On a daily basis, much of life's essence is about how much energy you give away and where you give it. Believe it or not, a passive and cowardly approach takes far more energy than an assertive and courageous approach. Cowardice puts us on the defensive, constantly covering up, being reactive, protecting ourselves from life's many blows—some of which are unjust, a fact that really steams cowardly and passive people, which derails and drains them even more. We neither make progress nor replenish our resources while playing defense all the time.
Defense destructs. Offense creates. Deconstructing, which is easier than constructing, has permeated evangelical spirituality. We judge our spiritual "progress" more in terms of what we don't do; this is intrinsically defensive. Think about it: Doing something good is more challenging than avoiding something bad. Doing good has an offensive orientation toward life.
We're more likely to be criticized for being offensive than defensive, so we usually settle for the less conspicuous position…and thereby avoid spiritual growth. Nevertheless, behaving flawlessly and having all your ducks in a row is no defense against criticism. Behave perfectly, or make a few mistakes—in the end, when it comes to being criticized, it doesn't matter. Have a more offensive orientation toward life, the kind thumos urges us to have, and you will be criticized.
There's no way around it. People love the status quo, and when you break from it, like a prisoner over a fence, all kinds of sirens and lights will be thrown on to get you back in the yard. Jesus warned us about this, saying that following him would tear families apart and cause hatred and even result in murder.
At the same time, being on the offensive really scares passive men: it requires thumos, the employment of creativity and courage. However, it also creates much more progress, and with less energy. No matter that you have to fight and struggle to get there—you're already fighting, so you may as well be making more progress with less energy.
More than twenty-five times the bible tells us to be strong and courageous. For Christian Nice Guys, a part of them knows that this is true, and it resonates within them, yet their spiritual background—what they understand to be "Christianity"—tells them it's sinful and wrong, dirty somehow. If this is you, then in order to light a spark and familiarize yourself with action, I recommend trying entry-level martial arts; or give archery or target-shooting a chance; or take up hunting or fishing. One or more of these endeavors may help you to experience the value of focused will and intention within a disciplined framework.
If you've been conditioned to listen only to music that's sweet and amiable, without a single rough edge, try listening to soul music; try some R&B; look for some good hip-hop; sample my favorite, jazz…at any rate, ingest some music that has fire in its belly, wind in its lungs, and dirt under its nails.
Too often when I make such suggestions, I'm met with a blank stare. "Um, I'll look into that," a man will say, with approximately zero conviction. For some, this concept of thumos-building is just too much, too far outside their domesticated, castration-producing background. At the same time, they wonder why they give up easily when the going gets tough. They can't figure out why they never really enter into life in the first place; the answer is: They don't enter in because they aren't really alive.
To show you what I mean, here's one of many such letters we get a Coughlin Ministries:
I am a college student who has been struggling with being more courageous for years. Before and after becoming a Christian, I was always picked on, abused, laughed at. I always thought that prosperity in my career was wrong and immoral. I thought as men we are supposed to be passive and not succeed in our work life and that doing something like that is "worldly."
Sometimes I see myself as a dead dog that doesn't deserve anything better, while all of those secular people get to have all the fun. I'm not saying that we drink and party our way to heaven, but as Christian men, we should walk with integrity and stand up for the weak one and what is morally right.
I don't want to be a wimp when it comes to being married either. Thank you for clearing up some misconceptions about my religion.
We can listen to this young man and say his real problem is that he doesn't have much self-esteem. While it's true that he's lacking self-worth, one of the reasons he undervalues himself is that he does not possess an inner sword, what I call a sword of willingness. Not will, in this case, but willingness, a spiritual eagerness (which is one way English Bibles translate the Greek word prothumos) to enter the fray, to confront, to clarify, to pronounce, and to protect himself and others so that he can deeply love.
His thumos-heated internal sword is recognized the world over and by different names, much the way thumos in general is recognized by different names. The Tibetans refer to it as the "Vajra sword." I wonder if it's from this attribute that someone created the word Viagra, an allusion to the tight connection between virility, sex, and thumos. Without this inner sword, they say, no spiritual life is possible, nor is manhood obtainable. Through spiritual atrophy, men without this sword are sitting ducks for spiritual abuse and sexual frustration.
The deepest matters are hard to put into words that go all the way down, which is one reason why Jesus told stories. He left us with images and characters that, like the prodigal son, may not be historical but nonetheless are vivid, engaging, and truthful. We give deeper truths a kind of "container," for instance, in the way we say emotions are found in our "heart," thoughts are in our "head," and courage is in our "chest."
And so it is with thumos. To better understand how it repairs us, we have to give it some shape and form. In Greek epics, thumos represents winds of change inside and outside of us: It's a life-wind that requires and facilitates action and boldness.
The fierce wind that blew through the upper room, igniting the early church with God's Spirit, can be perceived in a larger and more metaphorical sense in terms of God's thumos visiting us. It is fierce and agitating, intent on change, and filling his people, like Peter, with boldness, and others with disturbing behavior, including tongues "as of fire," and speaking in foreign languages. We can't miss this point, because if we do we miss what thumos does. Thumos is disturbing, but at its best, it's good, necessary, and life-giving trouble.
God's thumos troubles our air for our own good as part of his mysterious grace and his perfect will for us. Similarly, thumos is man's inner wind that disturbs, hopefully toward the deepest love, one that bears earthly energy, arising from a Latin word for rush, run, flow. At its best, it cultivates a desire to know and to alleviate the suffering of others, often (though not always) through our own suffering, when that suffering is unavoidable.
Suffering in and of itself is neither noble nor heroic. Viktor Frankl, concentration camp survivor and founder of Logo-therapy, which is one of the most muscular attempts to make sense of life's inevitable suffering, wrote about the spiritual growth that can be the result of unavoidable hardship.
Is this to say that suffering is indispensable to the discovery of meaning? In no way. I only insist that meaning is available in spite of—nay, even through—suffering, provided…that the suffering is unavoidable. If it is avoidable, the meaningful thing to do is remove its cause, for unnecessary suffering is masochistic rather than heroic.
Thumos--courage helps us to do more than just endure suffering. It helps us thrive through the suffering, to learn from it, to grow into a better person on the other side of the trial. Otherwise, we're likely to remain impoverished and stuck.
But the view today that suffering born from sacrifice can somehow be exalted couldn't be more foreign. We think suffering is something of a mistake, a false accusation to our lives. Suffering and sacrifice are things to be eradicated and fixed. And with this mindset, we also jettison the framework of courage.
In addition to wind, thumos is also described as breath, which is airy and flexible, and which is not to be mistaken for mere life. Paul's eloquent dialogue in
Why does Paul use two words: life and breath? A foundational understanding of thumos may provide the answer. There's a substantial difference between the state and gifting of being alive (life) and an animating quality that rests within this gift (breath). All men possess life, but not all men possess breath—an animated spirit. You see it wherever you go—offices, churches, restaurants. Some men are simply and undeniably alive and vibrant and courageous. They are the go-to guys, men known for getting things done. Man is far more than a sophisticated organism capable of mere mechanical life. He has the potential to take life to a higher, more God-glorifying level to "make life [his] own" (Hebrews 10:39
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.