How to Change the World: Ten Lessons from a Navy Seal Admiral

For Lord’s Day, May 3, 2020

Dear Saints,

In two sermons last year I quoted from a renowned graduation speech by Navy SEAL Admiral William H. McRraven entitled, “How to Change the World”.  I originally learned about this message last year while listening to a message by a boy in speech and debate club in which my girls participate.  I’d like to share excerpts of it with you along with some Scriptures that come to mind.

1. Make Your Bed Every Morning.  “If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right … If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.

Psalm 92:1-2 says, It is a good thing to give thanks unto the LORD, and to sing praises unto thy name, O most High: To shew forth thy lovingkindness in the morningAnd Psalm 63:1 reads, O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee …

2. Find Someone to Help You Paddle.  “During SEAL training, the students are all broken down into boat crews.  Every day your boat crew forms up on the beach and is instructed to get through the surf zone and paddle several miles down the coast.  In the winter, the surf off San Diego can get to be eight-to-ten-feet high.  And it is exceedingly difficult to paddle through the plunging surf unless everyone digs in … Everyone must exert equal effort or the boat will turn against the wave and be unceremoniously dumped back on the beach.  For the boat to make it to its destination everyone must paddle.  You can’t change the world alone.  You will need some help … If you want to change the world find someone to help you paddle.”

Ecclesiastes 4:11-12 reminds us of the importance of the communion of the saints: … if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?  And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

3. Measure a Person by the Size of Their Heart.  “The best boat crew we had was made up of the little guys, the ‘Munchkin Crew’ we called them.  No one was over five foot five … They out-paddled, out-ran, and out-swam all the other boat crews … The big men in the other boat crews would always make good-natured fun of the tiny little flippers the Munchkins put on their tiny little feet prior to every swim … but somehow these little guys … always had the last laugh swimming faster and reaching the shore long before the rest of us … Seal training was a great equalizer: nothing mattered but your will to succeed … If you want to change the world, measure a person by the size of their heart not by the size of their flippers.

Goliath mocked and threatened young David.  And then David cut the giant’s head off and delivered the Israelites from the Philistines in the strength of the Lord. (1 Samuel 17)  And David was said to be a man after God’s own heart.  (Acts 13:22).

4. Keep Moving Forward [through failure].  “Several times a week the instructors would line up the class and do a uniform inspection.  It was exceptionally thorough … but it seemed that no matter how much effort you put into [it] … it just wasn’t good enough.  The instructors would find something wrong … there were many a student who just couldn’t accept the fact that all their efforts were in vain, that no matter how hard they tried to get the uniform right they went unappreciated.  Those students didn’t make it through training.  Those students didn’t understand the purpose of the drill.  You were never going to succeed.  You were never going to have a perfect uniform.  The instructors weren’t going to allow it.  Sometimes no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform … you still [fail] … it’s just the way life is sometimes.  If you want to change the world get over being a [perfectionist] and keep moving forward.

Proverbs 24:16 reassures us that … a just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again …

5. Don’t Be Afraid of the Circuses.  “Every day during training you were challenged with multiple physical events … something designed to test your mettle.  Every event had standards … if you failed to meet … those standards your name was posted on a list and at the end of the day those on the list were invited to a circus … two hours of additional calisthenics designed to wear you down, to break your spirit, to force you to quit …  But an interesting thing happened to those that were constantly on the list.  Over time those students … got stronger and stronger.  The pain of the circuses built inner strength and physical resiliency.  Life is full with circuses.  You will fail … likely … often … It will be painful.  It will be discouraging.  At times it will test you to your very core.  But if you want to change the world don’t be afraid of the circuses.”

James 1:2-4 instructs us, My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.

6. Sometimes You Have to Slide Down the Obstacles Head-first.  “At least twice a week the trainees were required to run the obstacle course … twenty-five obstacles … The most challenging obstacle was the ‘Slide for Life’.  It had a three-level, thirty-foot tower at one end and a one-level tower at the other. In between was a two-hundred foot-long rope.  You had to climb the three-tiered tower and once at the top you grabbed the rope, swung underneath the rope, and pulled yourself hand-over-hand until you got to the other end.  The record for the obstacle course had stood for years … seemed unbeatable … until one day a student decided to go down the Slide for Life headfirst … It was a dangerous move, seemingly foolish and fraught with risk.  Failure could mean injury and being dropped from the course … instead of several minutes [on the Slide for Life] it only took him half that time and by the end of the course he had broken the record.  If you want to change the world sometimes you have to slide down the obstacles head-first.”

The Levites had to step into the Jordon River before God parted the waters for all to walk across and into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:13ff).  Impetuous Peter experienced walking on water with Jesus (Matthew 4:28ff); and he jumped off the boat to swim back and greet the Savior after the resurrection (John 21:7).

7. Don’t Back Down from the Sharks.  “During the land warfare phase of training, the students are flown out to San Clemente Island which lies off the coast of San Diego … the waters … are a breeding ground for the Great White Sharks.  To pass … there are a series of long swims that must be completed.  One is the night swim.  Before the swim the instructors joyfully brief the students on all the species of sharks that inhabit the waters … But you are also taught that if a shark begins to circle your position, stand your ground do not swim away.  Do not act afraid.  And if a shark hungry for a midnight snack darts towards you then summon up all your strength and punch him in the snout and he will turn and swim away.  There are a lot of sharks in the world.  If you hope to complete the swim you will have to deal with them.  So if you want to change the world don’t back down from the sharks.”

Remember how we’ve seen in Matthew Jesus regularly dealt strongly and directly with the constant circling of the Scribes, Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, and lawyers around Him seeking to destroy Him.  And consider Jesus’ example in chapter four of both Matthew and Luke with James 4:7 in view: Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

8. Be Your Very Best in the Darkest Moments.  “As Navy Seals one of our jobs is to conduct underwater attacks against enemy shipping.  We practice this technique extensively …  The ship attack mission is where a pair of Seal divers is dropped off outside an enemy harbor and then swims well over two miles under water using nothing but a depth gauge and a compass to get to the target … As you approach the ship which is tied to a pier the light begins to fade … To be successful in your mission you have to swim under the ship and find the keel, the center line and the deepest part of the ship. This is your objective.  But the keel is also the darkest part of the ship where you cannot see your hand in front of your face, where the noise from the ship’s machinery is deafening, and where it gets to be easily disorient[ing] and you can fail.  Every Seal knows that under the keel at the darkest moment of the mission is the time when you need to be calm, when you must be calm, when you must be composed.  When all your tactical skills, your physical power, and your inner strength must be brought to bear.  If you want to change the world you must be your very best in the darkest moments.”

Psalm 23:4 can be our regular refrain for relief: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

9. Start Singing When You’re Up to Your Neck in Mud.  “The ninth week of training is referred to as ‘Hell Week’.  It is six days of no sleep, constant physical and mental harassment.  And one special day at the ‘Mud Flats’ … between San Diego and Tijuana where the water runs off and creates the ‘Tijuana Slews’, a swampy patch of terrain where the mud will engulf you.  It is on Wednesday of ‘Hell Week’ that you paddle down to the mud flats and spend the next 15 hours trying to survive the freezing cold, the howling wind, and the incessant pressure to quit from the instructors … As the sun began to set … my training class having committed some egregious infraction of the rules was ordered into the mud.  The mud consumed each man till there was nothing visible but our heads.  The instructors told us we could leave the mud if only five men would quit … some students were about to give up … eight hours till the sun came up … And then one voice began to echo through the night … raised in song … with great enthusiasm … one voice became two … three … before long everyone was singing … the singing persisted and some how the mud seemed a little warmer and the wind a little tamer and the dawn not so far away.  If I have learned anything in my time traveling the world it is the power of hope … One person can change the world by giving people hope.  So if you want to change the world start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.

Paul and Silas sang Psalms for strength while in prison at midnight and God delivered them (Acts 16:25ff).  Further, Romans 5:3-5 reminds us,… we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.

10. Never Ring the Bell.  “Finally, in SEAL training there is a bell. A brass bell that hangs in the center of the compound for all the students to see. All you have to do to quit is ring the bell.  Ring the bell and you no longer have to wake up at five o’clock. Ring the bell and you no longer have to be in the freezing cold swims. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the runs, the obstacle course, the PT — and you no longer have to endure the hardships of training. All you have to do is ring the bell to get out.  If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell.”

Beloved, Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. (Ephesians 6:13)

One thingAdmiral McRaven said during his speech’s introduction about his SEAL training in Coronado struck me: “It is six months of being constantly harassed by professionally trained warriors who seek to find the weak of mind and body and eliminate them from ever becoming a Navy Seal.”  Does this not bring up the images of Revelation 12, and the warning to heed from Peter?: Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world. (1 Peter 5:8-9).

Yet the Admiral added, “But the training also seeks to find those students who can lead in an environment of constant stress, chaos, failure, and hardships.”  Beloved, in Christ’s strength let us indeed hold fast and overcome in all things that we can have Paul’s words to be our own in the end:  For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand.  I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6-8)

Here’s the commencement speech video:

Semper Reformanda,

Pastor Grant