Spiritual Requisites of a Christian Fighter Pilot
A Christian fighter pilot engages in spiritual combat on a daily basis. His foundation is threatened, his faith is tested, and his righteous life is challenged. To survive, he requires a firm spiritual foundation and Christian mutual support.
A Christian fighter pilot needs a firm foundation to be an effective witness to the world. His foundation is based on the strength of his faith and beliefs; he must know what he believes, why he believes it, and he must have confidence in it. If a Christian believes without question that God parted the Red Sea for the nation of Israel, allowing them to cross on dry ground and drowning the Egyptians after them, then to him it is as sure as fact. Conversely, if he thinks that God parted the sea, but isn’t sure if it was just a marsh, or maybe the Egyptians just got caught in the mud, then his faith is based on indefinites and his beliefs are indefensible. When challenged, the Christian with firm beliefs will not waver and will rely on the underpinnings of his faith; the Christian whose faith is based on possibilities will have no fortress to fall back to when his faith is challenged, and he may retreat to a secular position or simply surrender all together. To stand firm, a Christian must know where he stands; the cliché says that if you don’t stand for something then you’ll fall for anything. Isaiah said that if you don’t stand firm in your faith, you won’t stand at all (7:9).
Know What You Believe
A Christian fighter pilot can strengthen his foundation by increasing his knowledge. The fighter pilot equivalent is extensive tactical expertise. Pilots must know their aircraft and all its systems, the weapons it can carry, the support provided by their allies and sister services, their enemy, and their enemy’s defenses. Volumes of data cover the classified and unclassified features of every aspect of a fighter pilot’s tactical world, and they are constantly revised and updated. The only way to maintain currency on the plethora of material is constant study. Proficiency also requires more than just memorization; the best understanding comes with analysis, scrutiny, and the desire to understand the foundational concepts. To fail to keep up with the most current data or to forget critical pieces of information is to invite disaster on a mission. No combat pilot would dream of entering a hostile area without ensuring that he had the training and knowledge needed to emerge victorious.
In the same way, a Christian must know himself, his God, his support, and his enemy. The manual that he can reference is the Bible. First, reading what he claims to believe is essential to knowing what he believes. I once heard a preacher say that he knew many who claimed to believe the Bible “cover to cover” but had never read it from “cover to cover.” While the task may seem daunting for even the most avid Christian reader, there are many suggested blueprints available to accomplish the feat; now, most Bibles even include one in the “extra” pages in the back. The Christian must know his Bible. In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul says that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Importantly, in verse 17 Paul continues, “so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The Bible is God’s tactics manual, and it is the source of knowledge for every aspect of a Christian fighter pilot’s spiritual life, guiding him in how he should live for God. The Bible is the means by which the man of God is equipped for every good work in his personal, professional, and spiritual life. Only through constant study and perpetual saturation in it can he hope to stay current in his spiritual walk with God.
Additionally, like tactical proficiency, more than simply “knowing” or memorization is required. A Christian fighter pilot must strive to analyze, discover, and comprehend the intricacies of his Christian beliefs and the qualities of the character of God. Resources that can help the Christian understand what he believes include Josh McDowell’s New Evidence That Demands a Verdict and Paul Little’s Know What You Believe. I recommend that a Christian use resources such as these to strengthen his understanding of the basics. Just as a fighter pilot must learn how to take off and land before he learns how to dogfight, a Christian benefits most from having a firm grasp of the fundamentals. Once the Christian fighter pilot is proficient in the basics, then effort can be expended on the advanced: in the case of the pilot, advanced tactics; in the case of the Christian, apologetics.
Remember What You Believe: Testimony
A Christian fighter pilot can also strengthen his foundation by reminding himself what he believes. The easiest way is for a Christian to write down his testimony; that is, the way in which he came to know Christ. Every person who claims Christianity has a testimony. Christianity is not inherited or just “happened upon” one day; becoming a follower of Christ is a choice—an act of will. Writing down his testimony will force a Christian to remember that act of will, articulate the choice he made, and list the reasons he made that choice. It will give him the starting point from which to support his decisions. A choice that cannot be expressed cannot be defended. A Christian should also examine and write down the condition of his life before and after his conversion. If he was saved at a relatively young age, then it is likely that there isn’t too much to the “before” picture; in any case, he should be able to enumerate his Christian choices as he’s grown and be able to explain and justify them. This will help him answer the question of why he lives the way he does, beyond the fact that “he’s a Christian.” A Christian fighter pilot’s ability to know, understand, and defend the reason that he is a Christian will give him a firm foundation on which to stand when the pilots around him challenge his faith.
Ebenezers: Reminders of the Journey
A Christian fighter pilot’s testimony reminds him of his spiritual origin; to remind him of the journey he should remember to raise “Ebenezers.” Popular Christian self-help books have made the term “Ebenezer” almost standard in Christian-ese; it was originally in the old hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” (“Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come…”). The source is 1 Samuel 7:12: under the guidance of Samuel, the Philistines had finally been defeated, but not by Israel. God had caused the Philistines to be thrown into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites. In recognition of God’s protection, Samuel set up a memorial stone and called it Ebenezer, which means “stone of help.” This was not the first time the Israelites had created such monuments. In Exodus 16:32 Moses commanded the Israelites to save a jar of manna to show future generations the provision God had made for the people. When Joshua led the nation across the Jordan, he commanded them to collect 12 stones from the dry riverbed and erect them as a memorial. In Joshua 4:23, Joshua told them that the reason for the stones was that in the future their descendants would ask the purpose of the monument, and the elders would be able to tell them of God’s help both at the Jordan and the Red Sea.
In modern times, with the popularity of catch phrases and pithy mnemonics, Christians have taken to referring to any “life turning point” or “memorial stone” as an Ebenezer—a standing stone that marks a location of God’s help. As Christians mature in Christ, they will face many struggles, and only by the grace of God will they continue to walk in His ways. They will also have moments of joy and success that only God could provide. As they come through such struggles and joy, Christians need to scribe those moments in their memory, or perhaps even create a physical reminder of them; write them on the inside cover of a favorite Bible, keep them in a journal, or put them on index cards and post them on the wall.
The objective is to remember these spiritual highs and lows for two reasons. First, they remind the Christian of God’s provision. The reminders of the good times will give him hope in times of struggle. The reminder of times of struggle will prompt him during easy times that God’s provision is the reason that he has come so far. A Christian’s Ebenezers will mark his spiritual growth and provide a reminder of the constancy and dependability of God. In my own life, my failure to raise an Ebenezer caused me to forget that God had provided me encouragement. Near the end of one of my assignments—throughout which I had struggled under the weight of my unpopular Christian decisions—one of my fellow pilots experienced significant personal problems that eventually led him to God. Because of my actions in the squadron over the previous years he knew that he could talk to me about his spiritual life. We had many good conversations, and I can only hope that I was able to provide him some strong spiritual support. I left that assignment not much later, though, and failed to even realize that God was showing me that my “sacrifices” in living a Godly life were not fruitless—someone had positively responded to my Christian character. Only when my wife recounted the story to me later did I realize my need to remember that God had shown me my choices would ultimately have good results. The second reason for Ebenezers is that other people might see concrete examples of God’s provision in the Christian’s life. A Christian will be able to articulate to other people the times in his life that God sustained him. This will show them the reason that he continues in his faith; it will also enable him to provide comfort and reassurance to those who go through similar circumstances.
Finally, there is another use of Ebenezers that is somewhat different but almost more important. As demonstrated by Joshua after crossing the Jordan, when the Israelites erected an Ebenezer it was intended as more than a memorial; it was also to inspire conversation. The reason for the stones by the Jordan was to cause future Israelites to ask “Why are these here?” and enable the elders to speak of God’s provision for their people. Similarly, at various times in history God directed His prophets to have “conversation pieces” to draw the attention of the Israelites and convey His messages. (As an example, the Judah / Ephraim stick of Ezekiel in 37:15-18.) As a member of the military, Christian fighter pilots may have difficulty finding ways to physically create this kind of Ebenezer, but these Christian “conversation pieces” can be extraordinarily effective ministry tools. Each situation will have unique circumstances, but whether it’s a cross around a neck, a bumper sticker, a fish emblem on a car, a T-shirt with a Christ-centered slogan, or Christian music blaring on a stereo, these Ebenezers can be ways to inspire others to say “What’s the reason for this?” and open the door to say “my hope is in Christ.”
A Christian fighter pilot can strengthen his spiritual foundation by knowing the Bible, articulating his testimony, and raising Ebenezers to remind him of his path. To counter the constant spiritual attacks, a Christian fighter pilot can strengthen his foundation by saturating his life with whatever it is on which his spirit depends. If he falters when not surrounded by Christian friends, then he needs to weave his life with them. If he gains spiritual renewal through playing a musical instrument, then he should buy one and set it up in a convenient place where he can reach it and play it often. If he needs the peace of reading a good Christian novel or study book, he should place favorites on his coffee table and find bookstores to keep his supply fresh—there are even internet bookstores that specialize in wholesale distribution of religious resources (See Links). A source of support that I have found that positively influences my life is Christian music radio. Playing it at home and in my car keeps the positive lyrics in my head and my subconscious thoughts on God. In Germany there was no Christian radio station, and it was not until I moved that I realized how much the playing of it in the background lifted my spirits. When I arrived in Korea there wasn’t a Christian radio station there, either; however, I obtained a high-speed internet connection and was able to listen to the streaming broadcast of a variety of US-based stations. In my case, Christian music radio in my life lifted my spirits and strengthened my Christian living by buttressing my thoughts. Whatever it is that does that for the Christian, he needs to fill his life with it.
Even once confident in his foundation, though, a Christian fighter pilot requires the reassurance of mutual support. Mutual support is not only crucial to mission success, it is also essential to coming home alive. The key to mutual support is a wingman. Fighter pilots virtually always enter combat in formations of multiple aircraft. A flight of aircraft is composed of a flight lead and a wingman, referred to as #1 and #2. In a four-ship, #3 is another qualified flight lead, though he is subordinate to #1. #4 is another wingman. According to the mantra once taught in pilot training, the wingman was only allowed to say three things: “2,” which was an acknowledgement of a directive from #1, “bingo,” which meant that he’d reached the fuel state at which he had to go home, and “Lead, you’re on fire,” indicating that he saw a problem with #1’s jet. Some joked that the wingman could only say “Lead, you’re trailing smoke,” because being “on fire” was a judgment call. (An oft-quoted corollary to #2’s permitted calls was “I’ll take the fat one,” a description of a wingman accepting the less desirable young lady to support his flight lead in a social situation.)
The subservience of #2 to his flight lead was heavily emphasized and was based on both the wingman’s lesser experience and the need for a firm leadership structure in the flight. Over the past few years, however, the supremacy of #1 in the eyes of the Air Force has slowly faded. By the time I had left pilot training and moved on to operational aircraft, the concept of “Crew/Fighter Resource Management” (C/FRM) was more common. The Air Force knew that many flight leads had broken things and gotten people killed while their wingmen had the situational awareness to prevent the mishap. Decades of telling #2 to be quiet had taken their toll, though, and most would only speak up in rare circumstances. C/FRM, as taught and emphasized by the Air Force, placed a priority on communication and sharing information. #2 was still supposed to be subservient to #1, but if #2 saw things were going south in a hurry, he was encouraged to speak up and ask the question rather than watch silently as #1 fouled it away. The wingman was encouraged to provide proactive mutual support.
In the most rudimentary sense, each aircraft in a formation provides mutual support by checking the other’s “six.” Using a clock as a reference, the area directly in front of the aircraft is 12 o’clock, the left and right are 9 and 3 o’clock, and the 6 o’clock position is directly behind the jet. “Checking six” is the least visible (and thus most vulnerable) area for a pilot. Each aircraft flies in a tactical formation that allows the other to check his wingman’s six—a pilot relies on his wingman to check his most vulnerable area. With increased technology and more advanced weapons systems like the F-22, visual formations are less important and pilots may not even be able to see each other. Still, the presence of other friendly aircraft in close proximity provides mutual support; regardless of what happens to either aircraft, a squadron mate is close by to lend a hand if required.
A Christian needs mutual support in his spiritual life just as a fighter pilot requires mutual support in combat. The support, accountability, and encouragement provided by a friend in Christ to a fighter pilot can determine the success or failure of his mission in life. The support of a fellowship of believers has an unquantifiable impact on the life of a Christian. While it is true that God is the source of a Christian’s strength, there are few Biblical examples of those who God intended to be alone in this world (though there are a few). In Ecclesiastes, God said, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: if one falls down his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up.” And further, “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (4:12). Most people quickly assume that the “cords” apply to those who are married, representing the husband, wife, and God. While it does have a unique application to a marriage relationship, there is no evidence the author intended it to be restricted to that use, and the phrase is just as pertinent to those who are single. The first two cords are the Christian and God, the third cord is his wingman; depending on the point of view, the wingman could be fulfilled by church fellowship, a Bible study group, or a faithful Christian friend—importantly, a friend of the same gender—to whom he can confide and maintain a relationship of accountability.
A Christian wingman is an important asset in all facets of a fighter pilot’s life. One area that he can be of great support is a deployment. The sexual tenor of fighter pilots tends to increase when they deploy, and having a Christian friend who keeps his mind out of the gutter can be invaluable. Without ever mentioning specific topics, a Christian can help his brother stay accountable. It’s relatively easy for one Christian to help another by simply asking how he’s doing. A fellow Christian can also provide immense spiritual encouragement. Twice in my short career another Christian officer and I have uplifted each other’s spirits by supporting each other in a common struggle. The mutual support of a Christian brother or sister is invaluable. A Christian fighter pilot needs a spiritual “wingman” on this earth just as much as a tactical wingman in combat.
A Christian fighter pilot requires many of the same things in the spiritual world as he does the tactical one. The typical fighter pilot exudes confidence in his abilities and expertise in knowledge; a Christian fighter pilot needs a similar confidence and wisdom in his spiritual foundation. In combat he needs a wingman to back him up; spiritually, a Christian brother does the same. Strength in these qualities assures mission success in the fighter pilot’s tactical and spiritual worlds.