the fancy garb we saw him wearing out there on parade was fine for a parade, but when the enemy is after him, he does all he can to look like a tree or a bush. You certainly don’t find him marching and strutting when the enemy is breathing down his neck.
In the military a lot of what appears to be pride, pomp, and circumstance is really the soldier at play. When you see that same guy doing his job in battle, he is as inconspicuous as a human being can get–or he isn’t there for very long. You don’t do foolish things in those circumstances, and you certainly don’t draw attention to yourself.
I’ve heard Marines stand up at the bar at the club and talk about how they’re going to do this or how they’re going to do that and how tough they were. I’ve heard guys shout back and forth–Marines yakking with the Rangers or yelling at the Airborne and vice versa. But in combat I’ve never seen that. The banter and bragging go away. People tend not to run their mouths when the bullets are flying.
In Viet Nam we had to maneuver through the wet and mud of endless rice paddies. We’d slog for days, making little progress, and we felt as vulnerable as you can feel when there are no trees or bushes for cover. The water could be three, four, or five feet deep, depending on where you were, and it was absolutely filthy. In some of the places they even fertilized with human waste. Leeches grabbed onto any part of your flesh they could find and snakes slithered by on a daily basis. But when the war is all around you and you’re doing your job, you don’t think twice about whether or not you’re going to get down in that muck. Funny thing, I never met a man who was pompous and pumped up with pride when he was up to his navel in a rice paddy. And so as we think about humility, we can see that a soldier has a tremendous insight into humility. He knows his limitations.
What is humility? It isn’t what we so often think of within the Christian church. Some teachings cause us to look within ourselves and say, “Oh, I’m so awful,” and “I can’t do anything,” and “I always make these mistakes,” and “I’m unworthy.” I’m this and I’m that. This isn’t humility. Any sentence that starts with “I am” is not humility. Where’s the focus? It’s on me. That should be a clue.
As Christians, we’ve often been conditioned to look at ourselves and say how rotten we are. Sure, we’re rotten enough, but we don’t need to focus on that. The rest of the world will figure it out, and from time to time they’ll remind us of those things. Real humility comes not from looking at what a bum I am, but from focusing on God. As my focus goes up and looks to God, and I recognize how high and lifted up and praiseworthy He is, and how powerful He is, the gap between me and the Lord grows. It doesn’t come from pushing me down, but by understanding where He lives, by looking up. Humility is the natural result of my focusing on a powerful, wonderful God, not by focusing on myself and my inadequacies.
A soldier has a tremendous advantage over other people when it comes to understanding humility because he realizes that there is no way he can control his life. I know a lot of businessmen who think they’re in control of their lives today. I know of very few Marines who’ve been caught in an ambush who would tell you they’re in control of their lives. In those moments, most of them would be happy to be in control of their bowels. And I’m not joking.
As a Christian I want to learn the goodness of humility, but I’ve got to do that by focusing on the greatness of God and not on me and my problems. The soldier whose life is on the line, who’s told to go do things that are often frightening and dangerous, doesn’t even get the luxury of deciding whether he’s going to do it. He’s told, “Do it,” and he goes off and does it.
I never met a guy out there dodging bullets or sweating in the middle of a mortar attack who thought he was in control of his life. Later he might talk about it. Earlier he might think it. But at the time, there’s no doubt in his mind it’s absolutely out of his hands.
We’ve taken a look at simplicity, authority, and humility. Those traits of a good soldier are instantly transferable to becoming a good follower of Jesus Christ. The military training a person goes through gives him an opportunity to serve both his God and his country. It is a sacred trust indeed. Much of what he learns in training is very helpful in terms of learning to live the Christian life and to be an example to others.
Talk to those who’ve gone before you in the military. Ask them about principles of being a good soldier and begin to look at what other traits and characteristics of good soldiers can help us follow as disciples of Christ. To those in the military, be grateful for the high calling God has given you. It is, in fact, the calling to be a good soldier that Paul used as an example to Timothy. And it still applies today.
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