On Courage and Seven Forms of Christian Cowardice

We all know fear. Our fears are crippling. Fear thwarts authenticity. Our ability to act. Our acceptance of ourselves. The quality of our listening. The good we might do. Fear is a constant and looming enemy. One antidote to fear is the virtue of courage.

Courage ought to be a conspicuous virtue in Christians. The linchpin of our faith himself is an exemplar of courage. We may not notice this when we only think of cool, confident, or even stoic Jesus, acting good with relative ease thanks to his God-powers. But when we remember that Jesus was human and likely faced the same kinds of fears that we face, the depth of his courage becomes remarkable. Jesus was really, really brave.

Virtues are understood in relation to their end—their goal. If the goal of Christians is love (it might not be but should be), then courage is a virtue that helps us overcome the fears that inhibit love from “happening.” Of course, we can easily disagree on what constitutes “love,” making one person’s alleged courage appear to another as rash or misdirected. But that’s a different conversation.

I know some courageous Christians. However, I also see a widespread cowardice (a lack of courage) among Christians. So of what are Christians afraid? With exceptions, of course, I notice several forms of Christian cowardice.

1. Fear of uncertainty. Doubt is not indicative of cowardice, but overconfidence might be. We may cope with our fear of ambiguity by convincing ourselves we are certain. Faith becomes re-imagined not as trust but as “knowing the facts.” But it is not courageous faith to say “I’m sure of this, and nothing you say could convince me otherwise.” Self-deception, maybe. And when we are overconfident that our present understanding of God, ourselves, and others is correct, we can become defensive and anxious when encountering difference. It scares us. I think it is more courageous to say “I have some doubts, but I’m in.” Courage helps faith take a “leap” and commit to a way of seeing, understanding, and living. Courage helps us sleep at night knowing we are on the right track, even if the fog feels thick.

2. Fear of perceived threats. I find the phrase “war on Christmas” to be an odd one. As though Christians need a battle and must think of themselves in military terms. I do think there are things worth fighting for—notably the well-being of the vulnerable and forgotten. But fighting to remind people that “Jesus is the reason” or to have Christian prayers posted in schools or to receive political exemptions allowing us to draw exclusive boundaries as we please? This is a saddening waste of energy, a reaction to fabricated enemies like “culture” and those who are “anti-Christian.” Communal self-preservation becomes our mission rather than protecting others. This seems neither the way of Jesus nor courageous. Courage helps us feel less threatened, opening us to expend our resources on more important goals (and people).

3. Fear of disappointing those we love. Many of you have been in a situation where you believed or valued something different than someone close to you. But rather than speak out, you kept quiet, believing—rightly or wrongly—that, for example, “Nana would just be devastated if she knew.” But what if you have come to recognize that one (or more) of your beliefs or practices was causing harm—directly or complicity—to numerous others? Is it worth remaining quiet, so as not to offend Nana? Doesn’t Nana love you, at the end of the day? And is her positive regard really worth it in the end? Maybe the best thing for Nana is you being authentically you, rather than a carefully-crafted, inoffensive version of you. And while I don’t think Jesus actually wants us to “hate” those we love (Lk 14:26), sometimes the call to follow Christ might challenge the way we have made idols of others’ perceptions of us and call us to courageously tear down such idols. Not letting our real or imagined expectations of those we love inhibit our commitment to loving in the way of Jesus may actually be the best way to love these people. Courage helps us face the actual or imagined rejection of others, enabling us to live out our love in the way we feel called.

4. Fear of losing our identity. When we are afraid, what’s at stake that drives the fear? We can resist an idea because we find it illogical, impractical, or simply unpleasant. But I suspect we also resist ideas because they threaten our sense of who we are. And this potentially opens up the floodgates of shame and anxiety. If my baptism was the most important moment of my life, and someone tells me “meh, baptism isn’t important to me,” I may fear my own spiritual journey is undermined. If I’ve spent my life evangelizing on the mission field, and you tell me that God likes that Muslims are Muslims, I may question the value of my life’s work. If my friend is gay and tells me he just slowly started to understand this fact over time before beginning to own it, I may anxiously wonder if my own sexual or gender identity are not as clear-cut as I had thought and so become defensive and even violent. Christians should find their identity in Christ and his way of love. If we are doing this, we need not be afraid and should have the courage to see our identity as fluid, continuous with the past and yet always growing, shifting, expanding. Courage holds us through our existential crises, growing our self-understanding.

5. Fear of being exposed. Christians have a unique way of speaking. Sometimes our language helps us understand ourselves and communicate with one another. “The light is within you,” we say as Quakers, a metaphorical (but true) way of affirming the goodness and value of others and the sustaining presence of God within them. More universally, Christians might say “I love you, God.” But language can be more aspirational than descriptive. Do you actually love God? How do you know? What do you point to that shows your love for God? Do you just feel enthusiastic about God or emotionally moved by the idea of God? Or are there things that you can point to in your life that demonstrate this love? I’m not saying we should stop saying we love God. But are we willing to scrutinize our lives from time to time, to ask ourselves if our present habits, words, lifestyles, routines, and ways of being with others actually indicate love for God, knowing that love of God and love of neighbor are intertwined (e.g., Mt 25:31-46)? I joke with my wife that Christian men like to confess relatively “safe” sins to which they assume most men can relate (e.g., lust and gluttony) but are reticent to talk about (or maybe just unaware of) other vices such as being controlling, not listening well, dishonesty when arguing, or resistance to advice, among other flaws. Flaws that might force us to bravely say to those we love “I was wrong, I hurt you, I’m sorry, I need forgiveness.” Living like we really believe the light is in us or others—or that we really love God— means a radical honesty about the true extent of our flaws. Such honesty requires courage, because it can be a scary thing to begin to chip away at our pristine self-presentation to the world (and to ourselves) to recognize the true messy nature of who we are. Yet no matter what we discover, we are still, at the end of the day, good, loved by God, and filled with light.

6. Fear of loss or privilege or position. Most Christians have probably considered the possibility that truly living the way of Jesus is a radical choice. Some express this discovery through boldly choosing a simple, more minimalist way of life, facing their fear of not having enough. Some bravely consider the possibility that they are in a privileged position and even a tad racist or sexist, confronting a fear that could result in overwhelming guilt and shame. Some have considered their buying habits and how the choices they make at the grocery store have consequences for others, facing the fear of what’s “behind the curtain” and what it might mean for their lifestyles. It is a cowardly choice to not think about those who suffer around us, and requires courage (but not self-loathing) to consider what opportunities I have that are denied others. This is scary! What if I discover I’m complicit in horrible crimes and have to give up or adjust more than I’m comfortable giving up or adjusting? Love requires the courage to wrestle with such questions and see the world as it really is, blinders off. The burden of the suffering around me is not all on me. But it’s not not on me. Courage takes seriously the radical, self-giving way of Jesus.

7. Fear of what we don’t understand. I have observed, more than a handful of times, my daughters’ terror at the small but monstrous “thing” that is about to wreak havoc on their body and soul. It takes them a moment to relax when I reveal it was only a small ball of lint, blown across the floor by a cross-breeze. Christians can act in this way, fearing what is new and different. Someone has a new idea for a way of doing something in our churches and we react with anxious suspicion, protective of how “we’ve always done it” and dismissive of this possible new approach. Someone contradicts our current theological understanding and we become defensive, fearful that entertaining the idea would be akin to a loose thread in a garment being pulled: if we accept this, where do we stop before our whole understanding has unraveled? This fallacious assumption of catastrophe is an overreaction and comes from fear. I suppose it is a natural, safety mechanism to be afraid of what is unfamiliar. But it’s the next step that counts: trying to understand it, rather than recoiling in self-protective fear. Courage prompts us to learn and ask and wonder, without fear of what we’ll find.

Where else do you see cowardice among Christians? Where do you need courage in your life of faith?

Courage is also a gift we can give to others. I think of Jesus, sharing his courage with the man at the pool of Beth-zatha (John 5:1-9). A man crippled not only by physical limitations but also by fear and resignation. A man seemingly so “stuck” that he may have lost the desire and will to get better. Jesus commands him to “stand up and walk,” transferring his own courage (Jesus had just entered Jerusalem, surely aware of the looming danger for his own life) to this man, helping him become…unstuck.

Who in your life is stuck? How can you give them courage?

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