Courage is an ambiguous term. I’ve always found it hard to discern its essence and appearance. As a teenager, I couldn’t help but identify courage with those who were bold, assertive and confident. I’d associated courage with those most socially competent, the outspoken kind, who knew how to work a crowd and say the right things. I’d look to a character such as Peter in the Bible to exemplify that kind of fearless living. He may have spoken before he thought or moved before his mind was made, but he sure didn’t hold back. Who else but Peter would pull out his sword in Jesus’ defense when the soldiers made the arrest? What other disciple would have spoken amidst the glorious transfiguration? From the outside, it’s safe to say that Peter looked like he had some courage. He reminds me of the type of guy who’d whistle down a slow waiter while the rest of us look away in embarrassment. You actually secretly appreciate his assertiveness, but you just wished he’d tone it down a notch.
You’d think these types of people are the most courageous in God’s eyes, the outgoing type, the ones who preach on the stage and talk most in a small group. But lately I’ve been noticing the danger in gaging someone’s courage by his or her personality. It’s far too easy to mistaken charisma for courage. When you look back at Peter, I think we get a picture of his true condition, not in the olive grove with his valiant defense of Jesus, but rather at the entrance of the high priest’s courtyard. The same entrance where he first denies his Lord. When you think about it, true courage shines brightest at the face of ordinary resistance, the small everyday situations that require us to stand for righteousness, justice and truth. Situations with no spotlight, applause or reward. True courage surfaces when you have everything to lose and nothing to gain. Peter whipped out the sword and fought for Jesus when his boys were around to see, but he shriveled up like a coward to a simply question from a little girl. It’s amazing how we can serve fearlessly on the mission field, yet fail to stand for truth among friends sitting around a table mocking God and dishonoring his name. We may appear courageous in our evangelistic campaigns and mission trips, but the true test of our courage comes when there’s no program or structure to facilitate our actions. Courage shines the brightest while we wait at the bus stop, stand in line at the grocery store, or order food in a restaurant. But urgency seems fades in the mundane aspects of life.
We need to look deeper than temperament to discern courage. We need to redefine our view of courage in light of God’s kingdom, for in this kingdom, everyone qualifies. In fact, Jesus presents a scandalous idea that God would use the weak to shame the strong. As a friend of mine put it, “God’s emphasis in the Bible is opposite from ours: a few loaves and fishes, a pinch of salt or leaven, tiny mustard seeds, Gideon sending soldiers home, Jehoshaphat opening his city gates to the enemy, Jesus telling Peter to put away his sword. “My strength”, he said, “is perfected in weakness.” God wants us to admit that we are a minority – and act like one – so he will be the source of our power. Instead, we think weakness is a scandal. We seek to force our way like a majority. We appear to be compensating for God’s limitations… how can he bless that?” Roger Dewey.
While the disciples disputed about who among them was the greatest, Jesus address this same issue by saying, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” Luke 22:25-29
Although Jesus was eloquent, charismatic and outspoken, I find it ironic that above all those overt characteristics, we most recognize and esteem his act of humility on the cross. People can debate about how courageous his ministry was on earth, but no one can deny the power of his lonely death on the cross. In the midst of a scene with no applause, reverence, or earthly recognition, Jesus hung in isolation knowing the depth of his actions. While the world chose to turn their backs away from him, he stayed committed until death knowing that courage had no need for an audience.