David, a Warrior after God’s Own Heart: Guilt

Note: This is the fourth post in the series. Read the first three posts here.

US-Marines-Iraq_sm“I’ve tried to go back to my church, and I just can’t…. It’s like there’s this wall there.”

We’ve been focusing on some of the struggles that veterans face after coming home from war and how we might help them. But we’re looking at those needs through a unique perspective: the eyes of biblical hero King David, who was also a warrior for most of his life.

In Psalm 69, David is in deep trouble and crying out to God. Let’s begin with the first verse and continue through verse 5.

Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in the miry depths
where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters;
the floods engulf me.
I am worn out calling for help;
my throat is parched.
My eyes fail,
looking for my God.
Those who hate me without reason
outnumber the hairs of my head;
many are my enemies without cause,
those who seek to destroy me.
I am forced to restore
what I did not steal.

You, God, know my folly;
my guilt is not hidden from you.

In this psalm, David’s in trouble, drowning. The floodwaters have risen to his neck. He’s cried out to God for help to the point that his throat hurts, but God remains silent. Throughout David’s life, thousands of enemies have tried to kill him, even one of his own sons. But the floodwaters that are about to drown David aren’t all due to God’s silence or the threats from his enemies. David is also drowning in his own guilt.

In verse 5, David finally admits, You, God, know my folly; my guilt is not hidden from you. David knows that he himself is responsible for some of what’s engulfing him. He feels his guilt and he knows God feels it too.

In the VA, we’ve been talking about PTSD for a long time. We are getting pretty used to having those conversations and we’ve developed many treatments for PTSD. But we’ve also started using a new term: moral injury. Basically, moral injury describes the painful aftermath of experiencing something in combat that goes against one’s moral upbringing. The person’s actions, inaction, or witness to an event challenges how the service member views God, self, or what’s right and wrong. One can easily feel overwhelmed by guilt, shame, or loss of trust. The resulting pain can be long lasting, a serious invisible injury that we are still trying to figure out how to treat.

Recently, a psychiatrist who works with me at the VA said, “This guilt thing isn’t going anywhere.” There are no quick, easy fixes for extreme feelings of guilt and shame. David admits this before God in verse 5, but admitting your guilt doesn’t cure you from it. You still need to experience the forgiveness and healing that come from dealing honestly with the experiences that caused the injury as well as the injury’s effects. Some people get stuck in their guilt, unable to access healing and not knowing what else to do. This might have happened to David, too; we know he was in a frustrating place.

At the beginning of the psalm, David talks about being in deep waters. But he also says he has no foothold. He can’t push his way out of the “miry depths” because he’s stuck. He can’t find the peace he needs to overcome his guilt and shame. He’s complained about God and all his enemies, people who hate him for no reason. Now he’s tired of the blame game and ready to admit that at least some of his problems lie within himself. King David may have been a man after God’s own heart, but he had also done some bad things. Famously, David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had her husband, one of his soldiers, killed to cover it up. David’s guilty. He knows it; God knows it.

With all of the battles that David had survived, he likely experienced some moral injury over what he’d done, or maybe not done, to protect his troops. He had seen terrible things. He’d probably done a few things that seemed like the best option at the time but that, years later, kept him awake at night. He needed forgiveness and restoration. The same is true for many of our veterans who have served us in combat. They’ve faced difficult moral decisions where there was sometimes no clear right or wrong. They’ve done and seen things in the line of duty that can be devastating to their souls.

One veteran asked to see a chaplain in the hospital. When I came to visit him, he said, “I don’t regret what I did in Vietnam. I was a Marine. I did what I was supposed to do. Those civilians should have known we’d be calling in airstrikes in that area…. But I’ve tried to go back to my church, and I just can’t…it’s like there’s this wall there.”

This Vietnam War vet remains proud of his service as a Marine. But even after 40 plus years, a part of his soul is still not quite at peace. He demonstrates the moral struggle, guilt, and shame that can result from participation in war, even if he was “just doing what he was told to do.” These warriors don’t need us to judge them. They don’t need us to tell them they were just doing their job. They don’t need us to fix them or to try to take away their guilt. They just need you and me to listen to them, hear their stories, and walk alongside them till they can experience the forgiveness and restoration that they need. They need us to bear part of that burden, because, ultimately, you and I sent them.

David realized his guilt before God and he kept coming back to the God that had forgiven him and restored him in the past. Forgiveness and restoration don’t happen overnight. David had cried out to God till his throat hurt. It doesn’t always come by quoting a verse or saying a quick prayer. But forgiveness and restoration do come.

Maybe you are like David today. Whether or not you’re a veteran, there are plenty of struggles flooding in around you. Your many enemies have made it difficult for you to stay afloat. But you feel in your own heart that you are the worst of those enemies. You know that you’ve blown it too, that you can’t escape yourself. You’re guilty and you know it. And God knows it. Today, may you and I put aside our pride and come to God to ask for that soul healing we, and so many of those who have served our country, desperately need.

May you find the saving grace, forgiveness, and rescue that come from a God who made you, loves you, and is always with you. Amen.

If you are a veteran or want to help a veteran who might be struggling with moral injury (or anything else), we know pastors and veterans who can help. They have gone through the VA Community Clergy Training program and are helping veterans reintegrate and find restoration. To get connected, or to learn how to offer this training in your area, call me at 501-944-9297 or email us at vaclergypartnership@gmail.com.

Chaplain Steve Sullivan is a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-endorsed chaplain and leads the VA/Clergy Partnership for Rural Veterans. His interests are in classic rock and the intersection of spiritual and mental health, and pop culture and theology. Steve’s daughter Jenna is a CBF scholar at Wake Forest School of Divinity. Steve lives in Little Rock with his hyper lab, Sunny.

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