There I was, in a Military Entry Processing Center (MEPS), signing on a dotted line, stating that I, Shannon Lamar Crawford, would serve in the United States Army for eight years. Despite the uncertainty of the future, I clung to the fact that “the Lord will [my] trust and must keep [my] foot to be caught” (Prov. 3:26, KJV). After all, I was doing this because I believed God encouraged me to join the military.
God and advice?
I accepted Christ as my Savior when I was 15. It was a very personal and breathtaking experience. I attribute this to my father, who constantly stressed to me the importance of studying my Bible, and my mother, who encouraged me to study and learn more about my Adventist faith. one day i was reading The Great Controversy, by Ellen White My eyes have been opened: There is a great spiritual war going on in this world, and we are caught in the middle; every world event unfolds in the context of this great battle; every decision we make puts us on the side of God or Satan; Satan is a formidable enemy.
Every facet of the Adventist message began to make sense: we are all part of the remnant church of Bible prophecy; God gave us a message to preach; more importantly, I need a Savior; I need Jesus.
I remember falling to my knees, and with a heart of surrender, I gave myself to Jesus. I wanted to be at his side in this great fight. I wanted to be in His army.
Joining the US Army was a bit too far. Yet there I was, on May 12, 2011, enlisted in the United States Army Reserve, confident that wherever I went, the presence of the Lord would be with me. Why? Because I was following His will, not mine.
People always ask, “How do you know God wanted you to join the military?” How can you be so sure? I know this because of the way God’s providence took care of me. I graduated from basic training in December 2011. A few months later, in June 2012, my father died of a stroke. And where is the providence in that? My father supported me since I was 12 years old. During this time, because I was always asked to focus on studies, I had no job or savings. Joining the military provided me with not only an income, but a solid foundation for learning to be a responsible adult. If I hadn’t joined the military a year earlier, I wouldn’t have been able to take care of myself, manage his affairs, and continue to manage our household finances after my father died. It helps to heed the Lord’s counsel. He sees the end before the beginning and knows exactly what we need before we do.
Service and Faith
One of the conflicts for a Christian in the armed forces is, of course, to be faced with war. Our training was centered on warfare. Our doctrine was centered on war. We practiced shooting. We trained to fight. We trained to win. War seemed to be the mindset of all my fellow recruits. I remember an intern saying, “I can’t wait to graduate so I can kill. It was very disturbing for me. Christ says in John 10:10 that He came that mankind might have life and have it abundantly. I struggled with the idea of where my military career would take me. What if I was placed in a war zone? What if I had to take someone’s life? Because for me, I wouldn’t just take someone’s life: I could very well take someone’s last chance for salvation. It would be unbearable.
My faith is what sustained me through basic combat training. Every day was exhausting. All physical, mental and emotional faculties were put to the test. God was the secret source of my strength. Whenever the days got tough or the stress of the day became unbearable, I turned to the Lord for help. Every morning and evening, I knelt beside my bunk and prayed to the Lord for His direction and strength and to give thanks for His protection. And every night before going to bed, I opened my little Bible, one of the few possessions I could have, and made sure to nourish myself with the Words of Life. I was determined not to let my environment determine my level of spirituality. Other recruits quickly noticed my loyalty to my faith. Many asked questions regarding my commitment to the God of the Bible, and I provided answers as best I could. Little did I know that would be the aspect of my character that would continue throughout my career in the military.
I believe that as Christians we should be an example where and when we are. I realized that not only am I representing myself in this military environment, but I am also representing God. Therefore, at the time of service, I was always ready. I didn’t try to shirk my responsibilities, but I held myself accountable to everyone. In times of discouragement, I have sought to be the encouraging voice, motivating my colleagues to keep moving forward. If others sought to engage me in something that conflicted with my faith, I would politely decline. It gradually piqued people’s curiosity and made them question my rationales for living life the way I did. This would eventually lead to discussions about my faith.
Now, to be clear, I never started these conversations. It was against army policy. People, however, would just look at my life, my speech, my work ethic and ask, “Are you a Christian? When I answered “Yes”, the conversation moved on from there. I realize that Christ’s method really works. Christ was a person of relationships. He mingled with people. I found that people were willing to hear your point of view when you had a relationship with them. One of these interactions actually paid off.
I was recommended to prepare for higher level army leadership and enrolled in the appropriate boot camp. I was there to study the war, but every night before I went to bed I took out my Bible and read. I made a lot of friends during that time. One day while we were practicing, someone I’ll call Brad asked me if he could talk to me about something that night.
That night we sat outside our barracks and Brad told me about his life, his bad decisions, the mistakes he had made: something was missing in his life. When he noticed me reading the Bible, he knew that was what he needed. He needed a relationship with God. But he didn’t know how. I told him about the God who loves us and who died on the cross to save us. We had a long conversation that evening. Brad decided to give his life to Jesus. I gave him a little spare green Bible that I had so he could continue reading and learning about God on his own. We kept in touch from time to time, and he always thanked me for helping him that night. In fact, he sent me a gift to show his appreciation – a huge ornate family Bible. When I contacted him about it, he said he just wanted to thank me for the gift I gave him. He found such comfort in knowing that Jesus was watching over him and would always be with him. The last time I spoke with him, he told me that he always had this green Bible with him.
Consciousness and compromise
Unfortunately, I had moments of compromise while I was in the military. Being fully committed to my religious beliefs meant going against the grain. Training days were always held on the Sabbath day. I tried to take a stand for the Sabbath from the start. I was told that if I missed training days, I would not meet the requirements for graduation, I would be retained and I could not return home. I told myself that the requirement was compatible with my faith because I was serving my country. But as I continued to grow in faith, I became more and more uncomfortable with not taking a stand for Christ. With six months left on my army contract, I reached a point where my conscience could no longer be silenced. I thought long and hard. All I had to do was wait another six months. But this thought did not relieve me as I thought of God’s faithfulness to me throughout my service. If I couldn’t stand up for God now, how would I when it mattered most?
I prayed for strength and courage. I had tried to stand before and failed, but this time my heart was engaged. I requested a one-on-one meeting with my officer and explained my religious beliefs to him. He listened carefully. He knew I was a man of faith, and even though he wasn’t, he respected me and my opinions. He decided that even though I always had to show up for work on Saturdays, I could do work that was compatible with the Sabbath. I decided to work with the chaplain of our unit. In this way, I could perform my service while honoring my God. We took the matter to our new unit commander, who had no objections. He had seen my dedication to my faith and was willing to allow me to work with our unit chaplain on Saturdays. It gave me the opportunity to meet the needs of other soldiers and to pray for them and with them.
Convictions and findings
Being a Christian in the military is difficult. I believe serving in the military as an Adventist Christian is even more difficult. But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world. The values I learned from the military are not too different from the values of my faith. In the military, I learned loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. These values are considered the norm for any soldier. It is the same for the Christian. Christ demands our faithfulness to Him and to His Word. Christ has given us the duty to spread his gospel of salvation throughout the world. It teaches us to respect and love each other even when we disagree. By following his life of selfless service, we find ways to help others more than ourselves. His grace enables us to live a life of honor, honesty, and integrity, and to always keep our word. It takes courage to be a good soldier. It takes courage to live for God. It takes courage to defend God. It takes courage to tell others about God, but the dividends are eternal.
My country needs me. God also needs me in his army, displaying his values and brandishing the spiritual weapons he has given to “break down the strongholds” of the enemy (2 Cor. 10:4).
His war against deeply and highly established spiritual forces (Eph. 6:12) needs the best soldiers He can have. I am enlisted. Are you?
Shannon Crawford is associate pastor of the New Covenant Adventist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He served eight years in the army.