Then SEAL of God is the book for you. I don’t know of any other book quite like it. It is a quick and easy read – I finished it in a few hours – and a definite page-turner.
Chad’s story is intriguing for several reasons.
First, he is honest about his flaws: going to strip clubs, badly mistreating his siblings and his parents, blacking out after drinking binges, and driving through red lights at over 100 miles an hour with friends sitting in the back of his truck. It is clear that Chad has lived a reckless and out-of-control life.
His aimless behavior and academic carelessness landed him in a community college where he has terrible grades and few options. In order to establish his sense of self-worth, he decides to become a Navy SEAL – the hardest and most impressive achievement he can imagine – and totally dedicates himself to this goal.
Second, Chad’s insane commitment to his goals is truly inspiring. Just to prepare for the Navy SEAL training he would exercise for up to eight hours a day. But that was nothing compared to what is called ‘Hell Week’ – “five and a half brutal days of sleep deprivation, nonstop shivering from hours spent in the ocean water, and running around with a boat on top of your head until you develop bald spots and then scabs on skin rubbed raw until it opens and bleeds (107).” Near the end of the brutal mechanics of Hell Week, Chad broke his nose and kept going, still without much sleep, through intense training maneuvers, for another day. Wow.
The other details of his SEAL training are fascinating. In case you were wondering: the U.S. military is led by some very deadly and absolutely intimidating warriors. The level of training, teamwork, and total dedication to accomplishing the impossible is just incredible.
Third, Chad’s life has been dramatically transformed. For instance, after his mentor Scott Helvenston was killed in Iraq, Chad writes about his thoughts at the time:
All I want to do is go kill. I want to kill everybody who hurt my friend. That is my goal in life.
I had no fear; just pure rage. The two years of training to get to Iraq would be way too long. I was ready to go now. I wanted to know how I could find the names of the people involved in the ambush, how I could track them down. I wanted to go after them one by one until every one of them had suffered for his acts (62).
After getting certified as a SEAL, Chad would get into bar fights with guys who were totally unprepared to go head-to-head with a Navy SEAL. He beat some guys up so badly that the police were called – and then he would use his military training to evade arrest.
So let’s recap the challenges in Chad’s life: anger issues, violent habits, visiting strip clubs, abusing alcohol, using drugs, and repeatedly breaking the law. And now he is certified by the U.S. military as a high-status, highly-trained soldier, able to accomplish the hardest and riskiest combat operations.
Which raises the obvious question: what changed Chad’s life?
It began by lying to his parents so he could recover a keg from their garage and go party – after being kicked out of their home. To buy time for his plan, he agrees to attend a church service with them. After prepping his girlfriend about the plan, and coaching her to not respond to the altar call, Chad finds himself absolutely engrossed in the speaker’s message. And before he fully realizes what he is doing, he has given his life to Christ and walked down the aisle to pray with others!
As he describes the experience:
I quickly stood and immediately was hit by what felt like a radical transformation taking place within me. I struggle to adequately describe what the feeling was like. But I still remember the day in 2004 when I watched on television as Scott’s body was being mutilated. That day, it felt like evil was being injected into me. But on this night—March 14, 2007—I felt like God’s love was being injected into me (193-194).
With his typical intensity, he reads through the entire Bible in the next twenty-four days. With a new inner peace and sense of self, Chad suddenly puts an end to his partying lifestyle. He experiences a profound peace and sense of self.
At the same time, he aggressively evangelizes to everyone – strangers, his SEAL buddies, and his girlfriend – alienating nearly everyone in the process. And despite trying to avoid coming across as judgmental, his new convictions means that the camaraderie on the SEAL team breaks down, and they put him through an atrocious hazing experience. When Chad requests placement on a new team, this causes further problems, as SEALs begin to call him a “rat” and worse. In the midst of all this, Chad gets shipped to overseas duty, which seems to lessen the tension as he works alongside a new team in a combat environment.
The book then ties up loose ends and catches us up to the present day: Chad leaves the SEALs to serve with an evangelistic ministry that focuses on street outreach, he gets engaged to his girlfriend at a Disney movie premier, then he quits his job to write SEAL of God, and begin a new career as a writer, speaker, and evangelist. The final section of the book is Chad sharing the good news of the gospel and inviting the reader to personally respond to Jesus as Lord and Savior.
While SEAL of God is an exciting and fun read, it does have a few significant flaws. I offer this criticism in a reluctant and friendly spirit, because I admire Chad’s openness, passion for the gospel, and commitment to evangelism, and I am interested in supporting his ministry.
In that spirit, the first critique is that I believe the book significantly overemphasizes the role of intuition in making big decisions. For three of the most important decisions in his life – to join the SEALs, to become a Christian, and to quit his job with the evangelistic ministry – Chad makes these choices on the basis of a strong gut feeling. While his courage and determination are inspirational, the justification for these life-shaping decisions felt a little underwhelming.
It led me to wonder: were there other factors that explained why he didn’t mesh well with the other SEALs? Why he wanted to be a Christian? Why the job with the evangelistic ministry didn’t pan out? What else was going on in his decision making process? The emphasis on his intuition led me to have some doubts about the overall decision making process.
Another issue is what appears to me as a somewhat naive blending of faith and the U.S. military. For instance, one of the book’s stories shows that Chad, despite his new Christian convictions, felt he could still be a good soldier. While I believe there are just wars, it was uncomfortable to read about Chad mowing down enemy combatants in such a matter-of-fact style. For instance:
I took aim at the shooters exposed on the rooftop and smothered them with rounds. That spot also, as we say, cooled down. No more shots came from there (257).
The euphemisms keep us emotionally distant from the carnage of war. But in doing so, they also keep the book from entering into an honest wrestling with the tensions between the Christian faith and the gruesome suffering and death of war.
Finally, there are a number of Christian decorations to the book that don’t really fit. For instance, at the start of Hell Week, Chad writes a Bible verse on his hat, saying, “I couldn’t see it there, but knowing that I had in some fashion acknowledged God made me feel even more confident than I already was” (109-110). This happens before his conversion and is part of the selective and self-serving Bible use that many churchgoers regularly practice. Disappointing, but fair enough.
What makes this relevant is that in his book, Chad has chosen to put a Bible verse at the start of each chapter, many of them still entirely out of context, though he is now sincerely dedicated to God. It has the effect of giving a veneer of Biblical support to each chapter, though in truth, the selected verses don’t necessarily have anything to do with his story. Likewise, he explains a successful ambush by saying, “But I definitely believe that the hand of God had been our cover” (262). These are just two examples where the book has a less developed perspective on the Christian life.
I would still recommend SEAL of God to some readers. If you are interested in an uplifting account of how God can change anyone’s life, then this is really a great read. Some people will find the above flaws just too much to stomach, and for them, I would encourage them to try other spiritual autobiographies. The reality is that we are all broken and flawed in many ways, standing in need of the grace of God for our limitations, sins, and blind spots. Chad is simply willing to be more transparent about his struggles than most of us are, and for that, I believe he deserves our respect.
Overall, the writing is good and the story is inspiring: I predict this book will lead many people to faith in Christ and that Chad’s dynamic commitment to evangelism will be transformative for many thousands of people.