|Photo by Rosie @ Fashademic|
Indiana Jones, Chuck Norris and MacGyver were my heroes growing up (little wonder I married a bloke who's handy with a pocket knife). I thought they were the bee's knees of blokes with their courageous acts in the face of the temple of doom, terrorists on planes and baddies on seaside docks. But my vision of what makes a hero is not informed only by these things (nor are all my heroes male!).
On ANZAC Day, I stood with others in my community and sang the hymn "Onward Christian Soldier". A few days later I watched Machine Gun Preacher, the story of Sam Childers, the tough-guy preacher who defends Sudanese children. And then Courageous, the Christian film about a group of cops who pledge to fulfill their obligations to their families as well as their jobs.
I think our vision of what is courageous or heroic is often distorted: sometimes being a hero looks like defeat. It could mean retreat. We are one of the only nations in the world who has a national day of remembrance for what was one of the worst military defeats of the allies in WWI. On ANZAC Day each year we remember the fallen soldier who left behind dreams, safety and a comfortable life.
Sometimes courage means doing what's not comfortable; of rising above circumstances, of taking a chance. But most of all I believe it means acting on your convictions. In a Christian sense, it means doing what God has told you to do... and not letting other people, or yourself, get in the way.
It took courage to build the ark in the face of disparaging comments from neighbours; it took courage to deliver God’s people from Egypt; it took courage to kill Goliath; it took courage to face the lion in the den; and it took courage to face the Cross. It takes courage to deliver the message of the Gospel.
Just as it takes courage to work in politics, in schools, on the mission field, on the sporting field… to fight the good fight on the foreign battlefield of earth without ever compromising the hope we have in Christ, surrendering to Satan or giving in to self-doubt when the storm clouds start rolling in.
It takes courage to say, "I'm sorry", "I was wrong" or "I'm ashamed of how I behaved". It takes courage to say we're not coping, to ask for help, to start on a long and arduous journey in another direction if we feel we're on the wrong road.
We know there will be moments of temptation, that we will have to overcome many obstacles – there are pits and pot holes we risking falling into, some created by ourselves – but never without purpose (for we know God can work all things for our good, and He shines the most through our flaws).
For most of us, like Moses who said to God, “I am nobody. How can I go to the king and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?", it is us getting in the way of accomplishing things for Christ. I don’t know about you, but sometimes self-doubt threatens to overcome the courage of my convictions.
But if my “hope is in the Lord”, as Psalm 131:3 says, and not in myself, then what excuse? Behind courage, true courage, is FAITH in Christ, because we know that without Christ we can do nothing, but with Christ we can achieve amazing things.
Without Christ, courage is simply bravado, puffed up pride, arrogance or even foolishness. It is Indiana Jones, Chuck Norris, Russel Crowe and testosterone. It might be vengeance, or payback or recklessness. It seeks glory for the self and it doesn’t mind who gets in the way.
Jesus himself rebuked Peter for this very thing. “God forbid it!” said Peter when Jesus spoke of the suffering he was to face. To which Jesus replied, “Get away from me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my way, because these thoughts of yours don’t come from God, but from human nature.” (Matt 16: 22-23).
And again he rebuked the disciples when they started arguing over who was the greatest. No, he said, “I assure you that unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the one who humbles himself and becomes like this child…If one of you wants to be great he must be the servant of the rest…like the Son of Man who did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life to redeem many people.” (Matt 18:2; 20:26-28).
Our best intentions can be mislaid if we are not hearing from God himself; if our thoughts and actions aren’t lining up with the heart and mind of Christ.
BUT we are given Christ’s very Spirit, which dwells within, a ready source to be drawn on at any time. And we are given His word, which guides as on our daily walk and helps us conform to his character while casting off everything in us that hinders in our faulty human nature.
“Those who live as their human nature tells them to, have their minds controlled by what the human nature wants. Those who live as the Spirit tells them to, have their minds controlled by what the Spirit wants. To be controlled by human nature results in death; to be controlled by the Spirit results in life and peace...
But if Christ lives in you, the Spirit is life for you because you have been put right with God, even though your bodies are going to die because of sin. If the Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from death, lives in you, then he who raised Christ from death lives in you, then he who raised Christ from death will also give life to your mortal bodies by the presence of his Spirit in you." (Romans 8:1-6)
And we find that this Spirit, the Spirit of God, of Christ, causes us to turn the other cheek when we are chastised or rebuked or slandered; to look beyond the event itself, or the one who has embarrassed or hurt us, and turn instead to Christ who experienced all these things for our comfort, hope and direction.
It takes courage to walk away from fame or public attention in a world that thrives on merit and accomplishments and to turn our attentions Christward for our life’s direction. It took courage for Eric Liddell to say he would not be competing for an Olympic medal on the Sabbath in 1924 because it would dishonour his God. And God blessed him for it.
It takes courage for a teenager to decline a drink at a party, to walk away when people are gossiping, to stay with your partner through thick and thin, to refuse to do anything that would disappoint God just because other people are doing it; to face humiliation or be a laughing stock because we believe we are earnestly doing the work of Christ.
Christian courage, to the world, often looks like defeat: because it is about sacrificing the self for Christ, of choosing to live in alignment with the Gospel. The world is saying all the while, “This is the way to do it! This is what you should desire! This is how you should live!” but the Christian is not called to be conformed to these standards; to humble himself like the solider going into war and all the while to be expectant, joyful and hopeful. It is very counter-cultural.
Fear of man can be intensely crippling. It can retard our growth in God and rob us of our rightful inheritance to a full and flourishing life lived in joy for Christ. Fear of man keeps us very small and preoccupied with matters that don’t add anything to God’s kingdom. It is human nature to put our desire to be liked, accepted and well received above our service to Christ.
The Book of Hebrews
The book of Hebrews, written in the first century AD by an unknown author, is a wonderful testimony to this. It was written to Jewish Christians who, faced with increasing opposition and uncertainty were tempted to go back to their old Jewish religion, Judaism, instead of experiencing the liberation of the Gospel.
To them, the security and familiarity of the old way of doing things was firmer ground than the new Gospel of Christ, even though they had heard it preached that the old law had been negated by the Gospel and that Christ himself was the only pathway to Heaven. They were entrenched in their thinking and worried of betraying their heritage, and its master Moses, and so living out a hybrid faith.
The writer of Hebrews makes his case. He does not discredit Judaism but instead seeks to compare it to the Gospel of Christ and illuminate for them why it is superior to the old laws and rituals, then setting out practical instruction for living out the faith. In doing this, he emphasises three truths:
1. That Jesus is the eternal Son of God who learnt true obedience to the Father through suffering.
2. That Jesus is declared by God as the eternal priest, far superior to the priests of the Old Testament who had to make sacrifices for their own weaknesses.
3. And through Jesus the believer is saved from sin, fear and death and only Jesus provides true salvation.
It’s a wonderful book, I would suggest, for those who might have come apart from Christ and are looking to come back to the faith. It is here that we read, “To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see [as] it was by their faith that the people of ancient times won God’s approval.” (11:1)
While culturally sensitive, the author urges readers to continue faithfully to the end with their eyes fixed on Jesus; to endure whatever suffering and persecution may come; to obey the Holy Spirit’s voice and not be stubborn; (3:7) to “help those who are tempted, because Jesus himself was tempted and suffered”; to judge the thoughts and desires of our hearts by the Word (4:12); to grow in spiritual maturity and move onto solid food (5:14); and to “hold firmly to the truths we have heard, so that we will not be carried away” (2:1).
But while the author admonishes the people for their lack of faith, and for continuing in Christian infancy, he is deeply sympathetic.
“Our High Priest is not one who cannot feel sympathy for our weaknesses. On the contrary, we have a high priest who was tempted in every way that we are but did not sin. Let us have confidence, then, and approach God’s throne where there is grace. There we will find mercy and grace to help us just when we need it.” (4:15-16)
“God is not unfair,” he writes them. “He will not forget the work you did or the love you showed for him in the help you gave and are still giving to your fellow-Christians… keep your eagerness to the end, so that the things you hope for will come true…be like those who believe and are patient, and so receive what God has promised.” (6: 10-12).
But back to real life
I think many Christians are like those Hebrews; being conformed to standards that are not of Christ.
There are those who think too lightly or take for granted the grace of Christ and are carried off on tangents by the human nature;
There are those who prefer the legalism and traditions of the Old Testament teachings to the Gospel;
There are those who are sidelined by a love of the world and of men;
And those whose faith disappoints them with each and every blow;
BUT there are those who, by the grace of God, ENDURE.
We are to emulate these ones.
And if you have not heard the John Piper series on the champions of the faith, I strongly recommend that you do. We so often lose sight of the fact that the Christian life is not a popularity contest, nor comfortable, and that we are to expect ridicule, and even hatred from the world. This is not our home and often it will feel inhospitable.
Like the Hebrews, it is only natural to expect that we will return to the comfortable or convenient or habitual instead of daring to live out the Gospel with all our hearts, minds and souls; to take a chance or risk for the Cross; or to even place above all else the cultivation of a true and personal relationship with God. Simply leaving the house in the morning and reading the day’s newspapers, opening your inbox or turning on the TV can be a discouragement as a Christian.
In an article for Plugged in magazine, Adam R Holz writes:
Society preaches that our worth comes from what others think of us – the immaculate public image so many stars strive to maintain. Of course, Scripture tells us that even Samuel doubted God's ordination of a shepherd named David because the boy's stat sheet and head shot did not seem kingly enough. But God replied, "The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." (1Sam 16:7). Likewise, Jesus told His disciples, "Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgement" (John 7:24). In effect He warned them to get past the superficial impressions of people – values that our culture exalts – and study the heart of the matter.
And the same goes for us.
How many of us are held back by a lack of understanding that we are not to be measured in worth by society’s weird and warped standards but according to the portion of faith God has given us? I know personally how high a price must be paid when we attempt to fill a void in the heart and soul not with Christ, or communion with God, but with the quick fixes sold by the world to the unloved and vulnerable.
In The Courier Mail this week, Jane Fynes-Clynton wrote of the insidious way that the diet industry preys on our vulnerabilities and ultimately leads people into defeat…
Dieting is foolish and dieters are doomed to fail. This is as true as it is cold and harsh. The sooner we all accept this fact, the sooner we can get back to the business of living in healthy-sized bodies and stop relying on weight-loss companies. These organisations prey on insecurities, peddling hope for real change with products that make the dieter temporarily lighter and the company fat with profits. Diet companies hitch their weight-loss wagons to their products, sold with the usual warnings that these must be part of a healthy lifestyle. They teach the dieter that they do not stand a chance of being successful without corporate help...when they fall of that wagon..a layer of feeling guilty and responsible is added to being fat, and the cycle continues.
We should not be surprised by such things, but we should be smart. The above is a good example of how we can be fooled into sacrificing the full and flourishing life we're entitled to as Christians – of being aware of our failures and shortcomings and the traps laid out there, but allowing Christ to atone for them without self-flagellation and overcome everything that hinders us.
Jesus did not mince words about such things. “If anyone should cause one of these little ones to lose his faith in me, it would be better for that person to have a large millstone tied around his neck and be drowned in the deep sea. How terrible for the world that there are things that make people lose their faith! Such things will always happen – but how terrible for the one who causes them!” (Matt 18:7)
To uncover the darkness wherever it lies, to refuse to take part because we know it leads to death and a departure from God, and to encourage others along in the faith because, as Christians, it is our RIGHT, our God-given right to say, “I am entitled to live in joy and peace, no matter the circumstances, because Christ overcame the world for me”... that takes courage.
Our sufferings in this world are particular and peculiar, just as our relationship with God is particular and personal. Some of us will be afflicted with debilitating health conditions, some with dysfunctional families, some are born into war zones or places that are particularly hostile to Christians.
The beauty, we know, is that God uses for good what man intended for evil; that all of our troubles and sorrows and shortcomings are used for His purposes (to bring His Son glory and to bring us into closer communion and dependency on Him).
We are made increasingly more dependent on His love, His grace, His comforting embrace to fill us up as we grow, as John Piper says, “downwards in humility and upwards in Christ”. It is HIS courage in the face of temptation, of Satan, of hostile and vulgar men that we are to draw upon each and every day; when life gets too much and we just want to give up.
There are seasons for pressing in, seasons for letting go and seasons for reaping that which we sew, but every day we are entitled to enjoy the fruits of our faith. We know that ONE thing endures through all things until the end: the vision of the Cross that truly gives us wings.
Is your vision of the Cross blurred by your own sin, your folly, your circumstances, your turning away from God and towards self-reliance or the world? Then I pray that, like the Hebrews, you take heed.
The Cross must be top of mind; it must be what we turn to every single day – sometimes every hour – to draw our courage for fighting on. For declaring “No!” to practises of the world that lead us into sin; for declaring “No!” to being silenced, meek or timid when we are faced with a person or situation who threatens us or our families; to say “No!” to Satan when temptation is there for the taking.
But it also means having the courage to say “Yes!” when God commissions you with a task (perhaps to visit that person you’ve been putting off); to say “Yes!” to love above bitterness, anger and resentment at all times; to say “yes!” to greeting every single day with the knowledge that you are a son or daughter of Christ with entitlements and privileges that are far beyond all the world’s riches.
There are a few sources from which we might draw courage to endure. Jesus, of course, is the Master of our faith. No one must replace him at the top of our thoughts and there is no other person’s character to which we are to be conformed. But, as we see through the letters of the New Testament and also the trials of the Israelites, we need ENCOURAGEMENTS that address our often founding faith and faulty humanity.
There are great heroes of the Christian faith that we can draw from. Hebrews 11 has been called ‘Faith’s Hall of Fame’, as it lists some of the righteous for us: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets.We read:
“They did what was right and received what God had promised. They shut the mouths of lions, put out fierce fires, escaped being killed by the sword. They were weak but became strong; they were mighty in battle and defeated the armies of foreigners. Through faith women received their dead relatives raised back to life.” (11:33-35)
We are so incredibly blessed to have this heritage, this lineage to draw on, and it continues. The John Piper series, which addresses the lives of everyone from Charles Simeon to AW Tozer and Charles Spurgeon, is a wonderful exploration of the faith lived out by courageous men in trying times.
There will always be a seminal text, preacher or even a movie that becomes a treasured friend on our Christian journey; that give us courage and companionship when we are lacking. And there are champions of the faith – the Sam Childers', the Christine Caines' – who we can look to right now for encouragement. If our eyes and hearts are open to God, He will also send along personal encouragements in many splendid ways.
On Saturday morning I was greeted by the smiling face of a Christian sister with two coffees in her hand. I told her I was feeling a little anxious about this sermon – and she laid my mind to rest. God knows we draw strength from each other. Our Christian brothers and sisters are like shiny beacons of hope in this world, which is not our ultimate home – we are not in it alone.
God wants to take us out of prison and bring us home, “For there is no permanent city for us here on earth; we are looking for the city which is to come” (13:14). But it still takes courage to live a life of faith... as it has in every day and age.
Courage is not built up on pretending we are what we are not, but on the humble admission that we are nothing without Christ. That we need him to “rid ourselves of everything that gets in the way, and of the sin that holds us so tightly” so we can “run with determination the race that lies before us.”
“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus,” writes the author to the Hebrews. “On whom our faith depends from beginning to end. He did not give up because of the Cross! On the contrary, because of the JOY that was waiting for Him, he thought nothing of the disgrace of dying on the cross, and He is now seated at the right-hand side of God’s throne… Lift up your tired hands, then, and strengthen your trembling knees! Keep walking on straight paths, so that the lame foot… may be healed”.
Our desire for His love and approval must far outweigh our desire to be liked, admired or even feared by men. When it is inadequacy, a lack of love or attention fuelling our actions and words, when pride gets in the way of the humble work to which we’ve been called, we know that God can take anything away, but it brings him joy when we return to him, repentant. “For God has said, ‘I will never leave you, I will never abandon you.” (3:6)
Have the courage to confront yourself, not in the mirror but in front of the Cross, and lay everything before Jesus who will in return give you the courage of a King to achieve wonderful, splendid, and amazing things for Him.
We are not so ignorant as to expect there will not be challenges, obstacles and discouragements to face. But choose each day to walk in the sufficiency of Christ, expecting and believing him to provide for you, to give you a way out of temptation and to encourage you on your journey.
“May the God of peace provide you with every good thing you need in order to do his will, and may he, through Jesus Christ, do in us what pleases Him. And to Christ be the glory for ever and ever! Amen.” (13:20-21).