by CH(CPT) Stephen W. Austin, USA
It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect (2 Samuel 22:33).
The twenty-first century warrior will struggle with new technology; but he will not need a new ethic. What constitutes right action remains unchanged because human nature and the laws of God are what they have always been.
Therefore, as we seek a warrior’s ethic for today we can reasonably look back 3000 years to another man of arms–arguably the greatest soldier ever to serve the nation of Israel, David, youngest son of Jesse. The ethic of David may be seen as consisting of two general orders: Do the Right Thing and Trust in God.
First Order: Do the Right Thing.
David acted with a strong sense of duty. He did something simply because it was the right thing. When the prophet Samuel came to anoint him as the future king of Israel, he was out watching the family sheep-because that was his job. Later as king, Scripture tells us that he did “what was just and right for all his people” (1 Chronicles 18:14). David knew the difference between right and wrong.
This provides today’s warrior a straightforward order. Most of the time, like David, we know our duty. In the day-to-day business of life we know our obligations to God, family, and our command. There is not nearly as much moral ambiguity in the world as we would like to think. Most of the time we know the right thing to do. This order says simply, “Do it!”
In adopting this order, we factor ourselves out of the equation. As the newly anointed future king, David was told to carry provisions to his older brothers, and he did it. He could have balked at playing errand boy for his brothers-who, of course, had been “passed over” for the kingship job. Instead, he simply did the job. David did not consider his own welfare when he saw something that needed to be done.
The whole army of Israel stood paralyzed with fear of the Philistine bully Goliath; but David immediately recognized that someone had to answer Goliath’s challenge. David stepped forward with his sling not because it was a career-enhancing move–it simply was the right thing to do.
A good warrior has to act selflessly because the profession of arms may demand the ultimate sacrifice. If David had done a risk analysis on the Goliath engagement, he probably would have asked, “Isn’t there someone else in this army with a little more size and experience?”
This order enables boldness of action. If I worry about myself I will be timid. I will not take on a moral Goliath if I stop to figure the impact on my next efficiency report. Warriors must be bold in the pursuit of doing the right thing.
When a warrior takes on a (right) mission that no one wants, he proves his commitment to doing the right thing. This is where we can make our most powerful witness to others. People take notice when we are willing to pay for taking the right course of action.
We may be talking about a simple order here–but that does not make it easy to obey. Clearly, no one always does the right thing. David was no exception. In fact, if we assess David as a military leader, he does not get high marks. He stayed at home while his troops were in the field, slept with the wife of one of his generals, and then, to cover his crime, sent that general to his death (2 Samuel 11:1-17). This sordid incident was not his only lapse: in the aftermath of the Absalom rebellion, he almost lost his army because he let his personal grief interfere with his professional duty (2 Samuel 19:1-8).
Yet it is in David’s failures that we see most clearly his commitment to doing the right thing! This sounds contradictory, but think about it: How I respond to my own sin indicates how serious I am about pursuing a righteous life. Note how David responded when Nathan the prophet confronted him with his crimes of adultery and murder. David said only, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13). He did not try to excuse himself; he simply and sincerely acknowledged his sin.
How we respond to our own unethical actions demonstrates whether we are really dedicated to the ethic we espouse. As military leaders, are there times when we fail to do the right thing? Do we knowingly choose to do what is wrong? Do we have character flaws, areas where we repeatedly fail? Yes! Our failures are real, habitual and occasionally intended. If we think otherwise, we are only deceiving ourselves. How we deal with our failures shows if we are really committed to what is right.
The point is that we are not righteous, but that we must seek the righteousness of God. The order to “Do the Right Thing” must be regarded as a quest–a pursuit of something that is always out in front of us. We never achieve righteousness–at least not in this life–but our vision of God’s righteousness is a constant compass check.
It is significant that David had a profound sense of God’s righteousness. In spite of his sin, he was always careful not to disrespect the Sovereign Lord of the Universe. We see this many times in Scripture. For example, he twice forbids his men to take the life of Saul. Even though by this point it would have been reasonable to end the reign of this apostate king, David would not touch Saul. He acknowledged that God had anointed Saul, and that it was God’s decision when to end his reign (1 Samuel 24:5-7).
It was this clear sense of God’s righteousness that guided David back from his own sin. This does not mean that David’s sin was insignificant. Indeed, clearly David’s crimes had disastrous consequences for his family and for the nation. Yet God graciously did not make David pay the true price of his actions. David kept his focus on God and moved forward.
It is not easy to commit to a righteousness that we know we cannot achieve. Thus, it is not surprising when we tend to compromise our standards. We must not do that. To insure against compromise, a warrior must have a clear vision of God’s righteousness. With that vision, he knows where to go and what to do–even through the darkness of failure and sin.
Second Order: Trust in God
If doing the right thing were an achievable objective, this order by itself would provide a sufficient ethic. However, since it is not achievable, the warrior requires a second general order: Trust in God. Only by following this second order are we able to obey the first.
David had a deep trust in God. When the Lord revealed to David the blessing that He would bestow on David’s offspring, David responded with this prayer:
“O Sovereign Lord; you are God! Your words are trustworthy, and you have promised these good things to your servant” (2 Samuel 7:28).
We have seen that David was acutely aware of God’s righteousness. He also believed in God’s essential goodness. David trusted the Lord God to be both holy and loving. We see this revealed in an incident early in David’s reign when he established his capital at Jerusalem. David was moving the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem when an irreverent act elicited the Lord’s wrath. David, “afraid of the Lord.” delayed the move for three months.
Later, when the holiness of God had been re-established, he continued with the parade; and in the joyful acknowledgement of God’s blessing, David. . . “danced before the Lord with all his might” (2 Samuel 6:14). David understood that the Lord is a God whom we must respect; but he also recognized that God is a loving deity who wants the best for His people.
David trusted God even when chastised! We see this demonstrated dramatically in the sickness and death of David and Bathsheba’s infant son; Nathan had told David that he would lose his son as a punishment for his sin. Still, David hoped. For six days and nights he lay prone on the ground, fasting and praying, beseeching God to forgo the punishment. On the seventh day, the child died.
David got up, bathed and clothed himself, and sat down to eat. His servants were bewildered by this behavior, but for David the point was simple; He trusted in God’s action, whatever it might be. He accepted his loss, retained his confidence in God and prepared to move forward with life.
As suggested earlier, the proof of our commitment to doing the right thing is in how we deal with our own sin. In a similar way, the proof that we really trust in God comes in our being able to trust God in times of loss and failure. Thus, when David fled Jerusalem during Absalom’s rebellion, he left the Ark behind:
“. . .If I find favor in the Lord’s eyes, he will bring me back . . .but if he says, ‘I am not pleased with you,’ then I am ready; let him do to me whatever seems good to him” (2 Samuel 15:25-26).
By leaving the Ark in Jerusalem, David demonstrated his trust in God. He did not take the Ark with him in an attempt to force God’s blessing. David could be confident in God’s providence even if it meant losing his kingdom.
A warrior has to trust in God even when the immediate situation does not appear to warrant that trust.
Trust and Action
A warrior who trusts in God can do the right thing and not worry about the consequence. Sometimes, we know what we should do but hesitate doing it because we fear what may happen. In contrast, if I trust God, I am not responsible for insuring a “good outcome.” I am only called to do the right thing and trust that God will bring the outcome that He chooses.
This is important for the warrior to remember since military operations are always ethically challenging. War is an ugly business, and even peacekeeping missions involve moral ambiguity. We find ourselves intervening in countries where people have been hating and killing each other for generations. In such situations, we wonder if we can make any lasting positive difference. How can we know that we are doing the right thing?
This is when we remind ourselves that we–and even history itself–rest securely in God’s hands. We have a limited perspective on our actions and the consequences of our actions. We cannot always see how God intends to use what we do.
In other words, we usually receive the Commander’s intent for only one phase of the operation at a time. We are called to follow His guidance faithfully for that phase–do the right thing–but we cannot anticipate (or worry about) future phases. We know the final end-state–God’s Kingdom will come!–but we do not know how God intends to get from here to there.
Trust is what enables us to be a part of God’s plan.
CH(CPT) Stephen W. Austin, USA is currently serving as Troop Support Chaplain, U.S. Army Garrison, Fort Meade, MD. He is ordained in the united Methodist Church. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have four children.