Asked to speak to a boys-only Sunday school class, I gave a short talk about bullying and emphasized the importance of caring for the weak and the oppressed, especially the physically and mentally challenged, whom bullies often target.
I told the boys that God made them male for a reason. I said that with this reason come certain responsibilities: namely, most males have greater physical strength than most females, and God wants us to use this strength justly and courageously, so we can be loving toward and protective of others.
I explained how the Greeks thought that the ideal man is a courageous man, someone who sacrifices for others, and how this belief should be embraced by Christians as well. I illustrated how without courage, our lives will be miserable, and at best our faith will be weak. I gave them a new word to savor: thumos.
As I talked more and more about the gift of courage and how we can be truly heroic through our loving strength, the kids literally leaned forward in their chairs. I don't think even one broke eye contact with me. I asked them questions, and they responded with fervor.
One boy, with no small amount of shame, admitted to the group that he had been bullied for a long time. Another boy admitted to being a bully. The whole class came alive when I told them God has given them special abilities to protect others, that among these gifts is a certain kind of courage he has placed in their souls, courage that needs to come out. I told them that the group of kids who "run" most schools—who set the moral thermostat for good or for ill—are male athletes. If they bully, the whole school tends to bully, but if they use their power justly, the school is a better place to be.
The boys loved this thumos talk.
But the Christian men in the room, the ones whose duty it is to stimulate and direct the boys' spiritual growth, couldn't have been more bored. One fell asleep. One kept giving me sleepy-cow eyes. Another had a bemused look on his face, like, "What planet are you from? This isn't what we had in mind." One stared at me with a sort of muted horror, as if I were teaching these young guys something sinful.
I was reminded of what Robert Baden-Powell said: "Manliness can only be taught by men, not by those who are half men, half old women." I thought of C.S. Lewis's view of courage as "not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality." If I had spoken these words aloud to the men in the room, I think they would have fallen pretty much on deaf ears. On the whole, courage, boldness, heated vitality—thumos—has little or nothing to do with how we're spiritually training our kids.
In fact, we're training them in contradiction. The "ideal Christian kid" (in today's culture), boy or girl, is what I defined earlier: pusillanimous (lacking courage and manly strength), having the character and nature of a small animal, small-souled. More than 90 percent of kids witness bullying. Of that group, almost all say that they want to help the other person. Yet a measly 11 percent intervene.
I'm not talking about bullies with knives or other weapons. I'm talking everyday, garden-variety bullying—young kids who verbally express contempt and disdain, which comprises 80 percent of all bullying. The majority does nothing about it even though they are urged from within to do something, and this includes all the kids who went to Sunday school that week. Statistically, most give in to cowardice, and most are doing exactly as they are being taught.
Conversely, we must learn to be courageous—for most people it does not come naturally. A great place to start is by realizing that our understanding of how we can encourage another person is tremendously incomplete, even inaccurate. One biblical word for encouragement, protrepo, means to "urge forward, persuade to stimulate another to discharge their ordinary duties of life." Encouragement can also include a component of comfort and/or consolation, but unfortunately this is almost exclusively the whole meaning of the word as we use it today, part of our anemic Official Script.
Consoling someone is only part of what's necessary for the growth of courage. We also encourage others by stimulating, invigorating, inspiring, and persuading them to keep going. Encouragement says, "You can do it." "Keep the faith." "You're not alone." "Don't give up." And "You have what it takes!"
The author of the epistle to the Hebrews fuels a superior form of encouragement when he reminds his readers about the multitude of faith-inspiring witnesses who have gone before them. You're not alone and you can do great things as well. He then reminds them of what these titans of faith actually accomplished: the overthrowing of kingdoms, establishment of justice, escapes from death, and growing strong in war and routing foreign armies, among others. This courageous faith helped turn their weaknesses into strengths.
Then the author, who Martin Luther thought was the eloquent Apollos, writes something very un-evangelical. Banishing "worm theology," where believers are supposed to think of themselves as worthless and without dignity, he writes that those faith giants who endured death, poverty, distress, and misery were "too good for a world like this." Therefore, he wants us to conclude,
Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Perseverance is one of the most nutrient-rich fruits of thumotic courage, born from faith but also coming up from somewhere else within us that joins with this faith and then acts.
Courage is contagious, but one must be willing to be infected. Better minds than mine have gone back and forth on the essence of courage: Some say we're born with it, others that we're not. I think we're born with the potential for courage, and that from there, the hard part starts: We either learn how to draw it out of ourselves or we don't. Furthermore, I believe that the quality of our life expands or shrinks based upon this decision and guidance (or lack of guidance). As Maya Angelou has said: "Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can't be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest."
We've seen that cowardice, born from fearful self-interest and self-preservation, is the enemy of courage. We noted how cowardice makes us feel sludge-like, eroding our integrity and our dignity, mortifying our souls with guilt and shame and actually diminishing our self-regard. Isn't it at least intriguing, then, that we wouldn't already be focusing on this during an age in which self-esteem is perhaps the most untouchable sacred cow?
Incredibly, Christians need permission to be morally courageous again, as when they battled to abolish slavery, as when they've warred against fascism, as when they've struggled for equal civil rights, and when they've rallied to love and care for children, born and unborn. People of faith need permission to be good again—to exercise moral courage in civic life. Will the church grant it?
The admonishments from Scripture couldn't be clearer.
Be strong and courageous…The lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.
Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my god, is with you.
Be men of courage; be strong.
The word courage was once reserved for the kind of behavior requiring sacrifice and suffering on behalf of a person for the common good. This is part of the definition of righteousness that's found in the Bible. We've discarded this meaning, though, for a more inclusive, less demanding, and me-centered understanding; our souls have been badly damaged by this reduction.
One of our largest misunderstandings about courage is that it's basically synonymous with suffering. Enduring something painful that you think is inescapable is admirable, yes, but it's not courage. Courage is when you have a choice about whether or not to suffer, and you choose the suffering in order to help bring about a greater good.
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. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the values-based and faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for public schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals who want to diminish child-based bullying.