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Core Christianity: Tough Questions Answered

Lessons on Life and Death from Airborne School

by Stephen Roberts posted August 22, 2022

I recently watched Air Force One. When most of the passengers were able to escape by parachute, I wondered, “How fast are they descending in those parachutes?” and “Where are they landing and how hard is the ground?” All of these questions were especially relevant for me because I was about to jump out of planes five separate times as the culmination of the Army’s Airborne training.

As with deployments, there’s a level of additional danger that comes with jumping out of planes. It tends to put key truths in perspective in a way that ordinary life simply does not. Every year or two, someone dies on a training jump, and dozens of injuries are common in most every Airborne class. The tension builds as one waits for the plane, boards the plane, watches the door open, and sees fellow jumpers disappear. The fear is most pronounced for a jumper when he or she hands off the static line and, in a fluid motion, turns and jumps. There is a brief period of calm as the jumper floats over the landscape, and then a moment of additional trepidation as the ground comes rushing up at 20 feet per second before impact.

I would like to say I was cool as a cucumber throughout my first jump, but—as Michael Horton notes in his book Recovering Our Sanity—the Christian life doesn’t entail the absence of fear. Rather, fear drives us to the cross. And that’s what fear did for me at Airborne. Sure, I smiled and winked at my fellow jumpers on the plane (a chaplain still needs to convey comfort and confidence!), but my heart drove into my chest like jackhammer the whole time. In the process, I was reminded of certain precious truths that we all need during both mundane and trying seasons:

1) Suffering reveals the reality of our God-given faith (or lack thereof).

What races through our minds in times of crisis shows us what we actually worship. Before my first jump, my mind was largely blank, drawing on the detached Stoicism I learned through past traumas. When my parachute opened that first time, I thanked the Lord for his provision and felt convicted that I had replaced my Savior with survival mechanisms. The Lord uses suffering to show us the state of our trust in him. I resolved to more intentionally bring my fear to the Lord in the following jumps.

2) Hiding God’s word in our heart must be far more than wishful thinking.

With the remaining jumps, I became more intentional about lifting my heart before the Lord. It’s amazing what sprung out! Sometimes, it was verses that I had recently memorized, like “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you” (Ps. 56:3) or passages that had long remained dormant, like Psalm 23. At times, truths concerning God’s character were reaffirmed in my heart: “You are sovereign. You are loving. You are gracious.” Even a corny youth group song kept reappearing: “Step by step, you lead me, and I will follow you all of my days.” We must hide God’s word in our hearts and sing songs of praise to him because he will use these words to carry us in the day of trial.

3) Community and serving others help us grow … and jump.

One of the pitfalls of pain and suffering is that we can grow myopic and self-obsessed if we’re not careful. I love being a chaplain in part because others look to me in moments like these to bring a sense of peace and hope. As they headed toward the plane, tight-lipped young soldiers would ask, “Chaplain, are you praying for me?” They would confide in me with their fears. As I prayed for them and laid a comforting hand on their shoulders, I felt my own heart grow and my trust in the Lord strengthened. One of the most unnatural things for us to do in suffering is to serve others, but in doing so we are drawn back to the Lord who serves us.

4) Gratitude is petition and awe wrapped in one … and conquers fear.

Years ago, my wife, pregnant with our firstborn, had a terrifying cancer scare. As she was rushed into surgery, her prayers started with “Help! Help! Help!” and ended with “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” When she woke up later, she heard the word “benign” and heard two distinct heartbeats on two distinct monitors. That experience will stick with me forever.

When the airplane door opened and I gave reassuring nods to my fellow jumpers, the verses and hymns started to flow. Instead of praying, “Help,” I prayed “Thank you, Lord. Thank you for 39 years of life, for a relationship with you, for a wife who is my best friend, and for three beautiful kids. Thank you for everything. But most of all, thank you for Jesus. There is nothing more I need.” The Lord uses gratitude to meet our petitions with awe at who he is, and—inevitably—we are transformed.

Photo of Stephen Roberts

Stephen Roberts

Stephen Roberts is an Army chaplain and also writes for Modern Reformation and The Federalist. He is married to Lindsey—a journalist—and they have three delightful and precocious children.

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