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Overcoming despair in combat zones

From the July 14, 2014 issue of the Christian Science Sentinel

Over the past couple of years, the rising rate of suicide in the United States military is one of the issues it has been striving to turn around. Many men and women in uniform have been struggling with the demands of multiple deployments to combat zones, and the families and communities supporting them have also been deeply affected.

While no specific causes have been identified, a Pentagon report has said that half of the individuals who committed suicide experienced a recently failed relationship. Alcohol abuse was a key factor, and almost a third of them had struggled with drugs (see The Christian Science Monitor, August 17, 2012).

In my own dealings with troubled men and women, including those in uniform, I’ve found that while many of them accept that a better life exists, they simply don’t believe that their situation can be turned around, or that they deserve such transformations. They feel a sense of hopelessness.

In my own prayers in support of such individuals, I have been comforted by the opening verses of a poem written by Mary Baker Eddy:

It matters not what be thy lot,
   So Love doth guide;
For storm or shine, pure peace is thine,
   Whate’er betide.

And of these stones, or tyrants’ thrones,
   God able is
To raise up seed—in thought and 
To faithful His.
(Christian Science Hymnal, No. 160)

Those words speak to me of God’s continuous presence—guiding, lifting, loving, and healing. I find promise in the idea that regardless of whether we’ve done something wrong—or someone else has done something to us—God has a purpose for us, and it is always good. God can raise us up to know ourselves and His purpose. God has created us, and this relationship of Creator and creation cannot be changed, tarnished, or disturbed.

We have a worth that is unquestioned and inherently valuable to the world.

Though this may not always seem to be the case in our day-to-day lives, there are helpful examples to be found in the Bible, confirming that everyone has worth and deserves to be saved— as, for instance, when the prophet Isaiah speaks of God’s actions to “open the eyes of the blind,” release “those who sit in dark dungeons,” and send a messenger in whom He delights and has imbued with His own spirit. What’s more, God promises to take the messenger by the hand and guard him (see Isaiah 42:6, 7, New Living Translation). Later, Isaiah says that this servant will bring God’s salvation “to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6, NLT).

As I see it, this promise of purpose and guardianship extends to all, but it’s clearest to those who follow in Christ Jesus’ footsteps. The light that comes from his ministry will reach everyone.

Think about the Israelites and how this might have sounded. Something along the lines of: “Yes, you are going to be delivered, but so are your captors; this light will shine for them, too.” Jesus made this promise clear in declaring that his teachings were not just for those close to him but for all who would ever believe in him through his ministry as shared by his followers (see John 17:20).

The Apostle Paul further verified our connection with those messengers when he said that we are “joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17). We are called because we each have a unique role to play in glorifying God. We have a worth that is unquestioned and inherently valuable to the world.

The more I prayed with those verses from Isaiah, the more I felt comforted in knowing that those words reach out, through the ever-living presence of the Christ, to everyone across the globe. This means that there is no situation that is hopeless, no matter what anyone may have done or have had done to them. In fact, as we recognize even a glimmer of that value in ourselves that God sees, we are immensely strengthened. It’s as if God is saying to each of us, “I will take you by the hand and guard you.” 

God only intends for us to make progress.

If you’ve ever gone mountain climbing in the snow, you may have had the chance to use an ice ax. It’s especially useful if you lose your footing, fall to the ground, and start sliding down a slope. As momentum builds, it becomes harder to stop. But if you have an ice ax, the same body weight that tries to pull you down the mountain can be used to arrest the fall. 

All you have to do is put the ice ax up against your body, point facing down into the snow, and lie face down on the hillside. The ax has a small point on one end that is driven into the snow by the weight of your body. This creates drag, and this helps slow you down. This is often called “self-arrest.” 

It’s pretty amazing to think that a tiny spike can stop a climber from falling farther. The spike doesn’t care what caused the climber to fall, or even whose fault it was. The spike doesn’t care whether the climber has been falling for a long time or a short time.

For me, having even a modest, still-developing sense of one’s inherent value to God—even as small as that point on the ax—and leaning firmly on it, is sufficient to halt a slide into hopelessness in any area of life. We can reason that self-worth has always been part of us as God’s reflection. It doesn’t depend on our performance. We just have to recognize it and claim it for ourselves. Qualities such as meekness, joy, courage, and perseverance exist regardless of circumstances.

When we’ve done something that harms others, or we appear to have been harmed because of another’s actions, it may seem hard to get back onto our feet. If this continues, momentum is gained, and it gets harder to snap out of the despair and return to living and loving. But the assurance of God’s care for all of us, noted in that passage from Isaiah—matched up with a pointed acknowledgment of our inherent and undeniable worth—can be just what is needed to arrest the fall, get us to our feet, and help us climb back up the mountain. You may have some extra ground to cover, but a slide is never required. God only intends for us to make progress.

Mary Baker Eddy, author of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, often wrote about the inherent worth of God’s sons and daughters. She made it clear that the Christ is always present to save everyone from despair and hopelessness. She wrote that “Christ illustrates the coincidence, or spiritual agreement, between God and man in His image” (Science and Health, pp. 332–333). Through this insight, I have come to appreciate that as we glimpse even a tiny part of ourselves or others that affirms that “spiritual agreement,” we become more aware of God’s active presence and stability. We are indeed worthy, and no situation is beyond repair.

Matt Schmidt is a chaplain in the US Army Reserves. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

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