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A Different Kind of Courage

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 Society is changing, and taking a stand against what you know is wrong requires a special courage. Are you ready to put everything on the line?


When the time comes,
will you put it all on the line?

Sooner or later, all of us will need to take actions
that will indicate courage or cowardice.

Courage is the ever-present companion to greatness. Entire books are devoted to the subject. In Undaunted Courage, historian Stephen E. Ambrose recounts the story of Meriwether Lewis, whose courageous leadership of the Lewis and Clark Expedition opened the American West to further exploration. Profiles in Courage, credited to former President John F. Kennedy, details the courageous deeds of eight United States senators. The virtue of courage shows up in all walks of life and through all circumstances. We often find it in times of war, especially on the battlefield, but it is also found in the realm of boardroom decisions and in those brave enough to swim against the tide of popular opinion.

Explorers such as Lewis and Clark are widely praised in the annals of history. So are the brave men and women who leave earth behind to explore space. Who can deny that the first man in space and the first men to set foot on the moon seem to be made with a special ingredient? Yet most acts of courage are unrecognized, sometimes even unnoticed. Can we deny the label “courageous” to the man who overcomes his fear of heights by taking up hang-gliding, or the young wife who makes the decision to have a child when pain and uncertainty are on the horizon?

We all admire courage, but at times we shrink from exercising it. This starts at an early age. For generations, American children were told that when a young George Washington was asked, “Who cut down the cherry tree?” he replied, “I cannot tell a lie. I did.” Alas, the story is mere fiction. Indeed, many children “shade” the truth when confronted with facts that might bring pain if admitted. Sadly, many adults act like little children under similar circumstances, though with greater consequences.

Courage is also difficult to predict. Why does a man in one instance rise to the occasion and in another shrink back? We can see this in the prophet Elijah, who confronted King Ahab, 450 prophets of Baal, 400 prophets of Asherah, and a populace who could not decide which side to take. Yet this same Elijah, shortly after his bold action against so many, ran like a scared rabbit to the other end of the country when Queen Jezebel threatened him. Why such courage against many, yet such a lack of it against only one?

Conflicting Motives

Nor are motives easy to discern. We read in Profiles in Courage,

Of course, the acts of courage described in this book would be more inspiring and would shine more with the traditional luster of hero-worship if we assumed that each man forgot wholly about himself in his dedication to higher principles. But it may be that President John Adams, surely as disinterested as well as wise a public servant as we ever had, came much nearer to the truth when he wrote in his Defense of the Constitutions of the United States: “It is not true, in fact, that any people ever existed who love the public better than themselves” (p. 238).

Observing the state of politics these days, it is not difficult to accept the wisdom of America’s second president, but does this also mean there is no true nobility outside of politics? Consider the man who falls on a grenade to save the lives of fellow soldiers. Or what about the man who gave a lifeboat seat to his wife or child and went down with the Titanic? We may not know the names or circumstances, but history is full of people who willingly sacrificed their lives for others. Self-sacrifice takes courage and is often selfless, but not always. Suicide bombers may sacrifice their lives for a cause, but is it really a sacrifice when they expect to gain reward in the afterlife and fame on the earth? Certainly, this can scarcely be compared to the greatest act of self-sacrifice of all (John 3:16; Philippians 2:5–8).

Yes, there are motives behind courage—some noble and some not so noble. Men and women traveled across a great ocean in wooden sailboats to the continent we now call North America, not knowing whether they would survive or what they would find. Their motive was often a desire for better lives for themselves and their children. They are still coming, and their journeys still require courage and perseverance. I have met quite a few present-day immigrants to Canada and the United States, and the desire for a better life for their children remains a common theme, even knowing that their own lives will be difficult.

Many motives can drive the human spirit to overcome great obstacles.  As noted above, some are stirred by a cause greater than themselves. Some keep active to suppress the fear of death and dying. Some seek fame and fortune, and sometimes the hope of a better life. Some are after nothing more than an adrenaline rush and “the thrill of it all.”

We can think of small acts of courage, such as jumping off a high diving board into the deep end of a pool. For many, even asking someone out for a date or accepting a date may require a bit of courage. Even seemingly ordinary events such as getting married also involve courage. Although we may take for granted a couple’s plan to have children, it also takes a kind of courage for husband and wife to make the commitments and sacrifices that make the plan possible. These situations are not the stuff that historians write about when thinking of bravery. However, for the individuals who overcome their fear, are these and a hundred other acts any less courageous?

Putting It All on the Line

Sooner or later, all of us will need to take actions that will indicate courage or cowardice. We can take Jack Phillips as an example of the former. Even if you do not remember him by name, you likely have heard about his stand against the state of Colorado as the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood. When Phillips refused to decorate a cake to celebrate a same-sex “marriage,” he was summoned before the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, where a judgment was made against Phillips in favor of the same-sex couple. He could have caved in, but he chose to appeal the decision. Finally, in June 2018—after six years of stress and trauma—the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Phillips’ favor.

But that was not the end for Phillips. When he refused “to create a cake designed pink on the inside and blue on the outside as a way to celebrate a gender transition from male to female,” another complaint against him was filed (“Masterpiece Cakeshop, Colorado Settle Legal Battle,” ColoradoPolitics.com, March 5, 2019). What was the result? “Less than a month later, the state found probable cause to believe state law requires Phillips to create the requested gender-transition cake.” Courageously, Phillips and a few supporters battled the new charge, considering it no less than bullying and harassment using the power of the state against a single individual who is willing to take a stand for his convictions of right and wrong. Happily, their courage was rewarded. “Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit legal organization that says it defends people based on their religious beliefs, filed a federal lawsuit against the division, the commission, and the Colorado governor and attorney general in August 2018, complaining that the state is ‘on a crusade to crush Plaintiff Jack Phillips because its officials despise what he believes and how he practices his faith’” (ibid).

It is one thing for a state government, with its vast available resources and ability to spend other people’s money, to sue a mere private citizen. But in the face of a countersuit, those persecuting Phillips also had something to lose. Colorado no doubt had insurance to protect the state against large losses, but court battles can still take a toll. In effect, state regulators decided to call it a draw, as both sides dropped their lawsuits.

We should be thankful for the courage and determination of Jack Phillips and those like him. He paid a price in lost revenue and tremendous stress on himself and his family due to his sincerely held religious convictions. Thankfully, he is not alone. In Washington state, the Attorney General heard a case involving a Richland florist who refused to participate in a same-sex wedding. Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers, was a friend of Robert Ingersoll, a young man she supplied with flower arrangements for important occasions in his life. She was aware of his lifestyle and he knew of her Christian faith. All was fine until she refused to participate in his wedding to Curt Freed, which she could not do in good conscience based on her sincerely held religious beliefs. In 2013, the Attorney General brought the weight of the state of Washington down on the 70-plus-year-old grandmother. As the Alliance Defending Freedom wrote in a legal brief to the court:

The Attorney General has exhibited the same unequal treatment here [as in the Phillips case]. After learning about Mrs. Stutzman’s religious conflict through media reports, but without any complaint from the individual Respondents, the Attorney General contacted Mr. Freed to express his concern, sent a letter threatening to sue Mrs. Stutzman, had his office devise a novel way to bring this lawsuit, employed an admittedly unprecedented use of the CPA to do so, and sued Mrs. Stutzman in her personal capacity. In marked contrast, the Attorney General responded very differently when a media story went viral about the gay owner of Bedlam Coffee in Seattle profanely berating, ejecting, and discriminating against a group of Christian customers in October 2017.

It should be obvious to those with any knowledge of what is going on—in our Western nations and in other parts of the globe—that anything considered “Christian” is under assault. This is not to say that everything considered “Christian” truly is Christian, just that anything attached in any way to Jesus Christ, the Bible, or the God of the Bible is considered “fair game.” Yet, at the same time, authorities often turn a blind eye to offenses by those who hate anything associated with Christian belief or practice.

The Book Is Better!

Every year around the holiday of Easter, the Cecil B. DeMille movie The Ten Commandments is replayed on American television. This nearly-four-hour blockbuster was revolutionary both in length and in scope for its time. Leading man Charlton Heston played Moses. The great stage actor Yul Brynner played Pharaoh. Acting styles change over time, of course, and some of today’s younger generation may find it difficult to relate to that earlier style of acting.

Sadly, thanks to more recent movies based on biblical characters such as Noah, casual viewers can be excused for thinking The Ten Commandments is no more than fictional entertainment. However, director DeMille did attempt to portray the Israelite exodus accurately, researching the biblical account, the works of Josephus, and other historical and archaeological sources. Even so, it fell far short of the real events. As we so often hear about books made into movies, “The book is better.”

One theme that stands out in God’s word is that human nature consistently reverts to idolatry and licentious ways when given enough time. Even a casual reading of the Bible makes this evident. At the end of Moses’ life, the mantle of leadership was passed to a man named Joshua, to whom Moses gave this important instruction: “Be strong and of good courage” (Deuteronomy 31:6–7, 23). This was certainly important advice for the man who would lead an untrained army into a land inhabited by mighty men (Deuteronomy 7:1).

After Moses’ death, God Himself communicated this same message to Joshua, and added another reason to be courageous: “Only be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go.… Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:7, 9). Moses and God knew that Joshua would need to stand firm against public opinion and human nature.

Yes, obedience to divinely inspired instructions takes courage. Jack Phillips and Barronelle Stutzman have shown that kind of courage. But courage to obey is normally not so widely known and praised.

That Brings Us to Us

Consider one important biblical instruction given to the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land:

When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess… take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them… and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, “How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.” You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it (Deuteronomy 12:29–32).

In the last chapter of the book named after Joshua, we read that “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had known all the works of the Lord which He had done for Israel” (Joshua 24:31). But this does not fully reflect the state of the nation, as their obedience was shallow and depended on strong leadership. Joshua chided the Israelites for what he knew they would do. He knew that just as God had blessed them for obedience, so He would bring trouble upon them for disobedience. He warned, “When you have transgressed the covenant of the Lord your God, which He commanded you, and have gone and served other gods, and bowed down to them, then the anger of the Lord will burn against you, and you shall perish quickly from the good land which He has given you” (Joshua 23:16).

How easy it is to look back with imagined superiority on those poor souls who, again and again, reverted to idolatrous worship. How could they have been so foolish? Yet many of us do the very same thing!

Remember that God instructed His people not to worship in the ways the heathen nations around them worshiped. “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32). So how is it that the name of a pagan fertility goddess got attached to the day on which people think Jesus was resurrected? How did fertility symbols such as rabbits, eggs, and lilies become part of that celebration? How did December 25, the day anciently celebrated as the birth of the sun god Mithra, become the day to celebrate Jesus’ birth? And what do decorated trees and a host of other heathen customs have to do with the worship of Jesus?

It is a fact of history that today’s professing Christianity is a far cry from what its Founder and His Apostles believed and practiced. As we read in The Story of the Christian Church by respected historian Jesse Lyman Hurlbut:

The forms and ceremonies of paganism gradually crept into the worship. Some of the old heathen feasts became church festivals with change of name and of worship. About 405 ad images of saints and martyrs began to appear in the churches, at first as memorials, then in succession revered, adored, and worshiped. The adoration of the Virgin Mary was substituted for the worship of Venus and Diana; the Lord’s Supper became a sacrifice in place of a memorial; and the elder evolved from a preacher into a priest.… the church gradually usurped power over the state, and the result was not Christianity but a more or less corrupt hierarchy controlling the nations of Europe, making the church mainly a political machine (pp. 79–80).

A countless number of similar quotes can be found from respected sources to show that what most call “Christian” today is little more than paganism dressed in new garb. Why doesn’t this trouble people? Doesn’t this bring us back to the subject of courage?

The Jesus Christ of the Bible is very different from what most people, even most professing Christians, imagine. How many have the courage to accept this warning from the One they call Lord and Savior? “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate [that is, love to a lesser degree] his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26).

In practical terms, each of us must be willing to put Jesus and His teachings above all else in life, which means we must have the courage to swim against the tide of popular traditions. How many understand the heathen origin of many religious practices, but because of family, friends, and job, refuse to change lest they be seen as strange and odd? Stand up to the states of Colorado or Washington? Perhaps. But stand up to family and friends? Well, that could be harder.

The Christianity that Jesus taught requires a kind of courage that is in rare supply today. It takes courage to withstand the conflicts that arise when we take a stand for truth. As Jesus warned us, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:34–37).

You have most certainly heard the question, “Are you a man or a mouse?” Too often, the answer comes back, “Pass the cheese.”

So, what will it be for you—cheddar, gouda, or courage?

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