This is the second in a series of articles on military Christians and life priorities. The first addressed the necessity of the priority of God in a Christian’s life, and looked into the potential responses that others may have to that priority. The second priority that a military Christian must consider is that of his family.
The Family Priority
A military Christian’s second priority should be family. The Air Force has generally been regarded as the more “family friendly” of the services, and it continues to recognize that a military member’s family life directly influences the performance of his duties. (Incidentally, November is National Military Family Month, as noted by the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force’s recent Enlisted Perspective.) Still, the nature of the military environment virtually ensures that there will be conflict between the military profession and a service member’s family.
A military member’s family is as much in the military as he is. During a lull in a base exercise, a fighter pilot’s wife thought it would be nice to try to bring him lunch at the planning cell, where he was hard at work behind a desk instead of flying. She strapped their baby into the car and deftly navigated around the concertina wire and concrete barricades. She arrived at his office just in time to get caught in the middle of a mock ground battle. A young airman from the security forces unexpectedly lay across the hood of her car and let loose hundreds of blank rounds from an M-60 machine gun. Fortunately, she had some experience with the Air Force and knew it was part of the exercise; she managed not to panic as brass shells bounced off her windshield. She was concerned for their daughter, but she needn’t have been: the kid slept soundly through the entire firefight.
Truly, that family was just as much “in” the military as was the fighter pilot husband and father. The military life is challenging not only for the service member, but also for the spouse and children. An oft quoted phrase regarding the military/family relationship is that “you’ll retire from the military in 20 years, but your family will be around for your lifetime.” If the military Christian wants his family to be there when he separates or retires, he needs to give them the attention that they need now. Even in non-religious segments of society, few people honestly say that they would choose their career over their families; the cliché is that on their deathbed, no one says they wished they spent more time at work. While there may be times that military service will require sacrifice (a topic that will be addressed at another time), a military Christian must emphasize the priority of family in his life.
The family priority means that after the Christian assesses his actions in relation to his God priority, he determines what the impact will be on his family. Like the God priority, the family priority does not mean that because he has a family a Christian will refuse to accomplish his duty. Again, legal, required, and moral duties can still be “harmful” to the family: the most obvious example is the deployment of troops to war. Wars are not fought only by single, childless men. The separation that occurs and the stress that it places on the family are unfavorable, but the commitment to country rises above the needs of the family. Outside of responding to the nation’s call to war, though, there will be many times when a Christian will need to balance the demands of his professional career with the needs of his family.
Living the Family Priority
Many military members—fighter pilots in particular—work very long days separated by short nights; it is tempting to go home, fall asleep, wake up, and go back into work. “Living” at work can be hard on the family. Many things will demand an officer’s time, but most are temporary in nature: combat, preparing for combat, exercises, and inspections all demand extra time but also have limited durations. In a perfect world, an officer’s family will understand the demands of the military and honor both his time and fatigue. However, his family still needs his presence, time, and effort. Even during demanding times, a military Christian may need to make special efforts to give his family the priority they need.
To help prioritize his family, a military Christian should consider devoting “untouchable” time to be with them. For some, this is done most easily by keeping the weekend sacred—if the officer is not required to work on the weekend, he makes every effort not to, though this may require him to stay at work longer during the week. Others choose to prioritize the weekday evenings, often taking the role of putting their children to bed; if necessary, they may go into work on the weekends. There is no single right answer, though there is one wrong one: neglecting the family. Though there may be times when sacrifices must be made, a Christian should carefully weigh those times when his time at his profession would demand priority over his family.
A military Christian must also carefully consider conflicts between his God and family priorities. It is worth remembering that the need to take care of family is a Biblical directive. God gave specific commands for husbands, wives, and parents to be responsible for their families (through Paul, for example, in Ephesians and Colossians). There is no Biblical example of God demanding (or allowing) the break-up of a family to accomplish His will; on the contrary, the Old and New Testaments place priority on the marriage and family relationship, which are to be followed by Godly service. In the Old Testament, newly married men were not sent to war until a year after their wedding (Deuteronomy 24:5). In the New Testament, God commanded that men be in control over their own houses before they started working for Him (1 Timothy 3:12).
Unfortunately, there are countless examples in the Christian community of those who have had the foundations of their faith questioned by the break-up of their family. Popular artist Amy Grant practically fell out of the Christian music industry when she divorced her husband and married country music artist Vince McGill (also recently divorced) less than a year later. Dr. Charles Stanley, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta and the personality of the television ministry In Touch, divorced his wife of 44 years in 2000. Dr. Stanley’s case gained particular notoriety because of his celebrity status and because in 1995 he had promised to step down as pastor if his then-separation became divorce. When he did not do so, he was supported by his church and widely criticized outside of it.
Besides such infamous stories of spiritual shortcomings, there are also many anecdotes about missionaries’ marriages failing due to the unique challenges of the mission field. One Christian couple rationalized their failed marriage by saying that they were “serving God so faithfully” they had neglected their own relationship; such an attitude isn’t scriptural. God repeatedly emphasized the marriage relationship throughout the Bible—from the union of Adam and Eve “as one” in Genesis, to Jesus’ “let man not separate” directive and the description of the church as Christ’s bride in the New Testament (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:6). Ultimately, obedience to God is the highest priority, but a Christian must not take on the attitude that what he perceives as service to God is worth the loss of his family. This is similar to what Samuel was trying to explain to Saul when he told him that “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22). To obey God, including His commands that families are appropriately tended to, is better than any act of service.
Like the misunderstanding missionaries, military Christians may experience similar conflicts in their God and family priorities, because the servant attitude that attracts Christians to military service also attracts them to service for God. The military, unlike many civilian career fields, is not a “9 to 5″ profession; a military member is often “on duty” 24 hours a day, even when the official 12, 14, or 16 hour workday is done. Because the military already monopolizes the time of a military member, it is often difficult to be involved in extracurricular activities. If a military Christian chooses to do so, he may sacrifice what little free time he has for his family. One of the greatest challenges occurs when military Christians want to take a more active (or even leadership) role in non-work related Christian service. While teaching Sunday School, leading a mid-week Bible study, or helping with a youth group are admirable and noble pursuits, they, too, take up precious time that could be spent with the family. This does not mean that a military Christian shouldn’t take on leadership roles, but he must carefully and consciously make such decisions.
The necessity of the importance of family is not confined to the military profession. An excellent book on one man’s perspective on the family priority is Tony Dungy’s recent bestseller Quiet Strength. Though Dungy is a football coach, an understanding (or even appreciation) of football is not required to see how the husband and father handled the conflicting priorities in his life. Dungy’s descriptions of the demands of his profession are sometimes eerily similar to those of a military service member. Arguably, not all of his decisions were the best, but the example he sets is admirable. He has what millions of men probably consider the most coveted of positions, that of a Super Bowl winning NFL head coach—but the reluctant celebrity repeatedly emphasizes that there’s more to this life:
Football is great…but football is just a game. It’s not family. It’s not a way of life. It doesn’t provide any sort of intrinsic meaning. It’s just football… Although football has been a part of my life that I’ve really enjoyed, I’ve always viewed it as a means to do something more. A means to share my faith, to encourage and lift up other people.
Dungy’s other thoughts on the decisions in his life often mirror those that a Christian in the military (and in particular, Christian fighter pilots) must make, including, for example, the choices he knew would affect whether or not he “fit in.” Quiet Strength (available on Amazon) is an excellent read for those that might want a somewhat new perspective on Christian living in what some may consider an unkind environment.
Like Coach Dungy, a military Christian will face many pressures, both internal and external, that will challenge the importance of his family in his life. His profession, desires for Christian service, and even simple personal needs will stretch the limits of his available time and attention. Emphasizing the importance of family in the military may sometimes be challenging, but it is a Christian’s God-given responsibility. The priority a Christian places on his family is the direct result of his obedience to God and his personal choices—both of which are within his direct control. A military service member must assess God’s commands and the demands of the world, and he must choose which path he will take. Again, there is no single answer for every situation…but every situation will arise.