There I was, at a military entrance processing center (MEPS), signing on a dotted line, stating that I, Shannon Lamar Crawford, would serve in the United States military for eight years. Despite the uncertainty of the future, I held on to the fact that the “Lord shall be [my] confidence and should keep [my] foot from being taken” (Prov. 3:26, KJV). After all, I was doing this because I believed that God had encouraged me to join the military.
I accepted Christ as my Savior when I was 15 years old. It was a very personal and mind-blowing experience. I credit that to my father, who constantly emphasized 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 as I was reading The Great Controversy, by Ellen White, my eyes were opened: there’s a big spiritual war going on in this world, and we are caught in the midst; every world event happens against the background of this great battle; every decision we make places us on God’s or Satan’s side; Satan is a formidable foe.
Every facet of the Adventist message began to make sense: we’re all part of the remnant church of Bible prophecy; God has given us a message to preach; more important, I need a Savior; I need Jesus.
I remember falling to my knees, and with a heart of surrender I gave myself over to Jesus. I wanted to be on His side in this great struggle. I wanted to be in His army.
Joining the U.S. Army was a tad too far. Yet here I was, May 12, 2011, enlisting in the United States Army Reserve, fully trusting that wherever I went, the presence of the Lord would go with me. Why? Because I was following His will, not mine.
People ask all the time: “How do you know God wanted you to join the military? How could you be so sure?” I know because of how God’s providence has cared for me. I graduated from basic training in December of 2011. Months later, June 2012, my father passed from a stroke. And where’s the providence in that? My father had been providing for me on his own since I was 12 years old. During that time, because I was always directed to focus on academics, I did not have any employment or any savings. Joining the military provided me not only with an income but a solid foundation in learning how to be a responsible adult. If I had not joined the military a year earlier, I would not have been able to take care of myself, handle his affairs, and be able to continue handling the finances of our home after my father had died. It pays to pay attention to the Lord’s guidance. He sees the end before the beginning, and knows exactly what we need before we do.
One of the conflicts for a Christian in the armed services is, of course, being faced with war. Our training centered on war. Our doctrine centered on war. We trained to shoot. We trained to fight. We trained to win. War seemed to be the mindset of all of my fellow recruits. I remember one trainee saying, “I can’t wait to graduate so I can kill.” That was very disturbing to me. Christ says in John 10:10 that He came that humanity may have life and have it more abundantly. I struggled with the idea of where my Army career would take me. What if I were placed in a war zone? What if I had to take someone’s life? Because to me, I wouldn’t just be taking someone’s life: I could very well be taking someone’s final chance at salvation. That would be unbearable.
My faith is what sustained me during basic combat training. Every day was grueling. Every physical, mental, and emotional faculty was being taxed to the limit. God was the secret source of my strength. Whenever the days got hard or the stress of the day became unbearable, I would turn to the Lord for His help. Every morning and evening I would kneel beside my bunk and pray to the Lord for His guidance and strength and to give thanks for His protection. And every night before I went to bed, I would open my small Bible, one of the few possessions I was able to have, and make sure that I fed on the Words of Life. I was determined not to let my environment determine my level of spirituality. Other recruits quickly took notice of the fealty I had to my faith. Many would ask questions regarding my commitment to the God of the Bible, and I would provide answers as best as I could. Little did I know that this would be the aspect of my character that would continue throughout my Army career.
I believe that as Christians we are to be an example whenever and wherever we are. I realized that not only am I representing myself in this Army environment, but I am representing God as well. Therefore, when it was time for duty, I was always ready. I didn’t seek to shirk responsibility, but held myself accountable to everyone. In times of discouragement I sought to be the encouraging voice, motivating my colleagues to keep pressing forward. If others sought to engage me in something that was in conflict with my faith, I would politely decline. This would gradually awaken people’s curiosity and lead them to ask questions about my reasonings for living life the way I did. This would eventually lead to discussions about my faith.
Now, to be clear, I never began these conversations. That was contrary to Army policy. People, however, would simply look at my life, my speech, my work ethic, and ask, “Are you a Christian?” When I’d answer “Yes,” the conversation would move from there. I realize that Christ’s method truly does work. Christ was a person of relationships. He mingled with people. I found that people were willing to hear your perspective when you had a relationship with them. One of these interactions actually bore fruit.
I was recommended to prepare for next-level Army leadership, and enrolled in the appropriate training camp. I was there to study war, but every night before bed I would pull out my Bible and read. I made many friends during that time. One day as we were out training, someone I’ll call Brad asked 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 wrong decisions, the mistakes he’d made: something was missing from his life. When he noticed me reading the Bible, he knew that that was what he needed. He needed a relationship with God. But he did not know how. I told him about the God who loves us, and died on the cross to save us. We had a long conversation that night. Brad decided to give his life to Jesus. I gave him a little green spare Bible that I had so that he could continue to read and learn about God on his own. We kept in contact on and off, and he would always thank me for helping him that night. He actually sent me a gift to show his appreciation—a huge ornate family Bible. When I reached out to him about it, he said that he just wanted to thank me for the gift that I had given Him. He found such reassurance in knowing that Jesus was watching over him and would be with Him always. Last I talked with him, he told me that he still had that green Bible with him.
Sadly, I did have moments of compromise while in the military. To be fully committed to my religious beliefs meant going against the grain. Training days always occurred on the Sabbath. I tried to take a stand for the Sabbath from the beginning. I was told that if I missed days of training, I would not meet the requirements for graduation, would be held back, and not be able to go home. I rationalized with 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 uncomfortable about not taking a stand for Christ. With six months remaining on my Army contract, I reached a point where my conscience could be silent no longer. I thought long and hard. All I had to do was wait it out another six months. But the thought gave me no relief as I thought about God’s faithfulness to me throughout my entire time in service. If I could not stand for God now, how would I when it mattered the most?
I prayed for strength and courage. I had attempted to stand before and had failed, but this time my heart was committed. I requested a one-on-one meeting with my officer, and I laid out before him my religious convictions. He listened intently. He knew that I was a man of faith, and even though he wasn’t, he respected me and my views. He decided that even though I would still have to report to duty, on Saturdays I could do Sabbath-compatible work. I decided to work with our unit chaplain. That way I could fulfill my service while honoring my God. We took the matter to our new unit commander, who had no objections. He had seen my devotion to my faith, and was willing to allow me to work with our unit chaplain on Saturdays. This gave me the opportunity to minister to other soldiers’ needs and to pray for them and with them.
Being a Christian in the military is hard. Serving in the military as an Adventist Christian, I believe, is even harder. But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. The values I learned from the military aren’t too different from the values of my faith. In the military I learned about loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. These values are held as the standard for any soldier. It is the same for the Christian. Christ asks for our loyalty to Him and to His Word. Christ has given us a duty to spread His gospel of salvation throughout the world. He teaches us to respect and love each other even when we disagree. Following His life of selfless service, we find ways to help others more than ourselves. His grace enables us to live lives of honor, honesty, and integrity, and always keep our word. It takes courage to be a good soldier. It takes courage to live for God. It takes courage to stand for 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 wielding the spiritual weapons He has given for “pulling down 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’m enlisted. Are you?
Shannon Crawford is associate pastor of the New Covenant Adventist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He served eight years in the military.