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God StrongThe Military Wife's Spiritual Survival Guide
By Sara Horn
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Sara Horn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Difference One Word Makes
If strength is symbolized by color, the summer of 2007 I would have been invisible. That was the midway point of my husband's first deployment to Iraq, and a crumpled-up piece of paper in my wastebasket had more strength than I did at the time.
The Fourth of July had arrived and I was alone. All my friends had decided to go out of town that week, and so it was just my little boy and me, and I didn't want to do anything. While other families were out grilling in their back yards and enjoying the holiday, I was missing my husband, Cliff, and ruefully thinking about how our family's sacrifice was giving other families the chance to carry on with their carefree lives. I tried to put on a brave face for our son, but that day, it wasn't working very well. So I sent Caleb out to play in the bright sunshine with the neighbor kids while I sat on my couch with the curtains closed staring blankly at nothing in particular. I was done. I was worn out. I had nothing left to give. I tried to pray, but even that was hard.
Just a little over a year before, I sat in that exact same spot, thinking about the news Cliff had called with from his AT (annual training). His Navy Reserve Seabee battalion would deploy at the beginning of2007.
At the time, I was very optimistic about and even motivated by the deployment. Cliff had been in the Navy Reserves for a little over ten years, but I had never really felt like a true military wife. I didn't buy our groceries at the commissary; Cliff didn't wear his camouflage to work every day. In fact, my husband's Reserve center was in Millington, near Memphis, almost four hours from where we lived in Nashville. I could count on one hand the number of times I'd visited the base with him on a drill weekend during his first decade of service. I'd never met Cliff's commanding officer, never attended any special ceremonies or worried about any military formalities.
For our family, military life was never really the norm. We got used to the one weekend a month, two weeks a year that Cliff was "gone to Navy," as our little boy called it, and we liked the little bit of extra paycheck that came with it, but for the most part, Cliff's service as a reservist was never really part of our family's day-to-day. Until it interfered with a birthday or an anniversary or some other special event; in those cases, we definitely had something in common with active military.
Only when I traveled twice to Iraq in 2003 to cover stories of Christians in the military did I finally get a glimpse of what it means to be in the military, what it means for the families and spouses back home. I interviewed both service members and their families and wrote stories about how families can stay connected, how God can give hope in stressful times, and how service members can keep their faith strong. I shared with my readers the ups and downs of deployment and the difficult challenges faced by military wives when they had to watch their husbands leave to fight a war. I admired the wives' quiet strength, their resilience, and their commitment to their husbands and their families through extremely tough circumstances. When we got word about our own deployment, I wondered if I could be like those wives I'd gotten to know. At the time, it felt like I was about to play dress-up, wearing a costume that wasn't made for me.
But now, fifteen months later, I definitely felt like a military wife. I knew what it was like to carry my cell phone with me everywhere, including to bed; I watched the news and wondered if my husband was in the area where they were reporting violence; I knew the pain of sitting by myself at church and feeling completely alone in a room filled with people; I sometimes cried when I saw a soldier in uniform; I knew what it was like to force myself to answer with a pleasant "I'm good" when someone asked me how I was doing, knowing they didn't want to hear how I really felt.
But sitting on the couch that day, worn out, spent, and ready to quit with no clear idea how I could do that, I came to another realization: that the strength I'd run on for so long was only my own and that already seven months into the deployment, I was missing what God was trying to teach me. That my strength had absolutely nothing to do with it.
This was a hard truth to swallow. I'd read everything I could get my hands on about the proverbial job description of a military spouse, and of all the requirements that people talked about, strength was the biggest. Strength was the most important. If you didn't have it, you wouldn't survive. You had to be strong for your husband. You had to be strong for your kids. You had to be strong when you least expected it: when well-meaning friends made comments that made you want to wilt; when strangers told you exactly what they thought about the war your husband was fighting; when you saw couples out walking hand in hand. You had to be strong when the car broke down and your child got sick and the garage door wouldn't open and the dog threw up on your already not-so-clean carpet. You had to be strong for yourself, because there was no one else who would be.
I had thrown my military wife dress-up clothes on with such focus and determination that I hadn't put on the most important garment. My faith. Instead of wearing my faith in God as my favorite piece and depending on it each day, I had treated it like an accessory I sometimes picked up and often put down, counting on my own confidence, my own determination, and my own stick-to-itiveness to get me through. I was making it, but sometimes barely. I was determined, but there were major struggles. I was strong, but my strength was coming from one very weak source. Me.
Two Common Misperceptions
As military wives, we pride ourselves on making do. Hanging tough. Keeping it together. And when things don't go so well? We just bear down harder, work longer, and make it happen, right?
When you find yourself in a difficult situation or challenge -maybe your husband is out of town and you're dealing with sick kids and broken-down appliances, or you're struggling together over money and financial pressures-whatever finds you at the end of your rope, more than once you may hear yourself repeating, "God won't give me more than I can handle. God won't give me more than I can handle."
"God won't give me more than I can bear or handle." Most of us are familiar with this saying, and we usually repeat it when we're right in the thick of it. We're talking with a friend about all of our troubles and then we shrug our shoulders and say it. As if that magic phrase will suddenly wipe away all of the difficulty; as if, obviously, we should be able to handle it, because if God says he won't give us more than we can bear, then we should have no problem handling everything that gets thrown at us. Right?
What would you say if I told you that God never actually said that? That this saying isn't even in the Bible?
Misperception 1: God doesn't give me more than I can bear, so it's up to me to handle it. The verse of Scripture that this saying gets its basis from is 1 Corinthians 10:13. Take a look: "No test or temptation that comes your way is beyond the course of what others have had to face. All you need to remember is that God will never let you down; he'll never let you be pushed past your limit; he'll always be there to help you come through it."
Notice that this verse is referring to temptation. The New Living Translation puts it this way: "But remember that the temptations that come into your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will keep the temptation from becoming so strong that you can't stand up against it. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you will not give in to it."
This verse is talking about what happens when you're faced with another lonely night because your husband is away or working late and you are tempted to get online and strike up a conversation with a stranger. Or call up an old boyfriend you still occasionally talk to. Or at midnight, eat more of the double-chocolate cheesecake you had at dinner. Maybe all of it. Now that's temptation! This Scripture verse says God will never allow us to face temptations that we can't stand against, that we can't walk away from.
Notice, though, it never says God won't let you experience great stress in your life or deal with a great challenge or even keep you from being pushed to what feels like your breaking point.
When we buy into this misperception that God won't give us more than we can handle, we buy into the idea that it's up to us to make it work. And when it doesn't work, and we're exhausted and worn out, we blame ourselves, because obviously we're doing something wrong. And this is where we're missing it; it has very little to do with us.
Psalm 121:1 tells us "[our] strength comes from GOD." Psalm 62:11 says it as well: "Strength comes straight from God." God tells Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that his strength "works best" in Paul's weakness (NLT).
Do you see it? Do you get it? That it's not our strength that matters? We're not talking about our muscles or our sheer will or determination. We're talking about spiritual muscle. God's muscle. God does the most when we can do only the very least.
I was reminded of this important lesson the other day when I was sitting in the car line at my son's school. Yes, I confess. I'm one of those moms who will get to the school an hour before classes actually end so I can be at the front of the line and leave first and avoid the tedious process of getting through the line and cars stopping and going. But I also love that hour of quiet because I can read or write on my laptop or even pray if I want with no real distractions to interrupt me.
I was sitting there in the car line this particular afternoon and a kindergarten class was outside flying kites, enjoying the beautiful weather. The sun was out, warming the air just right, and the skies were blue with just a few puffy white clouds floating around. The kids were taking turns flying the kites. I noticed one little boy who had bright yellow curls and one very red face. Each time it was his turn to fly the kite, he would grab the end of the string, get the kite up in the air, and run as fast as his little legs could take him. Around and around the yard he went, the kite flying blissfully up in the air behind him.
But I noticed something unusual. Not once did the little boy ever look back at the kite. Not once did he ever stop to let the wind take off with it and just watch it go. So intent was he on doing all the work to keep that kite up that he was missing the joy of seeing it in the air at all.
Just as that little boy will one day learn to trust the wind to keep his kite up in the air, we too must learn to trust in God's strength in all of our circumstances. But it's not always an easy task.
Why is it so hard for us to take our hands off the steering wheel and let God drive? Why is it so hard for us to fathom the idea of not even sitting in the passenger seat or pushing behind the car but actually putting ourselves in the trunk? Now that is fully relying on God's strength!
I think it has a lot to do with the second misperception that we have grown up to believe.
Misperception 2: God helps those who help themselves, so I should do as much of it as I can. This is another one of those sayings that we've quoted so much we think it's true, and we say it just as freely as we quote John 3:16. The difference, though, is that "God helps those who help themselves" can't be found in the Bible. This is actually a quote from Benjamin Franklin that first appeared in Poor Richard's Almanac in 1757.
The Bible teaches the opposite. That God helps the helpless. He delights in being our strength. Matthew 9:36 tells us that when Jesus was among the people, his heart broke for them. "So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd." They were helpless, as we are. But God wanted a relationship with us. Look what Paul tells us in Romans 5:6-8: "Christ arrives right on time to make this happen. He didn't, and doesn't, wait for us to get ready. He presented himself for this sacrificial death when we were far too weak and rebellious to do anything to get ourselves ready. And even if we hadn't been so weak, we wouldn't have known what to do anyway. We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him."
"We were of no use whatever to him." Can you picture how that looks? We were of no use-weak and helpless, unable to help ourselves, certainly unable to help God. And yet, as helpless and hopeless as we were, God still loved us enough to put his Son on the cross for us. Because as much as we resist asking for help-from others and from God-he wants to love us and be the strength and support we need.
I know a military wife whose husband is currently deployed for a year to eighteen months, and she is home with their six children, the youngest born just a month ago and the oldest just fourteen. Even though she was on bed rest for the majority of her pregnancy, I don't believe she ever asked anyone for help. And when I recently called her with an offer from a church community group that wanted to help her do some things around her house, despite sounding exhausted and worn out, she was still extremely reluctant to accept the help. And there are many of us just like her. But God wants to help the helpless! Sometimes that's in the form of sending others to share our problems and our struggles. We must come to a point where we can accept that depending only on our strength just doesn't work.
The Real Source of Our Strength
I know that by now you may be squirming. Me too! This idea of accepting that we're helpless doesn't make us feel so good. We certainly don't feel strong. And isn't that what this book is supposed to be about? Being strong? Yes. And no. Let me explain.
Strength is one of the recruitment themes the Army has used in recent years. "There's strong. And then there's Army Strong." You've probably heard it. The idea is that there are different strengths represented within the Army branch of the service, and when you're a part of the Army, you are much stronger for it. This theme reinforces the notion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As an individual, you are stronger as a part of the group than you are by yourself. Your strength is reinforced by the strengths of others, so you're no longer just strong, you're Army Strong.
Wives have given this theme a bit of a twist. There's "Army Wife Strong" or "Military Wife Strong." A "hooah" for the strength, determination, and just plain grit of the military spouse. Of course, there's also the phrase that could have been created only by a military wife: "Put on your Big Girl Panties," the more feminine version of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. I first heard this when I spent a lot of time on military-spouse internet message boards. Many women use it as a reminder to themselves to be strong. To not give up. To roll with the punches, jump off the emotional roller coaster we find ourselves on, and just keep going.
The only problem is that Big Girl Panties can sometimes get lost. And often there may be no other military wives around to be Military Wife Strong and stand in solidarity with. You may really and truly be all by yourself. And then what happens to your strength? Your determination? Your hope?
When I buy into the misperceptions we've already talked about-that God won't give me more than I can handle, so I must handle it, and that God helps me when I help myself, so I better do it all-I become so focused on my own willpower, my own resolve, and my own tenacity that I start running on borrowed time. Eventually that man-made fuel burns up. Eventually you find yourself sitting on the couch with the curtains drawn, wondering how you can face another day. And though, just like a car, I can probably refuel, that energy source can be expensive and take a while to fill up.
Excerpted from God Strong by Sara Horn Copyright © 2010 by Sara Horn. Excerpted by permission.
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