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 the kind of leader 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 troops under his charge. We knew he really cared. We also knew he wouldn’t hesitate to snap us back in line if we needed it. (As with any young punk, there were days when I needed it.)

A season came in which I was not performing well. I got two Letters of Counseling (LOCs) in a short 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 thanks to God, I had enough maturity to accept them with humility.

But inside, the story was different: one reprimand was a lot easier to accept. You can probably guess that it was Sgt. Carlson’s.

It came down to the approach of each man. With the other sergeant, there was sense that he enjoyed handing out LOCs. He had a reputation for getting a kick out of discipline. He wasn’t known for treating his troops well on the line.

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 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 even more impressive when you considered that, quite frankly, nothing in Sgt. Carlson’s job description required him to do this. We all had the understanding that we were to follow orders regardless of who was giving them.

But he didn’t. He chose to lead. Good leadership like that takes a ton of effort and patience to develop, but 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.

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 will. 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 any human.

Let’s be honest: we struggle with God’s discipline. We who are mature know that obedience is part of the “following Jesus” deal. Sometimes – this is my ex-military side talking – we must obey without knowing why. It’s frustrating from our small, confined perspective. And sometimes, as with any soldier ordered into the line of fire, 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 cares about our lives and accomplishes his purposes 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.

20 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?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really like this Brandon. I retired from the AF and have learned almost everything I know about leadership (good and bad) from the people I worked with while I was active duty.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. What a great story, Brandon! Your former sergeant really exemplifies the best of human leadership. And the way you tied that into our understanding of God’s direction in our lives really brought it home for me. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thought the gist of the post is about discipline, I was struck by your ability and willingness to find admirable qualities in someone who is not a believer. I used to assume this was something most believers could do, until I read the novel Lost Boys by Orson Scott Card. Loved Card’s Ender novels because they were so expansive in their views, but in Lost Boys every single character who did not share the author’s particular faith was either ineffectual or outright evil. Since then, I’ve grown more aware of this same attitude in a number of believers. Recognizing that the positive qualities our Creator instills in us can survive our own lack of belief is, to me, a testament to God’s wonder. In an atmosphere which seems to simplify Christians as good and unbelievers as bad (until they become believers of course), your open-mindedness is refreshing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It sounds like he has made a serious impression you and I am glad that you had someone like that in your life. You are absolutely right about how the kind of relationship we have with leaders makes all the difference when it comes to trusting them or being willing to follow them.

    Our relationship with God works the same way. The more trust we have, the more willing we are to let God be in charge of our lives. Thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: 6 Pieces of Advice for the Christian Joining the Military | Brandon J. Adams

    • You would have to know what fits you best. If you can handle the rigor, duty, and discipline of the military and act with honor and selflessness, the military is a great place for you. I’m not sure how the Air Force’s engineering schooling works (mine required only a five-month tech school), but do your research and see if it’s what you’re looking for. At the very least, the G.I. Bill will be a huge asset for you if you separate after a tour or two.


      • Ok, thanks 🙂

        I’ve been told the Air Force because it’s has better living spaces, etc… But other people said the Army would be good for engineering.
        I talked to a Marine veteran and he said that I might not want to go in cause I wear my heart on my sleeve. What are your thoughts about that?

        Liked by 1 person

      • The military will jostle you, it’s true. Soldiers are rough on each other (though it’s not as bad as high school) and you have to learn stress management quickly in any high-pressure job. There are pockets of the Air Force that are less emotionally demanding in these ways, but in general, if you expect your unit or surroundings to adapt to your comforts, you’ll probably be disappointed. Instead, you’ll be expected to adapt. You can usually maintain your morals, but in general, you belong to them. That’s the military.

        I would also agree that the Army is terrific for engineering. The skills they teach you will probably give you broader options for post-service employment. The Air Force does well but tends, of course, to be more limited to the electronic and aeronautic.


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