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Paul Coughlin Christian Blog and Commentary

Courage: The Foundational Virtue

As Christians, we’ve been told and taught that we build integrity and character by avoiding sin.  Part of that answer (the negative) is right, but in overlooking the other half (the positive), we sell our kids down Good Intentions River, which runs through each state and country in the nation.  Jesus warned that the abundant life He offers is hard to find (Mark 10:24-25); we unintentionally make it harder to find, distancing our children from it by training them to focus on avoiding mistakes instead of living boldly and righteously.  Possessing integrity and character is far more than checking off lists of do’s and don’ts.

Courage, also known as fortitude, is the ability to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation, whether for ourselves or for others.  Courage, one of the four “cardinal virtues” (along with wisdom, temperance, and justice) is pivotal, because in order to possess any virtue, truly, a person must be able to sustain it in the face of difficulty.  This is why Winston Churchill called courage the “first of human qualities…because it guarantees all the others.”

Courage is the foundational virtue upon which others rest.  Or don’t.

I believe we have avoided and minimized this dimension of character, in part, to settle our internal rumblings about our lack of virtue.  Senator John McCain, former prisoner of war and author of Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life, implies that we set the bar for “courage” almost on the ground, just so we can think and say that we have it: “We say it takes courage to be different from the mainstream in our preferences in fashion, music, the length and color of our hair.”

And he says, we are not teaching our children what this foundational virtue really is.


            If children are taught that simply being honest or doing the

best we can or appreciating what they have without

complaint is considered by their society to be an act of

courage, will they be more or less motivated to summon

the real thing in a crucible?


            We know the answer to McCain’s rhetorical question even if we don’t want to admit it.  His guidance for parents is even more pointed:


Parents who want their children to have courage usually

think of it in its physical expression first, and they try

to impart it to them by experience and encouragement.

When they fall from the horse we’ve set them

upon, we’ll encourage them to get back in the saddle.

Don’t be afraid of the ball, we tell them, trust your

reflexes and your glove.  Don’t give up, keep trying,

you’ll get better.   These are, of course, sensible

encouragements to a child.  They need to be so

encouraged.  But we’re not exactly teaching them

courage.  We’re teaching them physical skills.

We’re teaching them to be strong.  We’re helping

them acquire fortitude.  We’re building their

confidence and giving them hope.  These are

elements of courage in most instances, but not the

whole virtue.  Their effect alone might only be to

give them daring, nerve.  They might grow up and

climb mountains or become risk-taking entrepreneurs.

Not necessarily bad things.  But is that all we think

courage is?  Is that what we’re trying to teach them?

Without other instruction, they could turn out to be

Enron executives.  They had daring, to be sure.  But

they lacked ethics.  They lacked a sense of honor, and

they lacked courage.


Here’s another way of thinking about this issue: How often do we diagnose a behavior as cowardice?  For instance, what do you say after your son tells you about a bullying he witnessed and didn’t intervene, just stood there with the group?  Have you helped him figure out that the sludge-like feeling gumming up his soul is a result of cowardice?  Do you explain that cowardice is a normal but insufficient response to seeing someone unjustly treated or cruelly humiliated?  Do you teach him that being wise and acting thoughtfully does not mean he is also to remain frozen, inert, and innocuous?

For some, the shame of cowardice upon their soul, mind, and heart lasts forever.  Writes street evangelist Truxton Meadows:


            I’m forty years old.  And I’ve lived a lot of life and made

many mistakes.  I have regrets but have reconciled them

in my life. The only nagging regrets I still have that

I can’t reconcile are the times that I could have stood

up for a kid that was getting bullied and I didn’t.  I was

small and got picked on myself so I didn’t want to draw

the bully’s attention and sometimes joined in to fit in.

I regret that I never stood up for myself and others.


Many parents have never even had a conversation with their children about cowardice.  Warning against its corrosive nature isn’t even usually on our parental radar, or included in many sermons.  Instead, most of us are quick to warn our kids to avoid getting too involved (or involved at all) when someone is mistreated because of the collateral damage it may do to them.  This is in direct defiance to how Jesus told us to live (see the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10).  And we’re overlooking the far-reaching damage of cowardice itself:  Ultimately, cowardice can be as destructive as drug addiction.

We don’t discuss how cowardice undermines our integrity and character, much less what God says about it.  There are approximately thirty biblical examples of cowardice, and every one is a cautionary tale.  Are you aware that even in many countries (such as France and Germany), civil courage is enforced by law?  That if citizens witness a public crime they are obliged to act, either by alerting the authorities or by intervening?  Or if the crime is committed in a private environment, witnesses are either to report it or try to stop it?

We don’t talk about cowardice with our children because we don’t really think courage is all that necessary in the first place.  We also can’t bear the thought that our kids might exhibit cowardice.  In fact, in this area, we’d rather be ignorant or uninvolved than engage the matter and help our sons and daughters go to work on it.  We’re more worried about hurting our children’s feelings than we are concerned about cultivating hearts that don’t listen to fear when making decisions.

We all make mistakes, partly because going into parenting at first means going in somewhat blind.  Most of us get (or at least feel) sucker-punched now and again.  If you’re like me, prone to self-flagellation or condemnation, I want to encourage you, instead, to begin using that energy toward charting a better course.  When we’re all racing in place on the same Tour de Fear hamster wheel, everybody loses—children and parents.

We’re afraid of falling behind.  We’re worried our kids might not do as well as other kids.  We’re terrified that we’ll fail, and that our children will grow up to be the everlasting proof of our inadequacy.  Letting them learn and decide to make choices and take calculated risks feels wrong, broken somehow.

By living out of our fears, we’ve made parental panic culturally acceptable.  But the apostle John, in proclaiming the truth of Jesus, makes clear that where love reigns, fear is clipped (see I John 4).  Instead of building entire lives and families on a foundation of fear and frenzy, we can choose to equip and empower our sons and daughters for a future of fullness.

            An anxious approach to life leads to an anxious life, a life prone to depression, instability, abuse, atrophy, and addiction.  We need to look at the source of our parental anxiety, asking ourselves, which came first: deep-seated anxiety in kids, or overarching anxiety in parents?  We also need to consider how our children can possibly fare well in life on their own if we persist in our unceasing advice, micro-structured decisions, and every-second protection.

Ultimately, kids need to learn how to fly, and we must ask: Just how strong can their wings get when they’re never allowed to use them?

Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including 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. 

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