Courage is one of the great virtues to aspire to in antiquity. And while I’m certain courage looks differently for people of the cross than other folks, I still think it’s an awfully good one to aim for.
I have never done anything particularly courageous. That is not false humility nor fishing for compliments. I flatly do not live the kind of life that requires a great deal of courage, and I can objectively acknowledge that. I’m okay with that because I think most of the acts of heroism God calls for are small acts of faithfulness. But who doesn’t want to seize the moment to do a truly courageous thing?
Since I talk for a living more or less, about the only thing courageous I know how to do in my work is to tell the truth. I think it’s immature to use words recklessly–Jesus Himself was called the Word of God, and He’s also the one who said that every idle word we speak would be subject to judgement. Words are sacred trusts. So I don’t look for opportunities to use them for battle. But it has of course always been the case that speaking the truth as best you know how will get you into trouble.
One such moment in my decidedly non-courageous middle class life was when I gave a speech on the Church of God General Assembly floor that caused a near-riot. I am a big believer in women in ministry, from my understanding of Scripture, my experience of great women of God, and my Pentecostal tradition (which apparently many within the tradition don’t understand or appreciate). I don’t feel like recounting the whole thing, as I’ve done it elsewhere. But needless to say my words were fiery and the reaction was harsh. From it came one of my favorite little compliments, however, and I hope you don’t think me crass for passing it along in this context. One of the guys on our executive council looked over to another as I was told later and said, “MAN! That guy has got some balls!” Thankfully in his case, this was meant favorably and not merely to imply impertinence.
There have been plenty of times at home where telling the truth as best as I know how has caused me to take some heat. I’m thinking about the people we lost over 2008′s Politics of Jesus preaching series, where I told the truth about how our allegiance to God’s kingdom has to transcend any and all other alliances. It wasn’t partisan, but apparently there are still plenty of folks who care more about their vision of America as a nation-state than they do seeing God’s kingdom come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven. I was okay with that. And by no means did I make everybody happy with my recent series on Revelation, as I had occasion to remember recently. It was one of the more thorough, accurate and text-honoring pulpit studies I know of, even though it goes against a lot of the more recent (and flagrantly unbiblical) “wisdom” on Revelation that’s been circulated. Totally okay with that too.
But again, I’m a middle class white guy. I’m not persecuted, or even close enough to persecution to understand it. So there is nothing heroic in any of this. I have enough of a prophetic streak that I love the idea of standing up against bullies, and from time to time I get to do that. Those days the work is kind of cool, I must admit. But the more I get to know about God and myself, what I’m learning is that the most courageous and difficult speech I must exercise is not so much in telling off the powers that be as telling on the powers in me. It is far easier to tell the truth about somebody else or something else rather than the truth of my real life.
Even as I’ve read as of late biographies of great prophetic leaders who spoke out on God’s behalf against worldly injustice, telling the raw truth of where and how they were struggling to live out the gospel themselves always seems to be a difficult thing. And of course to a point, we are given a message that is bigger than our own lives, and there is wisdom in not making it more about us than it is. On the other hand–telling the truth about where we are and where we’re not, how the gospel is transforming us and how it has not yet transformed us, is perhaps the most courageous thing most of us can do. (That’s not just for preachers either.)
I think these days that if my voice is not going to ring hollow in the times and places where I have to speak out about ______ (fill in the blank), it can’t be credible if I’m not willing to speak out against the lies in me. Or equally, to expose the places I see God’s light at work in the world, to bear witness to the light as he is exposing it in me. The temptation is to allow there to be just a little bit of distance between myself and the texts I’m preaching and where I’m living–even just a crack. This may not sound like a big deal to you, but closing the distance between the two takes pretty much all the courage I can muster.
There won’t be many minutes that will pass until you have the opportunity to do something heroic with your story, to be courageous enough to tell what God is doing and/or where you are struggling. I think if God can trust us to exercise enough courage to do that faithfully, He can trust us with other courageous things down the line.