The Humility of the Strong

In the 1965 movie Shenandoah, Jimmy Stewart’s character Charlie Anderson is a widower. His wife had been devoutly religious, but Charlie didn’t care much for religion. He promised his wife, however, that he would raise the children in the faith. Thus, when Charlie’s family gather around the table, Charlie leads them in prayer:

Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvest it. We cook the harvest. It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Lord just the same for the food we’re about to eat, amen.

I don’t know too many farmers who actually have that kind of attitude. They know that it’s hard work, but they know that they don’t control everything that happens. Weather. The economy. Acts of nature and events in history. They all have a great impact on the farmer. Not everything is within his hand to control.

Likewise, troops in combat learn that, too. You don’t plan everything right the first time. Not everything goes as planned. The enemy gets a vote. There are too many variables to get a big head or to start feeling like everything is in the power of your own hands. You depend on your buddies and your leaders. You depend on luck or good fortune or the grace of God, depending on your religious persuasion.

The Army’s advertising slogan these days is “Army Strong.” “There’s strong, and then there’s Army strong . . . . because there is nothing on this green earth that is stronger than a US Army Soldier.” There’s a difference between feeling strength and pride, however, and feeling arrogant. The same Hebrew Scriptures that envision a proper role for the use of force to protect the innocent also sees a problem when people start to trust in their own power alone.

Psalm 20:7: Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.

Proverbs 21:31: The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the LORD.

Isaiah 31:1: Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD!

My first assignment as an Army chaplain focused on service with new Soldiers going through Basic Combat Training at Fort Leonard Wood. One of the biggest challenges that the new Soldier faced was the requirement to qualify with his or her M-16. I spent a lot of time visiting with Soldiers on the ranges that comprised the Basic Rifle Marksmanship component of BCT. Many Soldiers would ask me to bless their rifles. I would pray for the Soldier, “May the Lord make you like David, who was an expert shot with his weapon, the sling and stone.” I would add to that, “May the Lord make you like David, who did not trust in his own strength alone.”

1 Samuel 17:45: Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.

When the people of Israel entered the promised land, they observed a thanksgiving-like ritual with the first fruits of their fields (Deuteronomy 26:1-11). The words of Deuteronomy 8:17 should have also been on their minds as they took possession of the land of promise.

Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’

Deuteronomy 9:5-6 adds a note of sovereign grace as well.

You are not going to take possession of their land because of your righteousness or your integrity. Instead, the LORD your God will drive out these nations before you because of their wickedness, in order to keep the promise He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Understand that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stiff-necked people.

Washington and Lincoln both included calls to humble penitence in their Thanksgiving proclamations.

Washington (1789) – that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions–

Lincoln (1863)- with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it

Likewise, the scriptures link humble penitence with national survival for the people of Israel.

2 Chronicles 7: If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

Likewise, event the heathen people of Nineveh responded to Jonah’s preaching and repented in sackcloth and ashes and saved the city .

The men of Nineveh believed in God. They proclaimed a fast and dressed in sackcloth–from the greatest of them to the least. When word reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he issued a decree in Nineveh: By order of the king and his nobles: No man or beast, herd or flock, is to taste anything at all. They must not eat or drink water. Furthermore, both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth, and everyone must call out earnestly to God. Each must turn from his evil ways and from the violence he is doing. Who knows? God may turn and relent; He may turn from His burning anger so that we will not perish. Then God saw their actions–that they had turned from their evil ways–so God relented from the disaster He had threatened to do to them. And He did not do it. (Jonah 3:5-10 HCSB)

We face a lot of threats to our future and they each deserve the best effort we can give them – but it would be arrogant to believe that we hold our futures in the palm of our hands. Our weakness – and our sinfulness – expose that boast as a lie.

Not everything important in this world is within my power alone to achieve or obtain. And I don’t have all these good things in life “because I deserve them.” My skill and my virtue are important, but I am not the center of the universe. I depend on others. Most of all, I depend on God.