Seeking God’s Will
In my last year at the Air Force Academy I developed the same question that I’m sure every Christian in their last year of college does: what is God’s will for my life? While we would all be commissioned in the military, the variety of options available to us meant a plethora of possible career—and thus life—opportunities. Lt Col Stokka, the Officer’s Christian Fellowship staff member at the Academy, taught a lesson to the first class cadets (seniors) that I’m sure he did every year. In it he basically taught that we shouldn’t only seek God’s will when we have a significant decision to make. Rather, we should strive to live as God would have us live everyday. This is rooted in Romans 12:2,
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing, and perfect will.
If a Christian reads the Bible, stays in prayer, and seeks God’s will everyday, then the decisions that he makes should be consistent with the will of God. Rather than depending on emotions and feelings—what he feels God’s will is—he should make his decisions based on the word of God.
Lt Col Stokka assuaged some of our fears about our future assignments by relating some of his personal history. As an Air Force officer he faced reassignment every 2 to 4 years. The Air Force assignment system allows the military officer to create a list of ranked choices for upcoming assignments. Once that list is submitted, the assignment is at the Air Force’s whim. Ideally, they will be able to give the officer one of his choices, but there is always the caveat that “the needs of the Air Force” are paramount. If the Air Force needs a pilot somewhere he doesn’t want to be, he’ll still be assigned there. Lt Col Stokka related that as he approached these assignment opportunities, he prayed and sought God’s will about where God wanted him to go. Short of the voice of God telling him what to submit, he listed his choices based on thoughtful discussion with his wife and their life goals. Lt Col Stokka noted that he never felt that God was directing him to take or ask for a certain assignment; but, looking back, he could see how God had guided his assignments to bring him to the place where he was. Thus he didn’t always feel the finger of God pushing him along the way, but in looking back he could see that God had been guiding his path all along.
God’s Will in Pilot Training
Such “decision points” will occur regularly for the Christian fighter pilot. In pilot training he will need to choose between a fighter and non-fighter training track. The second phase of pilot training is designed to direct student pilots into the type of flying for which they showed the greatest aptitude. Based on class rank, student preference, and instructor pilot input, student pilots could go on to fly helicopters, the T-44/CT-12, T-1, or T-38. The helicopter training was with the Army and was obviously for those who would go on to fly helos. The T-44/CT-12 was a precursor for those who would fly the C-130; the T-1, for heavy airframes like tankers and cargo aircraft; and the T-38 was for those who would fly fighters and bombers. While for many the choice was obvious, I thought a long time about what I really wanted to fly. I didn’t particularly want to fly helicopters, but the thought of leading a crew into combat did make the C-130 track appealing to me. Each track also had its own distinct lifestyle, with pros and cons for personal, family, and professional life. Additionally, some student pilots considered their “follow-on” careers; they wanted to fly the military equivalent of a civilian airliner so that they could obtain the experience they needed to eventually land a comfortable airline job after leaving the military. Ultimately, I decided that flying a small, powerful airframe and delivering weapons on the enemy was what I wanted to do, and I put the T-38 track at the top of my list.
As we completed pilot training we were ranked within our track, and we submitted our choices for what airframe we wanted to fly in the operational Air Force. A “drop” came from headquarters listing the aircraft our class was allotted. The leadership then took our preferences, rank, their own opinion, and airframe availability and assigned everyone an aircraft. In most drops there was also a requirement for one or two First Assignment Instructor Pilots (FAIPs), students who would be reassigned back to the training units as new instructors. As I considered the aircraft I could potentially fly, I decided I wanted to help the soldier on the ground, so my desire was to fly a bomb-dropping airframe. While the totally air-to-air F-15C held the potential for achieving aerial glory, as it would likely be the first to shoot down enemy fighters, it had no air-to-ground role and one more significant shortcoming: most conflicts in recent history had met very little air resistance, so the pilots of the F-15Cs had been utterly bored. Ultimately, my choices going into the drop were F-15E, A-10, F-16, FAIP, and F-15C. There were no F-15Es in our drop and only one A-10. On our assignment night we were notified of our new jet, and mine was an F-16. In less than two years I had experienced three significant decision points that would set the direction for the rest of my career. Each time I prayed that my choice was within God’s will.
Searching for God’s will is one of the great conversational topics within Christianity. If anyone ever publishes a book titled How to Know Exactly What God’s Will is for Your Life, it will be a bestseller if it contains even a modicum of truth (and perhaps even if it doesn’t). (Since I originally wrote this text, some books have come out trying to address that very topic—and have had immense success.) One of many analogies I have heard describes the will of God as a field or park. The park is fenced and, if a Christian is striving every day to live in God’s will, he is free to roam in it; it has a variety of potential paths that he can take, and many activities to accomplish—all equal before God. The Christian is free to make whatever choice he desires within the park, so long as he stays within it. As applied to life, this might mean that there isn’t one particular assignment that God wants him to have, or even perhaps one particular mate that he should marry. Within the will of God, there may be several acceptable choices for either. An Air Force pilot struggling to figure out which assignment God would have him take might be surprised to learn that God might not care. Assuming both choices are “within His will,” He may very well have a plan to bless and advance the pilot regardless of which choice he makes. Taking a path that is outside of God’s will, though, is like climbing over the park’s fence. Unfortunately, that fence is rarely as obvious as he might sometimes wish.
The AF Assignment System
Most Air Force officers “relive” this search for God’s will every few years as they work with the Air Force Assignment System. Because of the length and variety of training assignments, fighter pilots may go for 3 to 5 years before they even have to deal with the “normal” assignment system; prior to that, fighter pilot assignments are either automatic or are the result of class standing at the end of training. Therefore many young fighter pilots will make Captain—a rank most consider mature—and have no clue how to deal with the assignment process. The assignment system can be a challenging process for anyone to understand, though there are generally plenty of older pilots who will gladly offer their mentorship for younger officers considering their future assignments. Unfortunately, few view the military—or even life—the same way a Christian does, so their advice must often be taken with a grain of salt. I was assigned to my first operational base after two years of fighter pilot training at various locations. I wouldn’t have interaction with the assignment system until 6 months prior to my departure—nearly 5 years (and a multitude of assignments) after I’d been commissioned.
As of 2006 the Air Force is revising the assignment system for officers, though the general concept appears to have remained the same. A year before I was scheduled to leave my first assignment, I received notification that I was on the “vulnerable movers list” (VML), meaning I was eligible for a new assignment in a window of a few months. Before that window began, I needed to complete a Preference Worksheet (PW), which is now called a Transitional Officer Development Plan (T-ODP). The PW contained a rank-ordered list of the assignments I wanted. There was a segment for my comments, which enabled me to put down reasoning for the assignments I desired as well as communicate my long-term goals. The comments section allows officers to communicate specific details to his assignment team. For example, I know a pilot who adopted 2 kids and didn’t want to go remote due to the “bonding time” he needed with them; the officer included that information in the comments to help the assignment team give him an appropriate assignment. The last section of the worksheet was a space for my commander’s comments. This was the most important part; if the commander recommends that the Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC) deny an officer a particular assignment, it is unlikely (though not impossible) that he’ll get it. In general, the commander would let his subordinate know ahead of time for what he would or would not recommend him. Also, the personnel center did have certain metrics to meet; they strived to give people one of their top three choices.
Some officers try to manipulate the assignment process to game the system to control their careers. For example, while I was filling out my PW the pervading perception was that if a pilot was not a true “world-wide volunteer”—meaning he would accept any assignment, including remotes—then he hurt his chances of getting what he wanted. This led many people to say that they would accept a remote even though it wasn’t what they really wanted, just so they would look better in the eyes of AFPC. I heard a story about one pilot who put his real desire as his second choice because he heard no one ever got their first. Imagine his shock when he got his first choice, which he didn’t want at all. Regardless how the system changes over the next few years, the best advice I ever got regarding the Air Force assignment process was from an old flight commander. His advice was simple—put down what you want. So long as an officer’s PW is consistent with his desires, the worst that can happen is that AFPC has to give him something not on his list. If he puts down fake choices in an attempt to game the system, AFPC may very well give him one of them—will he then blame the Air Force for giving him what he asked for? If a pilot says he’s a remote volunteer to “sweeten” the opinion of him, AFPC may give him that very remote. A Christian must acknowledge that he is not in total control of his future; when he attempts take control he is pulling it from the hands of his Creator. A Christian fighter pilot faced with an assignment decision must make prayerful choices and then, as difficult as it may seem at the time, let God handle the details.
There are many potential assignments that an Air Force fighter pilot may receive. There are operational tours, UPT instructor slots, staff jobs, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) assignments, Air Liaison Officer (ALO) jobs that attach pilots to the Army, and others. Each has distinct challenges and varied impacts on a pilot’s personal and professional life. There are operational tours around the globe, with the expected potential deployments and commitments. In the F-16 world right now, receiving two consecutive operational assignments, or going “ops to ops,” is rare. Normally, operational assignments are alternated with other kinds of tours. UPT instructor pilot assignments are relatively “stable” tours—a pilot is at one base for three years, and official travels are infrequent and short. The stability of the job generally gives a pilot the ability to be with his family regularly. Though stable, the days are long—UPT IPs may fly as much as three times a day multiple days in the week, as well as attend to other duties.
The non-flying staff job gets officers face time with higher ranks and commands, but it also tends to require long hours making paperwork and reports look perfect for someone else. While not faced with the demands of an operational fighter squadron, the demands of Generals and Colonels will draw just as much time, if not more. UAV jobs tend to be very much like fighter pilot squadrons without the imminent danger of flying. Deployments to dangerous locations still occur, though under somewhat different circumstances. In some cases, a small contingent will deploy with the aircraft while the rest of the squadron flies the aircraft via satellite from home station. ALO jobs are unique in the opportunity to interact with the Army. An Air Force pilot is assigned to an Army unit and does everything with them—including deploy should that occur. In combat, that pilot’s job is to coordinate the air support for the Army. Ultimately, every potential assignment brings its own inherent difficulties and challenges, both to single fighter pilots and those with families.
God is in Control
A Christian who lives in God’s will must take confidence in God’s control of his life, which is difficult for anyone to do. Giving up control—”letting go and letting God,” as some have said—is one of the more difficult things for a Type A fighter pilot to do. Fighter pilots (even Christian ones) tend to view the world very logically and mathematically. They hope that their hard work, effort, and diligence will be recognized and will be rewarded with increased rank and responsibility. They measure their accomplishments and anticipate a given sum: “I’ve done A, therefore I deserve B.” When life disappoints and the sacrifices do not bring the expected rewards, a Christian pilot risks developing a bitter attitude: “I’m making all these sacrifices and getting nothing in return;” “the people around me—who are doing less and living easier, more carnal lives—are getting by as well as, or even better than, I am.” His bitterness can easily become resentment because he feels slighted. He can start to view his life, his peers, and even his Christianity with scorn because he feels that he is suffering injustice. When he begins to feel justified in his contempt for the people and environment around him the potency of his Christianity evaporates. A bitter Christian is no more an asset to God’s kingdom than an atheist or a Buddhist. A bitter Christian has forgotten the sovereignty of God; his religion is based on a deity that isn’t all powerful, all knowing, and just. By accepting a negative attitude—which is very easy to do in the Air Force—a Christian can start down the slippery slope that leads to a bitter and ineffective life.
There were times in my career when I felt in my logical and mathematical opinion that I was being passed over for jobs I was due. I had hoped to be the Christian that God was obviously blessing, evidenced by the great professional success I was having, but instead someone else got the success. While men hope that God will reward them with success, they may work with all their heart only to see others advanced ahead of them. I must accept that I may not be recognized in this life. At times like that a Christian must not become discouraged but must remember that regardless of what happens—someone is promoted over him, his hard work goes unnoticed, he is criticized despite his best efforts, whatever “injustice” he may suffer—God has a plan for his life, and God is in charge. As the ultimate creator of his life, God has plans for him that only he can know. Because the Christian fighter pilot is a part of His plan, God won’t leave him flapping in the wind. For the Christian, there is an immense amount of encouragement in remembering that everything happens for a reason—God’s.
Though they may experience happiness, grief, frustration, or joy, Christians must trust God over those emotions. While stereotypically fighter pilots fly by “the seat of their pants,” they are actually trained to trust their stoic, mechanical instruments over their feelings, because all five senses can fool a pilot’s brain. At night or in the weather, a pilot’s eyes, ears, and the seat of his pants can convince him that he is flying straight and level even if he’s in a turn, roll, or dive. It is a tragic fact that many pilots have died because their senses convinced them that they were flying safely when in fact they were hurtling toward the ground. Several years ago I was flying on the wing of a tanker after refueling. The tanker began a turn into me, and I became convinced that the tanker was turning steeper and steeper, making it impossible for me to stay with him. An instructor pilot on my wing keyed his radio and asked “2, everything all right?” As soon as he did, I checked my instruments and realized that the tanker was in fact in straight, level flight. Checking my instruments “caged” my brain, and I regained my awareness. What had happened was that the tanker had actually rolled out, but I had kept my aircraft in the same relative position to him—I almost ended up directly above the tanker, convinced that he was rolling into me. A short radio call from my instructor and a quick check of my instruments enabled me to regain my composure and potentially saved my life.
The loss of such awareness is called “spatial disorientation.” Because the sensory inputs are so strong, to combat the fatal effects of “spatial d” pilots are taught to depend on their instruments, which are calibrated, redundant, and provide a trustworthy frame of reference. Many pilots—just as I did—have “felt” like they were flying one way and have been saved when they saw that their instruments told a different story. Just as a pilot must depend on his instruments, a Christian must rely on his solid frame of reference. His senses, feelings, and emotions are not always trustworthy, which is why he must depend on what he knows is faithful: the constancy of God. While his mood may change for any number of reasons, God’s Word never changes, and he can take confidence in that.
Christian Fighter Pilot Ambition
Even though a Christian fighter pilot knows not to politic to advance himself, he is still faced with career pressures to succeed. A fighter pilot must accomplish military education, basic and tactical aircraft training, demanding upgrades, and a variety of other military functions to advance professionally. Unfortunately, many opportunities for advancement as a fighter pilot require a significant amount of self-assertion; in the simplest terms, it seems an officer sometimes needs to toot his own horn to get anywhere. Even before being commissioned I was warned by officers to make sure that I looked out for “number one” because nobody else would—they’d be too busy looking out for themselves. Much to my dismay, I’ve sometimes found that statement to be true. Very often to be recognized Air Force officers must search out awards and submit their own name. If they hear of an award for which they feel they might qualify, it is often contingent upon them to research the award, write their own package, and submit their name. Superior officer recommendations are often written by the subordinate for the leadership’s signature. The necessity of self-promotion conflicts with a Christian’s inherent need to be humble and receptive, rather than assertive and diffusive.
There is a fine line between ambition and initiative that only the individual prayerful Christian can discern. Many fighter pilots have grown up dreaming of being nothing less than a combat ace, commander, or general. A person who sets his sights firmly on a prize can benefit from the strong motivation and drive to succeed. Unfortunately, such focus may bring danger with it. A Christian risks planning God out of his life and not even seeking His will or guidance. He may become so fixated that being a fighter pilot consumes his life and is his “idol.” Worse, when his goal is achieved and he becomes what it is he desired, he will be tempted to think that he has “made” himself. Excessive ambition may drive his life away from God, and a lack of sufficient ambition may cause his career to stagnate. Career advancement is necessary for both professional and spiritual reasons. Most obviously, if an officer fails to progress professionally, the military will fire him. More subtly, a Christian’s degree of professional advancement has a direct impact on his witness. If an outspoken Christian fighter pilot is successful in his career as an officer and a pilot, his witness gains immediate credibility—particularly if he gives the credit for his success to God. If he is slow or fails to advance, regardless of the reason, his mediocre performance in a world of successful stand-outs could be a detriment to his spiritual witness.
A Christian does not need a complete lack of ambition; he must simply prevent ambition from consuming him. That task is hardly “simple” for the Christian, and there is disagreement even in the Christian community about the appropriate level of Christian ambition. Paul notes in Galatians that “selfish ambition” is “obviously” an “act of the sinful nature,” but a healthy degree of ambition can provide a drive to succeed and achieve goals (5:19-21). I believe a Christian can express interests in jobs and advancement opportunities, and he can work everyday to do his best and show his ability to handle more rank and responsibility. He can and should search out and apply for positions or schools in which he is interested; goals are admirable. However, when he tries to manipulate the system and slides into the single-seat cockpit of his career he pushes God out of it. Instead, he should express his career and job desires clearly to his superiors and then concentrate his efforts on doing his job well, allowing God to control promotion, advancement, and recognition.
Certainly there is nothing wrong with taking actions and making prayerful choices that are consistent with personal desires—assuming that the Christian believes those desires to be within God’s will for him. In fact, when it comes to the direction a Christian’s life will take, it is unlikely that God will divinely commandeer the military assignment system, so at some point the Christian fighter pilot will still have to make a wise and informed decision. God has given man a heart and a brain for a reason; he is to wholly depend on God, but he is also to make wise choices. Though this sounds like he is to be an independent creature totally dependent on God, there really isn’t a contradiction. For example, I believe that God protects me, but I still look both ways before I cross the street—I trust God, and I attempt to make wise choices. God has given men the ability to make choices and subsequently reap the consequences of those choices.
Living God’s Will
To live out his life a Christian must make decisions; he can’t merely sit on the couch and demand that God make His will happen. Some use to say that “God helps those who help themselves.” Whether that adage is true or not, there is some basis for human initiative within God’s will. There is a popular uncredited joke, told in many variations, about waiting for God’s action in life. In the simplest version, a man is caught in a flood, and as the waters begin to rise, a car comes by to carry the man out. He refuses, saying he’ll wait for God to save him. The water rises to his doorstep, and a Good Samaritan in a boat comes by to help him out; the man says he’ll wait for God to save him. The water continues to rise and the man is soon forced onto his roof. A helicopter is dispatched to pick him up, but still he says he’ll wait for God to rescue him. The water eventually covers the house and the man drowns. When he arrives in heaven, he asks God why He hadn’t rescued him. God’s reply: “What are you talking about? I sent a car, a boat, and a helicopter!”
“Waiting for God” does not imply inaction on the Christian’s part; often, he must prayerfully step out in faith first, and only later will he see how God was working in his life. He can’t pray “God, I really want to cross the street,” and then do nothing until God sends angels down to carry him across. After all, God parted the Red Sea but the Israelites still had to walk across. In the same way, a Christian can’t pray, “God, I want to be the world’s best fighter pilot” or “a four-star general” and then take no initiative to that end. He should not take control of his life toward that goal, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t work toward it, if he prayerfully believes that it is within God’s will for his life.