Jesse Maple of West Lafayette, Ohio, was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War at the age of nineteen. Before he left, he was given a King James Bible by the Gideons and carried it throughout his tour. He survived what he describes as “many close calls,” then gave the Bible to his brother Bill when Bill was transferred from Europe to fight in Vietnam.
Before Bill left Vietnam, he gave the Bible to his close friend Roger Hill, who also grew up in West Lafayette. Hill wrapped it in plastic to protect it from the monsoon rains and had it with him when he was severely wounded during his final tour. “I still pray to God every day and thank him for another day,” Hill later said.
The Bible then went to another West Lafayette native, Cliff McPeak, who fought in the Gulf War. Next, it went to Zac Miller, who joined the Ohio Army National Guard and was deployed to Iraq. When Miller finished his initial tour of duty, the Bible was given to another pair of brothers from West Lafayette; they carried it into battle in Iraq and Afghanistan before returning it to Miller for safekeeping in 2019.
In total, the Bible was carried by seven soldiers through eleven Army tours. Miller interviewed them for a book about their stories, learning that the men were not all devout but they were all strengthened, encouraged, and comforted by that Bible.
“In very trying times, having that Bible with you gave you a little ease that you were not alone and being watched over,” he said.
The hardest question Christianity must face
The Bible apparently did not save these soldiers by itself. Nothing in the story indicates that it stopped bullets that would have killed those who carried it. Rather, it conveyed to them a sense of God’s presence in the midst of the dangers they faced.
Seeking God’s help in battle is obviously an appropriate response to danger. According to the American Bible Society’s State of the Bible survey with Barna research, those who are deployed in combat zones are more than twice as likely to belong to the highest category of biblical engagement compared to all service members. And members of the military who are deployed more often are more likely to engage Scripture.
As the son and grandson of veterans, I am glad to read of those who survived their battles and sensed God’s presence with them. But what of those who did not survive? And what of those who, like my father, could never reconcile the horrors they experienced with the faith they previously held?
Innocent suffering is the hardest question Christianity must face. We believe that God is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful. Because he is omniscient, he clearly knows what those in battle are facing. In fact, he knew it before they did. Because he is all-loving, he would presumably not want them to face such suffering. Because he is all-powerful, he could prevent their suffering.
But sometimes, he does not.
“Cover him with a cloud!”
Of course, we can point to misused free will as the cause of war and its consequences. God did not cause the world wars and other conflicts our soldiers have been forced to fight. But he sometimes acts in miraculous ways to spare them.
For example, Spencer January, a World War II veteran, told of a cloud that “appeared out of nowhere” during a battle and sheltered him and his fellow American soldiers from German machine guns. The moment the last soldier made it to safety, the cloud disappeared.
Two weeks later, Spencer received a letter from his mother in Dallas. She wrote to tell him that Mrs. Tankersley, one of their church’s prayer warriors, had been awakened by God to intercede for him. He then calculated that this happened at the very time he was in such mortal danger. Mrs. Tankersley prayed passionately for him, closing with the request, “Lord, whatever danger Spencer is in, just cover him with a cloud!”
We can and should praise God for such miraculous protection for our soldiers. But what of those who were not covered with a cloud? What of the 1.1 million Americans whose sacrifice we commemorated on Memorial Day? What of their spouses and children, parents and grandparents? What does God’s word say to their pain?
“We see in a mirror dimly”
God sometimes allows suffering to grow us spiritually. He sometimes works through present pain for future good that explains our suffering in retrospect. But his word does not fully explain why he allows all innocent suffering for the simple reason that our minds are so finite that we cannot understand his infinite ways (cf. Isaiah 55:8–9).
However, we can know that he redeems all he allows, whether we understand that redemption in this life or not. We know that while “we see in a mirror dimly” in this life, one day we will see God “face to face” and “know fully” what we only know partially today (1 Corinthians 13:12).
And we know that nothing in our circumstances changes the character of the One who “is love” (1 John 4:8).
Last weekend, my wife and I were privileged to watch our granddaughter compete in a horse-riding show. I watched her to the exclusion of all the other riders and was so proud of her when she won her competition. Then the thought occurred to me: God focuses on each of us even more fully than I focused on my granddaughter. He loves each of us even more than I love her.
Now he wants to show the hurting people we know his grace in our compassion, his peace in our presence.
For whom will you be the hands and the heart of Jesus today?