What an Unbelieving Air Force Sergeant Taught Me About Obeying God

f-16-66232_960_720During my time in the Air Force, I had a boss named Sergeant Carlson.

He was a solid leader, the kind you talk about years later and would still gladly shake his hand. He had a gift for balancing the needs of the mission with genuine concern for the guys under his charge. We knew he cared, and we also knew he wouldn’t hesitate to snap us back in line if we needed it. (As with any group of young punks, there were days when I needed it.)

A season came in which I was not performing my job well. I got two Letters of Counseling (LOCs) in a short time span, one from Sgt. Carlson, one from another sergeant in our office. My mistakes had grounded a couple jets from their scheduled sorties. I had earned both reprimands straight up, and I had just enough maturity at that point in my life to accept them with humility.

But inside, the story was different: I struggled a lot less to accept one of the reprimands. You can probably guess that the easy one was Sgt. Carlson’s.

As I reflected on why, I realized it came down to the approach of each man. With the other sergeant, there was sense that he enjoyed handing out LOCs. Whether it was power-tripping or simply irritation at the mission being hamstrung that day, he had a reputation for getting a kick out of discipline. He wasn’t known for treating his troops well on the line, or for associating with them when he didn’t have to.

But Sgt. Carlson was a different story. Although he wasn’t exactly a “buddy” to younger troops, he was a friend; he could ride that delicate line. He was the sort of man who complimented his troops on work well done, kept his temper in check, went to bat for us in front of the commander, even gave us advice (good advice) on our personal lives. This was made even more impressive by the fact that, quite frankly, nothing in Sgt. Carlson’s description required him to do all this. We all had the understanding that we were to do our jobs and follow orders regardless of who was giving it to them. He could be a total jerk and still be effective as an NCO, if he wanted.

But he didn’t. He chose to lead. Although good leadership like that takes a ton of effort and patience to develop, Sgt. Carlson understood that it paid off; it inspired troops and thus benefited the mission, rather than taking away from it. And we proved him right. Sgt. Carlson was a guy we worked our tails off to make look good. Our extra effort improved the mission.

So when the time came for Sgt. Carlson to discipline me, I found I could take it with my head held high. My line to both supervisors was “Yes sir”, “No sir”, “No excuse sir”. But with Sgt. Carlson, I was at rest in the knowledge of his character.

As far as I know, Sgt. Carlson does not know Christ. I pray he eventually does. But I honor him today because in doing so, I can give greater honor to God.

For the leader heart of God is a thousand times better than that of Sgt. Carlson – or of any human.



Let’s be honest: we struggle with God’s discipline. We who are mature know that obedience is part of the deal. Sometimes – this is my ex-military side talking – we have to obey without knowing why. It’s frustrating from our small, confined perspective. And sometimes, as with any soldier who is ordered into the line of fire for the sake of others, obedience will cost us deeply; disobedience, even more.

But how would it change your ability to obey if you knew that the orders were being given by the best Leader, and kindest soul, in the universe?

We take our orders from a Savior who is able to care about our lives and accomplish his mission at the same time. Sometimes we must sublimate the former for the sake of the latter. But knowing his heart can put ours at rest. He is fiercely devoted to us. He put it all – his own life – on the line for us. He’s the kind of leader who need speak only two words of reprimand to bring you to tears – not because he’s harsh, but because he’s the type you want very much to please (and because his words are usually pretty on point). He’s the type we’d work our tails off for.

I understand that you might not feel this way about God. But he cannot be at fault for that. We know from the Bible that his character is perfect. Any good quality that humans possess, he possesses more. So the only explanation for your poor view of him, honestly, is that your image of him is inaccurate, not yet fully developed.

This is the secret known by Paul, who could not stand being apart from Christ; by the martyrs who braved the stake for him; by King David and David Crowder when they speak of undying love for him, leaving you secretly wondering what on earth they’re talking about. This is what they knew.

Move closer to Christ. Taste and see that he is good.

Some people you wouldn’t follow to an outhouse. Others you’d follow into a hail of bullets. Christ really is the latter, for like any true leader, he went first.

3 thoughts on “What an Unbelieving Air Force Sergeant Taught Me About Obeying God

  1. I had a similar mentor, TSGT Charles Gardin, but I never recall TSGT Gardin acting like a jerk. I will never forget what he taught me, “there are two types of authority, legal and earned.” He wanted me to earn authority and respect. I wish that I could find him. What did you do in the AF?


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