“Muscle-Memory: Rules of Engagement for the Combat Christian”
by Joe McClane
Back in the early nineties, when I was serving in the United States Marine Corps, I found myself leading a squad of Marines on a search and destroy patrol in an area known for a lot of enemy traffic. We were out looking for trouble and we sure enough found it. We were moving in an offset formation, in two columns, with each man spread out by about 15 to 20 feet apart with me walking between both columns in the center. We were moving along, our M-16 semi automatic rifles in the ready position, with the butt stock in our shoulders, eyes just over the sights, and trigger fingers covering the trigger well, ready for action, with no contact in sight. All of a sudden, my point man threw up a closed fist sharply into the air. The squad immediately stopped cold in our tracks and held our breath! We stood still, and quite, with our eyes peeled scanning the area, and our ears opened, waiting for another signal. The point man flattened his hand out, with his palm facing the ground, and lowered it toward the earth slowly. As each man squatted down in response, I moved up to see what was going on. I knelt down next to him, and with out even saying a word, he simply gestured, with two fingers pointed at his eyes, and then in the direction he thought he saw movement. I looked but I didn’t see anything. I motioned back to stay put, and stay down, then moved quietly up the trail another fifteen or so yards to get a better look. Sure enough… there was an enemy patrol moving in a parallel path to our own about 100-150 yards, through a wooded area.
After conducting my leaders recon I made my way back to the squad and began to move my men up. This was what we came for…. action… to seek and destroy. I maneuvered the squad into an ambush position, on top of a slight rise, with great visibility through the tree line, and excellent fields of fire, so we could engage the enemy, from the high ground, in a good ol turkey hunt. We were ready, this is what we trained for… the men were in place and waiting for my command. I waited and watched as the enemy patrol was walking into the ambush. For maximum effect I wanted at least 75% of that patrol in the kill zone before we would open up on them. They wouldn’t know what hit them…. like fish in a barrel we were about to do some serious damage.
The moment came… I yelled out… “fire!” and 16 men, with M-16’s, and at least one SAW (squad automatic weapon), let loose! The firepower was intense! But… no sooner than we opened fire we began to receive fire from our rear! I swiveled around and saw muzzle flashes coming from our six, about 50 yards away, out of a gully! NOT GOOD! The hunter becomes the hunted! We were now caught in the middle of two hostile, and deadly, enemy units and had to act fast if we were to survive this!
The Marine Corps trains for just such a scenario knowing that you may one day face it. The military understands that when the bullets start flying there is no time to stop and think, ponder, consider, ask for opinions, weigh the trends, and statistics, or take a poll. It’s life and death… and every second counts as humans, those closest to you, those who are in your care and custody, start to loose their lives. In combat… we must already know what to do or else we are dead already. In the case of an ambush, there is only one way to respond… counter attack with all you have, through violence of action, devastating the enemy positions as fast as possible, and then breaking contact and getting out of dodge! You must be as violent as possible if you want to survive. You must overwhelm the enemy with superior firepower. You have a choice… hunker down and allow the enemy to pick you off, or counter attack and have a chance at killing them before they kill you. You must attack the attacker with out even thinking…. It must be instinct!
On that day… when I turned to see my worst nightmare come true… being caught in an ambush… I acted with out thinking! I yelled, “contact six-o-clock!” then stood up, and barked “get online assault through, get online assault through!” and began to move toward the gully while firing my M-16. I looked around and noticed that I was the only one standing, the only one moving forward…. my men were hugging the ground and didn’t want to stand up. We had to assault through the enemy position if we were going to live. What were they doing? “Get up!” I screamed “get online assault through!” as I grabbed one Marine by his belt and hauled him to his feet! “Get up! Get up!” They just lay there thinking there best chance to live was to stay on the ground! Little did they know it was a guaranteed death sentence! The enemy was successful in convincing my men to lie down and not engage in the fight.
Fortunately, for all of us, there were no bullets flying through the air that December day on a mountain in Camp Pendleton, California. It was an exercise during a 3-day mock war during Marine Combat Training. I can’t imagine it would have turned out very well if it had been a real encounter with a deadly force. Seeing the muzzle flash of an automatic weapon, even one firing blanks, sweeping across your chest at only 50 yards is a sobering sight… enough to give you a sense of the fear real combat solders experience in Iraq and Afghanistan today. I honestly do not think I would have lived through the encounter but, I was not thinking, only reacting to the environment and the training the Marines drilled, sometimes pounded even, into my thick head. It was “muscle-memory” not courage that carried me through that encounter. I feel this event illustrates a valuable lesson for fighting temptations and winning in spiritual combat.
Almost every segment of society uses the principle of “muscle-memory” to perform better at their trade. Police, fire, athletes, dancers, cooks, construction workers, bar tenders, secretaries, you name it. We all train to retain! The more we can perform, on instinct, and less on decisions at critical moments, the better we will be at our craft. Why is it any different in Spiritual combat? Everyday we are ambushed by the devil,who plays on our own disordered appetites, and sinful tendencies, in order to tempt us to commit sin and therefore serve a mortal blow to the life of our souls. When the bullets begin to fly, the onslaught of temptation, we have a choice to make. Lie down and allow the devil to pick us off and remove us from the field of battle, or stand up, get online and assault through! To fight back!
In both scenarios we face imminent danger, however, the latter is the only one with a chance at success. Too often I have seen good Christians take a hit, through an act of sin, and then allow the Devil to convince them they are now damaged goods, too wretched for the forgiveness of God, and should just lie down and die. The Devil gets them both ways… in the act of committing a sin, and then in the act of feeling shame, and despair, as a result of the sin. My buddy Mark Houck, from the Kings Men apostolate, once told me “to feel guilt is natural, to feel shame is sinful”! Those words hit me like an alcoholic’s epiphany, a moment of clarity! I saw my entire life flash before my eyes. How many times have I held on to shame, for past sins, when I should have trusted God’s words in the confessional? “I absolve you from all your sins”. They are no longer my sins… God has taken them, they now belong to him. To feel shame for what God has taken away is, itself, a sin.
The bullets are going to come at us… that much is certain. The question is; how will we react when they do? If “mussel-memory” works for combat solders, why not for Christians trying to get through the day with out committing a sin… falling, and giving into a temptation? Have a plan, work the plan, and then carry out the plan! Prepare for spiritual combat by knowing exactly what you are going to do when “such and such” a scenario occurs. Take the “teeth” out of the bite, or the “stress” out of decision-making at the moment of temptation, by working out the appropriate response to every situation a head of time. Then practice it over and over again until it becomes second nature, “muscle-memory”.
Fr. Sam Medley, SOLT, once told me how he made the decision to be a martyr for Christ. He didn’t necessarily want, or look forward, to being killed for the faith but, rather, wanted to make the decision a head of time. As a missionary Fr. Sam travels to places where the threat of physical violence is a real possibility. Fr. Sam didn’t want to find himself in a situation where he would be given the choice… renounce Christ, or die! The stress, his instinct to preserve his own life, might be too great to face that choice, without heroic courage, and he may cower in a moment of weakness. To prevent this Fr. Sam used the principle of “muscle-memory” to ensure, that should he find himself facing the choice, he would chose death, and the martyrs crown, over life and the shame of rejecting our Lord! Fr. Sam will have peace, not fear, and anxiety, at the moment of death. This is counter-attacking the Devil! This is how a Christian conducts themselves when they find themselves in the “kill zone” and all seems lost.
After twenty-one years of slavery to pornography addiction, and lack of sexual integrity, I’m faced with the daily ambush of sexual temptations. In times past I would have been a casualty of war, indulging in every illicit thought, and sordid opportunity. The shame, that follows every encounter with the enemy, weighed on me like a millstone around my neck. I was hunting for satisfaction but only, and always, found shame. My shame enslaved me and I lived in a world of utter darkness. In April of 2002, after my world crashed down around me, God came to my rescue and shed His light on my sin and slavery. In one mystical, and miraculous moment, while on my knees, God allowed me to understand the need for personal sexual integrity, the intrinsic value of women, the deep desire to save my marriage from ruin, and an unquenchable thirst for God.
For the first time I felt that masturbation, gawking at women, indulging in pornographic images, actions, thoughts, etc. was wrong… it was sinful. The very instant before, I would have sworn up and down that we were born creatures of sexuality, and I was only doing what was “natural”. In that instant, there on my knees, I proclaimed, with out knowing why exactly, that God did not create us to be slaves to a pornographic culture… he came to set us free from that slavery!
Even though God granted me a gift of grace it didn’t mean that I was now free from temptation, the endless images stored in my brain from decades of abuse, and countless other near occasions of sin that I found myself in daily. No… not at all. So what was different? The difference was my desire to be the man God created me to be. As that man I do NOT want to indulge in temptation. So… the bullets will come… but, how will I act when the do? I knew I needed a plan, rules of engagement if you will. Acting like a combat Christian, in the fight for my soul, I drafted a plan that would provide immediate action, overwhelming firepower, and devastating aggressiveness through engaging the enemy on the field of battle. What was my plan?
Every single time I was tempted through, thoughts, images, persons, situations, words, things, and anything else that would cause me a near occasion of sin, I acted immediately by overting my eyes, praying the Hail Mary, and then removing myself from the scene. Like the Marines, who train to respond aggressively, with intense violence of action, overtaking the ambushers through counter assaults, flanking movements, artillery, sniper, and air support, then breaking contact, and moving to safety, I too would adapt, over come, and improvise.
Training to respond immediately to every temptation is the first critical step. Do not indulge, never entertain, the temptation. To be tempted is a natural element of our life on earth. Allowing yourself to indulge in the temptation is when the sin occurs. Making the decision, ahead of time, to take action, versus in-action, will save your life! In the struggle of pornography addiction, men will hang on to an image for a moment too long and then find themselves too weak, a casualty of the engagement, and are now in too deep to stop. At the very moment rounds are coming at you, temptation rears it’s ugly head, you must turn, face it down, and act decisively. To not act is certain death… to act gives you an opportunity to live and fight another day.
When facing down the demonic temptation of pornography, you must respond with overwhelming firepower, immediately, and aggressively. This is why I always pray Hail Mary’s… Our Lady, the perfect creation of her Son Jesus, the model of purity, the Queen of Heaven and Earth, the “Full of Grace”, is, by far, one of the biggest, most devastating weapons you can carry on the field of battle. It’s like bringing a tank to a knife fight…. When you invoke Our Lady at the first sign of sexual (or any other) temptation the thought/situation quickly evaporates. In the days, weeks, and now years, after my conversion in April of 2002, I was praying Hail Mary’s almost non-stop all day long. On some occasions I had to call for reinforcements to get me out of some intense ambushes. I would call in the “special forces”, a pre-selected crew of Saints, who, through their specialized skill sets, I knew would swoop in, intercede, and rain down prayers from above to see me through to safety. My A-Team… St. Padre Pio, St. Teresa of Lisieux, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Joseph.As with many other passages, Hebrews 12:1 is a great reminder of the Church Triumphant working in perfect concert with the Church Militant in spiritual combat operations: ” 1: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us”. With the enemy reeling from the devastating blow, now, I break contact and move to safety by removing myself from the temptation.
The bottom line is avoid temptation and the near occasions of sin, but if you find yourself in a “hell-fire” fight then have a plan to come out alive. Practice your plan daily and eventually it becomes “muscle-memory”. Now you’re acting by instinct instead of will power. Think of the day when seeking holiness is second nature, and automatic. With this technique you will emerge victorious from more ambushes that you fall prey too. The good news… should you find yourself a casualty again… Our Lord has given you the means to restoration, sending His spiritual combat medics, His Priests, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Make use of this “encounter with Christ” as often as possible so that you can remain on target, on the field of combat, staying in the fight for the lives of our near and dear ones. When you hear those words, “I absolve you”, believe them, trust Our Lord, and do not look back. Now the next time you feel the bullets come at you, the enemy surrounding you, and the situation seeming desperate, counter attack like all good combat Christians do… offer your attacker an opportunity to surrender, or face annihilation at the hand of Our Lady!
Want more? Check out the book I wrote by the same title, Muscle Memory: Beating The Porn Temptation!
About the Author:
Joe McClane is the General Manger of KSHJ 1430 AM on the Guadalupe Radio Network, Catholic radio in Houston, TX. Joe spent the last five years serving as the Director and Events Coordinator for the Fullness Of Truth Catholic Evangelization Ministries based in North Houston. Joe has been married, going on thirteen years, to Michelle, and they homeschool their five children. Joe and his family are parishioners of Annunciation Catholic Church in downtown Houston. Find me on Google+