Contributing Writer, Author, Speaker
When I want to burrow deeper into a word or concept, I sometimes turn to sign language. Recently, during a break in a Michael McDonald concert, I noticed a woman, to the right of the stage, signing to a small group of people. I was mesmerized by her unvarnished and unblinking use of signs to describe everyday life.
There was no posturing or pretense as this gifted communicator reflected the mood and nature of the songs. When I asked her for the sign for courage, she clenched her fists, knuckles away from her body, elbows bent—the position your arms would be when finishing a pull-up, where your fists rest just below your chin.
“Courage means ‘strength, power,'” she told me. And that sign is the visual equivalent of the Hebrew word for courage (hazaq), which means “to show oneself strong.” Thankfully, there are expressions of Christianity that put forth courage as a gift of God’s Holy Spirit.
Anglicans, Catholics, and Lutherans believe there are seven primary gifts of the Holy Spirit, as found in Isaiah 11. Here we’re told that the Spirit of God rests upon messiah, helping him and those who know him to do their part in the messianic kingdom. Isaiah gives very specific information:
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.
This word power is also translated as strength and might, derivatives of courage. Thomas Aquinas unfolded this spiritual gift when he wrote that the gift of fortitude (courage) allows people “firmness of mind [that] is required both in doing good and in enduring evil, especially with regard to goods or evils that are difficult.” According to Aquinas, the gift of courage compels a Christian’s will toward going God’s will here and now.
Another view of the intriguing Isaiah passage says that the gifts listed are threefold: (1) wisdom and understanding for government, (2) counsel and power (courage) for war, and (3) knowledge and fear of the Lord for spiritual leadership.
We must also pay attention to what Isaiah writes next because it’s intrinsic to our comprehension of what the Holy Spirit will compel us to do with our thumotic courage.
With righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
Biblically, again and again and again, we see that courage is intrinsic to justice, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace. Through the Prince of Peace, we learn that peace itself is hard-won. Here we learn, specifically, that peace follows judgment and springs from righteousness—not from perpetual pleasantness and never-ending niceties.
Please don’t miss how this remarkable passage so vividly reveals God’s heart and will for the needy and the poor. We are to do more than merely provide food and shelter—we are to judge on their behalf, to move their direction, to plead their case for them when necessary. We should be more than their dietitian or landlord: We need to be their advocate.
Unfortunately, our current notion of peace itself is poorly conceived, even self-serving. We usually think of it in the framework of inner peace, an inner sense of well-being. We also frequently regard peace as being “about me, my feelings, my thoughts, my experience, my needs.” There is an inner peace that comes from the Holy Spirit, yes, but why wouldn’t we think this would include the likelihood that God would gift us with the ability to help bring about peace on earth as well?
Furthermore, regarding inner peace, we need to admit that this also comes from a life well-lived through the discharge of one’s duties. Simply doing what one ought to do is a strong vaccine against the malaise of existential anguish and depression that haunts many people. We fulfill our responsibilities and continue moving toward our aspirations in part when we possess and employ our fighting spirit.
The fruit of peace likewise should lead toward the proliferation of peace; it shouldn’t result in appeasement. Unfortunately, we’re not very good at distinguishing peace-making from peace-faking. Rick Warren reminds us:
Peacemaking is not avoiding conflict. Running from a problem, pretending it doesn’t exist, or being afraid to talk about it is actually cowardice. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, was never afraid of conflict….Peacemaking is also not appeasement. Always giving in, acting like a doormat, and allowing others to always run over you is not what Jesus had in mind.
The falsehoods in our worldview have us believing we’re the world’s doormats. In his oft-overlooked bluntness, though, Jesus sets us straight: “If your brother wrongs you, reprove him; and if he repents, forgive him.” That’s pretty straightforward and assertive. He likewise once told his disciples that if they had no sword they should sell their cloak to buy one.
The Bible gives us many examples of the rugged virtues we’re called to embrace, so why do we focus only on the sweet and sugary ones that, when overemphasized, give us spiritual cavities and further deep-freeze our already frosty thumos? The answer is that we don’t want toughness in our spirituality, even when it’s unavoidable, and even when it can save lives. We don’t want creative tension and unsettling disruption—we’re afraid these might be offensive to others and, from a leadership angle, thereby lower the body count on a given Sunday. We like numbers. Numbers keep our budgets growing.
I understand budget problems. I’ve gone months unable to pay my bills due to ministry expenses, and I’ve hated how that feels. But service to others is a priority we make, for right now seekers coming into our churches aren’t seeing fervent love and action but rather the ordination of mildness and conformity. On the most segregated day in America, they are seeing people “more cautious than courageous, [people who] have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of the stained-glass windows” regarding matters of justice and cruelty.
So we only quote the things that make our faith feel safe and comfortable; we hide from stuff that’s revolutionary, adventurous…truly transforming. We’ll do most anything to escape or ignore what seems threatening to our status quo.
Remember, though: The Bible commands us to be strong and courageous more than two dozen times! (Interestingly, it also lists about the same number of examples of cowardice, each a cautionary tale. It’s as if God is instructing us to embrace courage each time there’s an opportunity to flee it). We’re told that the righteous are as bold as lions; how on earth have come to think we should be as sugary as cotton candy or as saccharine as diet soda (“sweetness”—both real and fake)?
The health of our thumos, the state of our spiritual maturity, and thus our ability to live well depend upon our accepting this revelation of what it means to follow god and reflect his true nature, which brings both disruption and comfort. Once more, here there is no contradiction, but rather completion.
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including Unleashing Courageous Faith, No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying.
Visit Sandy’s website for reluctant entertainers at: http://www.reluctantentertainer.com