On Memorial Day, we find ways to honor our brave men and women who paid the ultimate price for their country while fighting this nation’s wars. Here, I want to reflect on the idea that their courageous work as a soldier, sailor, airman, and marine was not in vain. Allow me to share a few scenarios where veterans gave their lives and why they were willing to do so, plus how Christians are called to live a life of sacrifice like Jesus and that their work has a lasting impact.
A Few Snapshots of Sacrifice
Throughout our nation’s history, both active and reserve service members of our armed forces have found themselves in harm’s way. Over one million of these men and women have willingly sacrificed their lives. Several memorable examples come to my mind, which most Americans may be familiar with.
- Soldiers from the North and South collided on the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in July 1863. There were two scenes depicted in the movie Gettysburg where courage under fire was clearly depicted: Pickett’s charge on the Confederate side and the Battle of Little Round Top on the Union side. In both major battles, men faced overwhelming odds stacked against them by a determined, well-armed, and fierce foe, knowing full well that they might not make it through.
- For the very first time, the movie Saving Private Ryan depicted realistic, graphic, and disturbing images of men storming Omaha Beach in Normandy, France during the D-Day invasion in June 1944. These men knew that some of them would survive and press on to liberate Europe from the Nazi invasion, but most of them would not. Yet, they moved out despite their fear.
- More recently, during our twenty yearlong War on Terrorism, service members from all walks of life went into harm’s way to fight for a cause they believed in. Despite the messy way that the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, I trust that our combat veterans—many of whom are still serving today—know that their efforts to defeat an often-unseen enemy and bring peace to this region have made a difference.
Why Service Members Are Willing to Sacrifice Their Lives
During Memorial Day, we usually say that service members have died for their country. That may in fact be true in the majority of cases. However, what I sometimes hear is that these selfless men and women actually sacrificed their lives for the sake of the ones who fought side-by-side with them in battle.
Duty, Honor, Country. These are values that our military personnel hold close to their heart. Loyalty is another attribute that is lived out, especially in combat. What drives those who laid down their lives with heroic actions is loyalty to their unit and to their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:6).
Living a Life of Sacrifice Like Jesus
The Bible tells us that the Lord Jesus Christ lived a life of selfless service. Even though he was the creator of all things and had built houses for others as a carpenter, he had no home to speak of. He had a close relationship with his heavenly Father and his mother, but did not have a wife or family. He owned everything in the universe and yet possessed nothing. He took on the nature of a servant.
Jesus taught his disciples that if they wanted to be great in God’s kingdom, they needed to be the servants of all (Mk. 10:44). They needed to die to self. The apostle Paul took it a step further by teaching that Jesus’s followers needed to offer themselves to God as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1). Just as Jesus submitted himself to the Father to give his life as a sacrifice for our sins, we also need to entrust ourselves to God and consider others’ needs more important than our own (Phil. 2:3-8).
Throughout the church’s history, Christian soldiers who have enlisted in the Lord’s service, both literally and figuratively, have given their time, talents, treasures, and lives. Those service members who have freely given life or limb for their country are to be commended as well. They did what God wants done in this world. God has done this work through their efforts. They worked with God to bring shalom to the people that he loved enough to send his Son to die for.
Your Work is Not in Vain
The key term in this article’s title, “not in vain,” comes from 1 Corinthians 15:58. The apostle Paul is concluding his long discussion on the implications of the resurrection of Jesus. He boldly proclaims, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” He wants the members of the church in Corinth to know that the work they have been doing for the Kingdom of God has not been worthless; it has eternal value.
The use of the term “in vain” is applied to work here, and immediately recalls the concepts found in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, where the theme of vanity permeates the entire book. Life “under the sun” does appear to be worthless, useless, hopeless, pointless, to no avail, etc. In contrast, however, we know that life “under the Son” is full of abundance, purpose, value, usefulness, fruitfulness, and hope.
As Christians, our labor, whether in vocational Christian ministry or in ordinary jobs, is designed by God to expand his creation and his kingdom (his rule) on this earth. Because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, whatever work we have done in this life makes a difference now and in eternity. Our faith is not worthless, our message is timeless, our contributions count in Christ, who lives in us.
I want our wounded warriors and the families who have lost loved ones to remember that we will never forget their sacrifices. Their final measure of devotion to their brothers and sisters in arms and this country, and their fearless disregard for their own personal safety for a greater cause, has had a lasting purpose—for freedom. For those who have come to faith in Jesus Christ, I believe they will hear these words that we all want our Savior to say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”