I’ve been explaining the vast upside to thumos, emphasizing how it’s essential to spiritual growth and to a life well lived for all, and especially men. But as you’ve probably sensed by now, this animating and spirited quality that’s tightly connected to our will and our willingness also has the potential to misfire and go bad. In fact, this is one of the most strenuous concerns on which I receive feed back during conferences. “Aren’t you worried that guys will get out of hand if they tap into this thumos you talk about?”
Yes, I am concerned about thumos getting out of hand, and I take steps to curtail this possibility. But—and here’s where things get interesting—I’m equally worried that men won’t tap into it at all. That likewise causes destruction, but because the damage isn’t as obvious or apparent we tend not to think much about that side of the equation. This is one of the blind spots of Defensive Spirituality; we develop it when we adhere to the mindset that avoiding risk and remaining inconspicuous is somehow more “Christian” than actually risking a mistake.
Thumos is like gasoline. It can help get an innocent victim to a hospital in order to save her life. It can also take that same woman’s life if someone hits her with a Molotov cocktail filled with gasoline. Its benefit and detriment depend in large part on how it’s refined, handled, and applied.
Let’s take a look at the positive aspect, what I call noble thumos. And then we’ll look at the negative, what I call shadow thumos.
Noble thumos is redemptive, heroic, sacrificial, and tethered to the extension of love, and once again, to transcendent causes larger than our own ego and appetites. It’s service-based, the superior but paradoxical form of leadership that Christ calls us to embrace. We’re used to hearing how Jesus wants us to be servants, but our contemporary understanding of servanthood gives us the wrong impression.
When most of us think of servants, we envision hired hands, people without a will of their own, standing silently in the background, eyes slightly glazed, worried about slipping up, wearing a uniform and waiting to be told what to do. People who always say yes and never no; people wondering uncertainly about what their employer must be thinking. We think of people who are fearful of losing their jobs; people who will be punished if they don’t do exactly as they’re ordered.
However, I don’t see this approach with the early church leaders. That’s not Jesus, Peter, or John, and in no way does it describe Paul. Rather, they are service-oriented: they are involved and anticipating. They aren’t waiting for commands. They sometimes give them. They are proactive, not reactive. They do say no, sometimes with thumotic fervor.
Interestingly, Jesus rejects the title of servants for his disciples.
I call you servants no longer; a servant does not know what his master is about. I have called you friends, because I have disclosed to you everything that I heard from my Father.
That really should make us rethink our exalted use of this term.
Another important distinction: This kind of servanthood is not motivated by fear. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” Our service, ideally, is to be love-based. Noble thumos says, “I choose to serve.”
The following are some terms, flavors, expressions, and moods that describe noble thumos for us to consider, ponder, and pray about:
Indignation, disruption, resolve, pugnacity, shrewdness, penetration, spiritedness, daring, solitude, demanding, opinionated, earthy, teasing, irreverent, impatient, sacrificial, firmness, philosophical, simple, playfulness, suffering, prayerful, activist, will to meaning, communal, determination, pro-social, subversive, weeping, freedom loving, exodus producing, conspicuous, cultivated warrior, spiritual eagerness and readiness, enlivens, encourages, trustworthy, alchemy, fortitude, vitality, character, spontaneous, virile, enemy making, creative, protective, fathering, fidelity, natural, poetic, tickles, grief feeling, chivalry, dances, ecstatic, alertness, awareness, sympathy, Bushido, honor, willingness.
With this spirit in mind, fill in a few words of your own.
I’ve seen many examples of noble thumos throughout my years of men’s ministry. One in particular grabs me because it helps show how a low-thumos man can rise up when he listens and responds to that place within him where reason and emotion duke it out, where passion and logic grapple and roll through the brambles of his third seat of being, pushing past self-preservation and fear of disapproval.
In this way a man’s thumos-will interacts with his conscience; while conscience may tell him what to do, it does not provide the persistent vital force he needs to act. Conscience clarifies, but it does not provide the persistent vital force he needs to act. Conscience clarifies, but it does not create action. However, conscience connected to thumos tells a man that he should stop, set his feet like concrete, and stand for, or against, what he witnesses. This is how he forges character. This is how he comes to say, and act on, “Let’s roll!”
I’m thinking about a professor at a large Christian university who attended our first GodMen conference in
“The man was young, so young,” he said. “I circled the block and this fight took place within me.” He was outraged by what he saw: a young guy, with so much life ahead of him, had nowhere to go. He was probably filled with despair, maybe even consumed with hopelessness.
The professor circled the block. Again. His mind lobbed the first shot for self-preservation and against love. Don’t get involved in other people’s business—it just leads to trouble. And then his heart betrayed him, playing upon his fears. Your roommates will be mad at you!
Then his thumos spoke up: Whatever. Be irresponsible for God. You’re already helping your roommates out, so who are they to complain?
Then, and this is important, he acted sooner rather than later. We do our souls no good by deliberating too long about such matters. God opens the door to these moments, and the openings don’t last long. One gift of a noble-thumos moment is that it is a test of our commitment to love God and to love our neighbor as our self.
Love is serious business, so it’s best not to pretend that this inner debate isn’t happening. Furthermore, don’t pretend that more deliberation will help you make the right decision, because the longer you wait, the more being a coward looks right. Thumos rises. And then it falls. It doesn’t point the way toward courage and toward a more muscular faith for long.
The professor stopped and naturally fumbled his way toward rightness and goodness, even though he didn’t have all the answers. (Who would?) It’s this factor alone that stops so many from doing the right thing: We’re petrified of making a public mistake, and we’ve fortified this fear by beating only one drum, that of personal purity. This causes us to slump quietly to life’s sideline and disqualify ourselves because we don’t think we’re pure enough to minister, to love and to be loved by God.
Thank God this man pushed past a common spiritual misconception and didn’t disqualify himself. He let heated, protective, rescuing love flow through him. He took the young man home and fed him. He gave him clean clothes to wear and a bed to sleep in. His roommates weren’t crazy about the situation. (Welcome to the real, messy, disruptive world of thumos love!)
Professor Thumos also noticed that the young man’s teeth were bad. He got on the phone and called a dentist friend in another state to ask if he’d help. The friend paid for the young man to come and receive extensive dental care (free of charge).
I think the dentist heard in the professor’s usually mild voice something more than compassion. I think he felt the low but distinguishing rumble of noble thumos: warm and penetrating, like the bark of a large dog hitting your chest. You can’t help but respect that kind of power; if you allow it, your own embrace of goodness will move you to action.
His story highlights a problem and danger associated with compassion that often goes overlooked: The impulse itself can be shifty and even fickle. Compassion must be translated into thumotic action or else it disappears. And worse, we lose a portion of our integrity when we don’t act. When we fail to act upon our compassionate impulse, we sear a portion of our conscience. We feel sick inside because we were created to act and do.
Our capacity for compassion is a summons to action, not just feeling, and we denigrate a part of ourselves when we don’t act because unredeemed compassion actually shrivels sympathy. Much hopelessness, apathy, and cynicism toward our own lives and the lives of others can be traced to compassionate emotions that did not become actualized, real, and tangible through our willingness to act.
Thumos made a mild-mannered man larger than life. It gave him charisma, which others noticed and responded to. He told me that if he hadn’t come to GodMen, if he hadn’t heard about a man’s unique expression of non-sentimental love, and how deep love is almost always risky some way, somehow, he never would have helped that young man. “But I was angry at what I saw,” he said,” and you helped me honor my indignation. I just couldn’t take it. I had to do something about it.”
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including Unleashing Courageous Faith, No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying.