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By James Denley

Combat creates stresses far beyond the grasp of most everyday citizens. Is it any wonder many veterans face emotional difficulties when they return home? But from God’s perspective, life’s pain is always an avenue for ministry. I’m convinced the emotional needs of returning veterans represent one of the greatest means for pastors and congregations to live out the gospel.

Veterans face some demanding spiritual questions. Their worldview has been altered, even damaged, and they may no longer believe life and God are safe and good. They struggle with a diminished or destroyed sense of meaning and purpose. They are often cut off from their deeper inner life and their emotions.

A soldier does not need to experience direct attack to have his or her worldview damaged. I think of one young man who stood guard duty by a mass grave created when one local faction massacred another. Late on a summer day, during the quiet moments of his watch, he felt something under his boot. He reached down and picked up an infant’s shoe.

With a damaged worldview, many veterans face the second spiritual issue. They find their old life provides neither sufficient meaning nor a fulfilling sense of purpose. Although many veterans return home with a renewed sense of God’s grace in the midst of a harsh and sinful world, many others, equally as devout, are so shaken they withdraw from loving family and friends, including congregations and pastors.

The third spiritual challenge, detachment from normal emotions, creates a “blunted effect” hiding an inner reality so difficult to control that emotions have been locked away.

But the gospel addresses each of these issues. We know humanity is made in the image of God. We know life is hard and we are injured through the sinfulness of our fallen world. We know Jesus Christ has died to save us and heal us. We believe in the power of the Holy Spirit. We believe in miracles. And many Christians are willing to roll up their sleeves to reach out and help others as a concrete expression of their faith.

I recommend three practical ways pastors and congregations can help bring healing to our veterans and their families. Each is based on the biblical truth of agape love. The best research in psychotherapy concurs with this truth. When we approach our veterans with unconditional love, we are providing the kind of ministry other community professionals will welcome and celebrate.

1. We can offer quiet listening. Quiet and unconditional listening is a key to reopening communication between a veteran and our Heavenly Father.

I believe the last two percent of the “full story” often contains the real issue. I think of the soldier on guard duty that day. When he told me the story, he only mentioned at the very end that the baby’s shoe was blue. He began to cry at that point. He had an infant son back home.* Patient and gentle encouragement brings a narrative to its full conclusion — to the place where the deepest spiritual concerns can come to light.

When a soldier can tell his or her story to a minister or to a committed Christian, that person’s inner worldview can shift to a new line of thinking: “If you can listen to what is in my heart and can understand, maybe God cares, too.”

2. We can offer counseling and small groups using narrative Bible passages. The use of narrative Bible passages allows veterans room to find a safe place in the discussion. In this Bible study model, the veterans and group members are asked to read the narrative a few times and then pick a character in the story who sticks out to them personally. Normally the selected character will relate to an aspect of life that has yet to heal. Veterans, along with others in the group, can be asked to share their feelings about the character.

Whatever the connection, the veteran is very likely working on some aspect of his or her post-combat story in a very safe, healthy and biblically sound manner. Through this process the Holy Spirit can work to bring healing to the three areas of spiritual injury listed above.

3. We can welcome them back to the church. Many veterans avoid public settings, including church services, because they no longer feel part of the larger world that “cannot understand what’s going on with me.” Many spouses of combat veterans are full-time or part-time caregivers to their husbands or wives. The veteran’s family that makes it to church is demonstrating a powerful step toward recovery. Church attendance can help a family that might be challenged by flashbacks, withdrawal, insomnia and other combat stress issues.

Important questions for pastors and church volunteers are, “Where are the veterans who haven’t been back to church since they returned from the war? Where is the family since Mom or Dad came home?”

Veterans returning to church are part of a community. It might seem like a small step, but even if a veteran just sits through a service and exits with little interaction, important psychological and spiritual work is being done. Cherish this and remain confident this will eventually lead to greater church involvement as healing continues. 

In church, veterans have exceptionally powerful opportunities to rebuild their torn worldviews and gather the strength they need to face life’s hurdles. The gospel truths of love, prayer, redemption and atonement — faithfully proclaimed from our pulpits and reinforced in our community of faith — are exactly what is needed to heal our veterans and their families.

*This story has been sufficiently modified to protect the identity of the veteran without changing the meaning.

JAMES T. DENLEY is a chaplain commander in the U.S. Navy.

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