Staying Together: When an Affair Pulls You Apart

Marriage & Mountain Climbing

I just finished Dr. Stephen M. Judah’s (1949–2008) book Staying Together: When an Affair Pulls You Apart. The book is full of stories of his experiences counseling couples caught in the web of an affair (or some cases multiple affairs). He describes these marriages using a very helpful illustration: mountain climbing. As Judah sees it, couples climb toward an affair. He calls it “the ascent into brokenness.”

Novice climbers approach the mountain unaware of what awaits them. In my one experience climbing, I remember watching a couple of my team members have uncontrollable emotional reactions as they acclimatized to the altitude. Similarly, nothing can truly prepare a person for all that marriage entails. Couples should avail themselves of every opportunity possible to prepare and train, just as a climber should! Preventative measures are practiced by the wise of heart. Even so, you still have to climb (i.e., get married) to have the real experience.

from Staying Together: When an Affair Pulls You Apart by Dr. Stephen M. Judah

Judah describes the active affair as the peak of the ascent into brokenness; he also calls it the “death zone.” The reason for such a description is because a person cannot linger long on the peak of a mountain and live—the body simply cannot take it. Likewise, a marriage cannot linger long in an affair. He also compares the active affair to the peak of a mountain ascent because an affair does not simply all of a sudden happen. A couple climbs into it. Judah describes the progressive ascent into brokenness as the accumulation of brokenness from sin, brokenness from the family of origin, brokenness from our peer group, brokenness from dating relationships, romantic love, civil war, the evolution of affair conditions, and finally the peak—the active affair. Rather than an affair being a spontaneous act of passion, the spiritual and social science of the act explains that the affair is the result of the unchecked accumulation of brokenness in a person’s life. We enter marriage with imbedded flaws that remain hidden until a crisis exposes them.

As a boy, I remember watching footage of the January 28, 1986 NASA space shuttle Challenger explosion. It happened 73 seconds into its flight. All crew members were lost. The U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology concluded its hearings with a statement: “The fundamental problem was poor technical decision-making over a period of several years by top NASA and contractor personnel, who failed to act decisively to solve the increasingly serious anomalies in the Solid Rocket Booster joints” (under Conclusions, pages 3–7). Years of poor decisions by experts who failed to act decisively created a death zone that exposed everything.

The Ascent into Brokenness

Civil War

In his chapter entitled “Civil War,” he writes, “The experience of civil war has universal and unmistakable characteristics: (1) Awfulization best characterizes the overall experience. The warring pair tend to primarily see the bad in the other. The good is denied or remains carefully ignored. Each becomes at risk to fall into a pattern of being at their worst. (2) Awareness of incompetence—The couple becomes mostly conscious of each other’s incompetence. (3) Negative response—The couple moves either against or away from each other, engaging in classic fight or flight. (4) Depressed sensory acuity—The couple’s senses are diminished, and they attribute the lack of clarity to a lifelessness in their relationship. (5) Separation—They may think or say, ‘I can’t stand to live with you.’ (6) Incompletion—They may think or say, ‘Something is missing.’ (7) Unfamiliarity and disbelief—They may think or say, ‘I’m in the wrong place with the wrong person. How did I ever get here?’ . . . We demand more and put up with less” (pages 65–66). The reality is that both spouses have both brokenness and wholeness within them. Dr. Judah states that “master couples” learn how to focus and practice an awareness of one another’s competencies, which eventually evolves into an unconscious trust in one another’s competencies.

Evolution of Affair Conditions

I found chapter seven, “The Evolution of Affair Conditions,” insightful. He suggests that both “difficult” and “good” marriages experience affairs, and then he seeks to answer the question “Why?” He proposes a two-fold answer: (1) the 60% push and (2) the 40% pull. A negative or difficult marriage environment is likely to “push” a spouse toward an affair. Dr. Judah describes the primary factors at play as (1) communication issues, (2) character or developmental issues (e.g., unmet needs), (3) conflict resolution issues, (4) adult life stage or landmarks (e.g., mid-life crisis), and/or (5) confused or broken choices. A combination of these factors can literally “push” someone toward an affair. However, sometimes affairs (40%) happen in marriages described by couples as “happy” or “fulfilled.” In these cases, there are factors present that “pull” a spouse into an extramarital affair: (1) proximity, (2) similarity, and (3) reward. Work relationships where men and women are working in close proximity and where conversation moves from work-related into more personal feelings, desires, dreams, etc. Unintentionally, boundaries are crossed. From proximity, similarities may begin to surface and create a dangerous intimacy. Eventually, it is possible for the offending spouse to perceive rewards associated in an affair with the third party person.

After explaining these “push” and “pull” realities of the evolution of affairs, Judah offers wrong ways to handle the evolution of an affair and right ways to handle the evolution of an affair (pages 69–75):

Wrong Ways Right Ways
Toying with the possibility of having an affair Commit to finding a way to create a strong marriage—step away from the edge and look for the safe path
Acting out (without talking about) your negative thoughts and emotions Talk about your inner struggle—find friends of the marriage, those who will strengthen your commitment to the marriage bond
Blaming yourself or your partner Replace blame with understanding and take responsibility
Getting bad advice from friends, family members, coworkers, affair partners, or even counselors Get professional guidance that specializes in marriage or relationships
Triangulation or substitute triangulation, which is focusing more on the third party or some other substitute that you do on your spouse Embrace the usefulness of suffering, and choose optimism—suffering together can be a bonding experience
Focusing on the third party rather than on your core values and commitments Focus on the primary couple, the husband and wife
Waiting for a crisis, that is, most people seek help only after an affair has happened Focus on your core values and commitments
Be proactive, preventative and preemptive.
Master essential disciplines—Dr. Judah covers these in part three of his book.

Dr. Judah brings this chapter to an interesting close by warning readers not to dismiss the role of both evil and good supernatural forces at work behind the evolution of an affair. As people of the Bible, we believe in supernatural realities. God calls us to love as he loves—with faithful, steadfast love; however, sin, Satan, and demonic activity are realities opposed to human flourishing. Beware the spiritual forces at work in the “push” and “pull” of the evolution of an affair. Cling to your God and to your spouse.

The Descent into Wholeness

The third part of the book is entitled “Descent into Wholeness.” Surprisingly, the descent down the mountain is harder than the climb up. I remember being caught off guard by this during my single mountaineering experience. There a number of factors that make it more difficult: (1) you’re not as motivated; (2) the goal destination seems boring and anticlimactic; (3) it hurts your joints and feet in an unexpected way; (4) you’re off balance because of terrain; (5) you’re exhausted; (6) you have fewer supplies and possibly damaged gear; (7) you’re far more irritable; (8) the path isn’t always as clear; and (9) well, you’re just done! While all this is true, you must make it back down the mountain—your life depends on it. You can’t survive long at the top. Reaching bottom restores normal, whole, healthy living.

In this section, Dr. Judah walks the reader through his five essential disciplines that have the potential to restore wholeness to a marriage broken by an affair: (1) SHARE—sharing the truth with your spouse, (2) RECONCILE—reconciling the crisis with your spouse, (3) REFINE—redefine and realign your character through development and commitment, (4) ENHANCE—rebuilding and cultivating the positive, (5) ENVISION—flourish by creating the possible, exploring tomorrow’s dreams, and generating today’s plan. The first three disciplines function “like powerful workhorses to transform the negative” (1) communication techniques, (2) crisis experiences, and (3) character traits; whereas, the final two disciplines (4) cultivate what is good and (5) create the possible.

The Crisis & RECONCILE

In chapter ten entitled, “The Crisis,” he borrows an experience from Andy Politz, who has reached the summit of Mount Everest multiple times. He writes, “On one occasion he helped rescue a party of five . . . They had spent the night near the peak in bad conditions. Another party had come across them but left the party for dead, giving them only a candy bar to assuage their own guilt. Andy and his party, by contrast, abandoned their climb to devote all their resources to the rescue. The party in trouble needed oxygen and water of course, but mostly they needed someone to walk them down the mountain step by step. Every two steps those being rescued would collapse. Generally competent, experienced and strong, now they were temporarily dazed, confused, weak and blind. They could not rescue themselves. They needed somebody to help. Rescue by definition usually requires others” (page 108).

He continues to develop what the essential discipline of RECONCILE looks like for the offending and the offended spouses. The offending spouse may experience a great deal of relief when the affair is either discovered or confessed; however, the offended spouse often goes through a threefold process that he describes as (1) disorganization, (2) reorganization, and (3) organization. Further, the offended spouse may experience something similar to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and other severe emotional conditions. Judah writes at the close of this chapter, “Oddly enough, the descent into wholeness involves temporarily putting your partner into a crisis state. The offending spouse has been in the death zone for a while, so descending lets them breathe a little easier. By contrast, the offended spouse feels like they have been dropped into the death zone of a mountain peak without any acclimatization. The necessary disclosure hits the offended spouse hard” (page 125). While this crisis has to be a part of the journey, it is miserable.

Flourishing & ENVISION

Chapter thirteen introduces that couples who have experienced an affair can indeed flourish again. “With God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). Here, he helps couples recover and reestablish core desires and core values together. Having “survived, stabilized, and succeeded, then pursue significance” together. Couples that reach this ENVISION stage of the descent into wholeness are invited to imagine a resurrected relationship in which they can clarify goals and adjust priorities. Couples that remain committed in the descent can have fulfilling relationships, discover anew that they are good at something together, make the world a better place together, and enjoy peace with God together.

The Spiritual and the Scientific

Descending into wholeness is possible for the couple that has encountered the “death zone” of an active affair. It will take help from others; it will take commitment to a process; and it will take a new hope and vision. Dr. Judah has a couple of appendices at the end of his book that speak to special situations that couples may face along the way of their journey. His final chapter addresses “The Spiritual and the Scientific: A Fusion of Strengths.” He is a committed Christian, who has trained and worked as a social scientist (a.k.a. a professional marriage counselor). He describes the relationship between the two by returning to his mountaineering imagery. He explains, “Mountain climbers have found one particular rope design superior to all others. The structure involves an inner core rope that provides strength and a series of woven otter strands which amplify strength and offer protection. You cannot actually see the vital inner rope. You can only see the otter strands. When spiritual wisdom and the wisdom of social science combine, a fusion of strengths occurs. They become woven together like strands of a rope. At the core lies an indescribable, invisible and vital force. We cannot see God, but we can see the strands surrounding the core” (page 172).

Don’t Lose Hope; Grab the Rope

Don’t die on the mountaintop trying to handle your crisis all alone. There is hope. Get some help. May God grant your marriage the grace to descend back into wholeness with a new hope and vision. May it be stronger having gone through such an incredible crisis.

Building a People Full of Jesus

Fresh Proclamation of an Ancient Vision

In 2015, we began having conversations about the vision of West Lisbon Church. For the Christian Church, vision is not something that we have to create out of thin air. God has revealed his vision in Jesus Christ. We are charged with a stewardship of that gospel vision—a fresh proclamation—in this culture and among the people of this generation. Awhile ago, I preached a short sermon series on the book of Haggai, whose message is an important one for a historic church seeking God afresh. Haggai wrote to the people of Judah, who had returned from exile. His vision for a fresh experience of the presence of God caused him to challenge the returning exiles to rebuild the house of the Lord.

For West Lisbon Church, we want Jesus in every heart, head, and hand, and the members of WLC commit to moving people who love God into deeper discipleship experiences with God resulting in activities and relationships that glorify God and advance the gospel in our community and world. Haggai’s message of revival can encourage us as we seek to participate in God’s mission.

Consider Your Priorities

Through the decree of Cyrus the Great (538 B.C.E.), which was later confirmed during the reign of Darius I (522–486 B.C.E.), the Jews were permitted by the Persian Empire to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. The Persian emperors did more than simply permit the return and rebuilding; they also provided security and resources for the project (see Ezra 6:1–15) until the completion of the temple in March of 515 B.C.E. Despite the support from the Persian emperors, the rebuilding project ceased around 536 B.C.E. and did not begin again until the prophetic ministries of Haggai and Zechariah in 520 B.C.E.

Like many of the prophets, we do not know much about the prophet Haggai’s personal background. His name means “festal,” which has given scholars fodder for conjecture: (1) perhaps he was born at the time of a festival; (2) perhaps such a name anticipated the timing of the prophet’s ministry—“1:1 on the New Moon’s day, 2:1 on the seventh day of the Feast of Tabernacles, and 2:18 on the day when the ‘foundation’ of the temple was laid”; or (3) perhaps “Haggai” is not the prophet’s real name but a name given to the author because of the calendar events associated with the prophet’s ministry.

Further, little is known about Haggai’s “exilic experience.” Some conclude that Haggai was an older man who saw the glory of Solomon’s temple (see 2:3) and that he was either one of those who returned from the Babylonian captivity or one who had remained in the desolate Jerusalem until others returned. Others suggest that Haggai was a younger man who was born in Babylon and traveled to Jerusalem after the decrees of the Persian emperors.

Regardless of his background, the prophet Haggai bursts into the lives of a discouraged population in Jerusalem with a brief but powerful ministry during which he communicated a single-minded message that reoriented the spiritual center of the people and the leadership. To the surprise of the reader of the prophetic literature, the people respond in obedience! Haggai’s message to the leaders and inhabitants of Jerusalem is to “Consider Your Priorities” (1:5, 7; 2:15, 18). The leaders and people had established priorities in their lives that were inconsistent with their covenant responsibility and covenant loyalty to the Lord. For example, 1:4 reveals that the people were busy about building their own homes while the house of Lord remained in a state of ruin. The glory and pleasure of the Lord had taken a backseat to the people’s comfort to which the Lord responded with judgments according to the stipulations of the covenant (1:5–6, 9–11; cf. Deut. 11:13–17). The Lord stirred the hearts of the leaders, Zerubbabel and Joshua, and the people to respond with obedience by rebuilding the temple of the Lord (1:12–15) as Haggai encouraged them with the promise of God’s presence (1:13), to be strong in the Lord’s presence and fear not (2:3–5), and to trust in the Lord’s sovereignty (2:7–9). Upon responding to Haggai’s message to “Consider Your Priorities,” the temple was eventually rebuilt—stirring hearts for the return of the Lord’s glory, presence, and blessing upon his people.

A House Made of People Who Are Full of Jesus

Haggai’s implications for the church today are numerous. The western church has largely become inundated with marketing, entertainment, and consumerism. Let’s be honest; it’s the culture we swim in. Sometimes our culture can be harnessed to draw people to Jesus, and other times our culture hinders drawing people to Jesus. Are we building our own houses and our church facilities with “wood paneling, gold, and silver”? Are we really building the house of the Lord? The house or temple being built according to the New Testament revelation is the Church of Jesus Christ—composed of people—living stones—from every nation because of the peace of salvation secured for us by Jesus Christ (see Eph. 2:11–22; cf. 1 Pet. 2:1–5). The message of Haggai to “Consider Your Priorities” could not be more relevant.

Are we willing to truly build the Lord’s house through relationships that involve evangelism and discipleship (Matt. 28:18–20)? Gaining church members from other local churches by means of attractions is not really building the house of the Lord; it’s not real church growth. Instead of reaching people who already know and who already grow in Jesus, let’s reach the lost and broken. Let’s reach the forgotten. Let’s reach those who have wandered away from God’s house. Let’s make it a priority to offer them the life-giving message of Christ crucified and resurrected. Let’s provide a warm and effective fellowship family in which these new believers grow, mature, and make an impact for generations. Conversions and disciple-making build up the house of the Lord. God’s call to us is to consider our priorities knowing that he is with us and that we are desperate for him to set our hearts ablaze for the sake of his house.

What Shall We Give Him? Surrender to the King

At West Lisbon this Advent season, we have been exploring the Miracles of Christmas each Sunday morning. These miracles have caused us to think about gifts that we may give to Christ or to others that are uniquely spiritual in nature. Some of the gifts have included giving Jesus our fellowship and our hope. Last Sunday, we learned how the angels came to announce the presence of the Christ in the first advent. The message challenged us to give the gift of unconditional presence to our own family and friends—no matter what. In this blog post, I want to explore another gift that we can give to the Lord—the gift of surrender.

War Elephants . . . Now That’s a Gift!

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln wrote a cordial letter to the King of Siam to politely reject the offer of a most generous gift. President James Buchanan was the actual addressee of the two letters from the King, which were received on February 14th, 1861—the same year the Civil War began—but President Lincoln was left with the responsibility of responding to the King’s offer. The gifts of the King were fourfold—namely, a sword of costly materials and exquisite workmanship; a photographic likeness of His Majesty and of His Majesty’s beloved daughter; and also two elephants’ tusks of length and magnitude indicating that they could have belonged only to an animal which was a native of Siam . . .

The fourth gift was really something. President Lincoln wrote,

I appreciate most highly Your Majesty’s tender of good offices in forwarding to this Government a stock from which a supply of elephants might be raised on our own soil. This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States. Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam on land, as well as on water, has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.

The President ended the letter: Your Good Friend, ABRAHAM LINCOLN.

It is very interesting to study the gifts given between the leaders of nations and the occasions that prompted their international generosity. The beauty and thoughtfulness are striking at times. As I looked into this a little, I thought to myself,

Yes, a king knows exactly how and what to give to another king. But what do you and I know about giving gifts to a king?

I think we all probably feel a little like Clark W. Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation when he delivers his gift to his boss, only to find a mountain of other, unopened, underwhelming gifts that preceded his own. You can see and sense the feelings of both resentment and insecurity that begin to take hold of Clark.

He doesn’t need anything, but I have to give him something . . . I can’t look bad, but, really, what can I give to him?

It’s Christmas time. The King with whom we are concerned during these days is the Lord Jesus. What do you give such a King? The King of Kings. The One who has the name above all names, before whom one day every knee will bow and tongue will confess that he is indeed Lord and Master of all creation. What do you give to God?

Perhaps, and quite honestly, it hasn’t occurred to you that you should give God anything at all. Maybe others of you have wondered about this question. Possibly, you’ve given it some extensive thought — what does God want from me and my life? What should I give him? Maybe others of you are in a place where you feel that you’ve given God quite enough—life has been hard this year. Yet, deep down, you know that Jesus possess the words of life, and you love him even in the midst of difficult days.

If we read the story of the manger scene where the Shepherds flocked to see the baby King or the narrative about the visit from the wise men to the young child Jesus, we can envision quite a reception. Time has passed since the infancy and childhood of the Lord Jesus. The mature King eventually offered his life as an atonement for the sins of the world – the righteous one for the unrighteous ones – and he demonstrated his power and right to rule by defeating death through resurrection, wherein the church places her hope for life eternal.

Shepherds and wise men aside, what now does the modern person have to offer a resurrected and returning King like Jesus? I’d like to suggest to you that Jesus answers this for us himself. He tells us in the Gospel of Mark 12:13–17 just exactly what he wants from us. In a word, he wants you. He wants you to surrender yourself, your life, to him as King.

WDJW or What Does Jesus Want?

And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him (Mark 12:13–17).

King Jesus is very clear about what he wants in this passage. God wants those on which he has stamped his own image. He wants boys and girls, and men and women. He wants YOU. The idea of surrender to Jesus as King brings three thoughts to my mind, and they illustrate the internal process we go through as we weigh the meaning of surrender.

First, We Resist Surrender to God’s Ownership.

Maybe we, like the men in this story, try to avoid surrender by means of flattery. We flatter Jesus with our bumper stickers, with our wristbands, with our donations, and even like these men, with our words. But Jesus did not come to be flattered by people. He came to rule. Jesus seeks to rule the heart by his grace and with his power, for the heart, he says, is the place, the source, out of which his image is defaced daily by evil deeds, thoughts, and feelings. God wants to restore his glorious image in you by transforming your heart. The King does not receive flattery from an unyielded heart; he despises it.

Maybe you don’t flatter Jesus, but also like these men, you look at King Jesus with false pretenses—false pretenses about who he is and why he has come and what he will do to cause you to remain unsurrendered to him as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Maybe you don’t believe him and his claim upon you as someone on whom he has stamped his image of ownership.

Sometimes our process of surrender stops there. We resist and that’s it. End of story. But some of us hear the Scriptures and are willing to go a little further, discovering within ourselves a bit more humility toward God about this whole surrender thing. The next step in the process of surrender is a place of insecurity.

Second, We Question the Value of Our Surrender to God’s Ownership.

We come to believe that, yes, indeed Jesus is King, and he has stamped his image on me. He’s not only the King, but he’s MY King.

But then, we look at what we have to offer him, and we grow insecure, which results either in despair of ever bringing anything worthy to offer to God, or in an endless attempt to try to bring him something to earn his favor.

Consider our FEEBLE KNOWLEDGE in light of the all-knowing God.
Measure our FALLIBLE WILL in light of the holy God.
Discern our FICKLE EMOTIONS in light of the God who is perfect in justice and mercy.

There is some truth here about the insecurity of the value of our surrender to God, for even the Scriptures say,

There are none righteous, not even one,” and “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

It is proper to feel insecure before such a God, such a King, no matter the quality of life we may think we have brought to him. Perhaps, we could call this healthy insecurity “the fear of God.”

However, the wrong kind of insecurity can breed anger and bitterness, and these are certainly the wrong gifts to bring the King. Rather, the right response to the insecurity over the life that we have to surrender to God is humility—a crushed and lowly heart, made so by an encounter with the greatness of God.

The realization that not even my life is of great enough value to win the favor of this King—this realization should crush us and bring us low, low enough to bow the knee, the head, and the heart before the King of Kings. And it is here now that our surrender meets grace and favor. For it is written,

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite (Isaiah 57:15 ESV).

At this crushing point of surrender, the heart bows low before God, and we can understand exactly what it is that God has done—why it is that the Holy Child came to earth. He came so that the humble heart may rejoice in the hope of salvation.

Lastly, We Welcome Surrender to God’s Ownership.

As the Holy Spirit opens the heart in surrender, humility leads us into the hope of salvation. When we give to God what belongs to God, as Jesus said, we are ready to experience the hope and treasure given to us in the work of Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians 8:9 offers the basis for why Christians should be generous to one another by restating the good news about Jesus Christ’s coming into the world. The first part reads,

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .

God’s grace finds the one who has been brought low in surrender. You say, that’s it?! I mean, the King of Siam sent a flawless stock of war elephants to President Lincoln—war elephants! But remember the words of the songwriter,

Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.

By God’s grace, such a humble offering satisfies him.

The passage goes on,

. . . that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.

Here the writer speaks to us of the Great Exchange that took place at Christ’s first coming. He become poor, so that you and I could possess all the treasures that are in Christ and his gospel—pardon, forgiveness, freedom from guilt, a new birth, a new life, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, a new talk, a new walk, fellowship with God, justice and creation made right, eternity with God in his glorious presence, forever and ever. God offers these treasures in Christ. When you welcome surrender to God’s ownership of your life, you discover the fullness of the Great Exchange of Jesus Christ, that by his poverty you are made wealthy in him.

Surrender Your Heart to the King

Will you welcome surrender to King Jesus this Advent season? Invite God’s ownership into your life. Will you let his ownership spread, allowing his rule in every nook and cranny? Will you, as the children sing, “give him your heart”? Has God’s Spirit been working in your heart and life leading up to this reading? The Lord Jesus became poor—he died on the cross and was resurrected out of a borrowed grave—so that you could be made rich in him. Are you ready to begin experiencing the treasures that are in Christ Jesus?

The Complex Place of the Heart of Soldiers and Veterans

Veteran
This is a piece that I wrote for our 2016 Memorial Day Service at West Lisbon Cemetery. Happy Veteran’s Day to all who have served and sacrificed for our country!

Intro

Decoration Day began in 1868 after the American Civil War to remember those solders who gave their lives in the conflict and to decorate their graves. The holiday eventually extended to the remembrance of all our fallen soldiers.

Family

 
I never served in the military. As a boy, I do remember feeling a certain awe and wonder about the life of a soldier. I took a shot at the ASVAB In high school, because of that wonder, and if I’m honest, because of the potential financial help for college, but it never went any further than that.
The wonder and awe that I felt as a boy came from the stories that my father and grandfather would tell about their experiences in the military. These men were giants to me. Both of them were in the army. My father didn’t serve in a conflict, but served in Germany during peace-time. My grandfather served as military police at the end of WWII. Most of their stories told of their experiences in a different culture, rather than battle at the front lines. Grandpa could describe the post-war scene, but he hadn’t been there for much of the fighting.
However, there was one more man in my family that had seen the reality of war. My uncle, Bill Pennington, fought in the Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944 – 25 January 1945), which was toward the end of the war. The Germans pulled off a surprise attack on the Allied forces; however, the Allies were able to recover and organize themselves and win the battle, which depleted the German forces to such an extent that some credit it as the battle that ended the war.
My uncle Bill is a large man, tall and broad as a house. He’s a fox hunter, fox hounds and all. When he told me stories as boy, I felt that I gazed into the soul of a man who had experienced something too great for words. This man would cry when he spoke about the things he saw. At the same time, war had left him extremely gentle and tender, especially to children, and vulgar and hard when it comes to even a sniff of injustice. Uncle Bill scared me and comforted me at the same time. He scared me because he spoke of a world that was awesome and terrible. He comforted me because I knew he, and other men like him, would protect me.

The Hearts of Soldiers and Veterans

 
As I talk and listen to soldiers whom I know, I discover that the heart of a soldier is a complex place, where deep thoughts about God and the world reside. In 1 Samuel 17:38–40, we find part of a very, very familiar story. Which of us upon hearing the story of David and Goliath have not imagined ourselves, sling in hand, launching a single stone at the giant, and knocking him straight dead? Prior to the battle, remember the scene where David is trying out Saul’s armor. 
Then Saul clothed David with his armor. He put a helmet of bronze on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail, and David strapped his sword over his armor. And he tried in vain to go, for he had not tested them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them.’ So David put them off. Then he took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s pouch. His sling in his hand, and he approached the Philistine.
Have you ever read the story of David and Goliath and wondered, “Why wouldn’t anyone except David approach this brute?” I mean, yes, he was big, but surely out of the whole army of Israel there was someone who would go at this guy, right? In his book Manners and Customs of Bible Times, Ralph Gower tells us something going on behind the scenes, 
Saul’s helmet and armor were probably almost unique in Israel at the time, available to him because he was king. It was not at all unusual for a soldier to be armed with only a weapon such as a sling. Saul was anxious to protect David with the armor because it was a custom that champions should decide the outcome of slavery rather than a general battle in which the majority of the opposition would be maimed or killed. Saul wanted to take no chances (233).
The Israelite soldiers were not merely scared of losing a single battle to Goliath, but they carried the burden of possible failure that would lead to the subjection of their families to slavery.  No one wants to be responsible for bringing such a thing on the people, so they altogether as one man hesitated. Into this scene, steps David, the young shepherd who had looked into the eyes of lions and bears, and fought them off to protect the sheep. He knew that Goliath wasn’t going away. No doubt, he had not planned to go to battle that day when he first set out to deliver provisions to his brothers. But the giant was like a lion or bear who had his prey right where he wanted it. David trusted the Lord to accomplish his will through him, and he desired freedom for his people rather than slavery to fear or to the Philistines.
Saul tried to take every precaution to protect David, but the armor didn’t fit. Yet David in that moment had all that he needed. He had the heart of a soldier, a heart that was willing to encourage a nation, a heart that was willing to stand in the way of the oncoming enemy, and a heart that trusted God with the outcome for his own glory and purposes. The heart of a soldier plunges into deep places, where heavy costs are calculated.

Closing

 
As we remember those soldiers who are no longer with us, may we give thanks for their burden and struggle, for they carried it for our sakes. May we also consider the living soldiers among us. Both those who are here with us, our veterans, but also those who are active and on duty somewhere in our world. You may ask, “What can I do?” My pastoral counsel would be to regularly pray and give to them God’s word, because God affects and transforms the heart. Since soldiering requires so much heart, pray and give them God’s word.