Paul Coughlin Christian Blog and Commentary

Thumos: The Prophetic Connection

I, like so many men, was told that biblical prophecy was primarily, if not exclusively, about figuring out future events, especially the return of Christ.


It wasn’t until being part of the church for more than twenty years that I received a fuller view of prophetic writing: it inherently and vehemently critiques social evil and rallies a mighty call for justice.  Thumos is indispensable to this redemptive work, not only because it musters the righteous indignation required to righteously render force but also because it links faith to real problems.  Thumos drives a person to say no to a social ill and yes to the hard labor needed to combat it.


Have you noticed how angry the prophets got when it came to injustice?  Have you ingested the fighting language they used in their denunciations?  Look at these examples:


            How the faithful city [Judah] has played the whore,

            Once the home of justice where righteousness dwelt—

            But now murderers!

            Your silver has turned into base metal

            And your liquor is diluted with water.

            Your very rulers are rebels, confederate with thieves;

            Every man of them loves a bribe

            And itches for a gift;

            They do not give the orphan his rights,

            And the widow’s cause never comes before them.


And now, you priests, this decree is for you: if you will not listen to me and pay heed to the honouring of my name, says the Lord of Hosts, then I will lay a curse upon you…I will cut off your arm, throw offal [the organs of animals] in your faces, the offal of your pilgrim-feasts, and I will banish you from my presence.


Most of us think the sin that brought God’s wrath upon Sodom was homosexuality.  According to Ezekiel, it included something much different.  In his allegory of comparing unfaithful Jerusalem to Sodom, the prophet writes,


This was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.  They were haughty and did detestable things before me.


It’s safe to say that these blunt and spirited words from history’s most captivating prophets will not be found on the wall of a Christian bookstore, framed and inset under a painting of an elk, sniffing the morning air, backlit by amber sunrays.  Neither Isaiah, nor Malachi, nor Amos, nor many such others would be allowed into church leadership today.  They’d be forced to take thumos-management classes instead.


Our thumotic inner heat fuels prophet-like indignation.  Yet there are few directives as contrary to contemporary Christian belief as those of Paul: “Be angry, and yet do not sin.”  Christians, especially men, aren’t supposed to get angry about anything, are we?  Give us a shot of sodium pentothal, and we’ll tell you that anger itself is a sin.  We are God’s most denatured creatures.


Anger can be a creative force.  It can crack inertia and drive us past persistent conundrums.  Anger, properly handled, helps us fulfill our aspirations by causing blessed dissatisfaction with our lives and with the plight of others.  Anger, seasoned to create courage, can be prophetic in the truest and best sense.


Righteous anger can compel a man to confront the world’s deceptions and misrepresentations and rationalizations.  It can shape his purpose and bring deeper meaning to his life.  It takes thumos to confront suffering and misery, to rescue the persecuted, to stand against the crowd.  This is what motivates a person to be like the real Jesus—not the sugar-coated Jesus we’ve been given.


Without this prophetic martial spirit, one not found in many believers today, a man can’t serve God well because he doesn’t possess enough urge to rise above the world’s approval, attachments, and addictions.  Without this spirit, men too often succumb to the “disease to please,” the ailment Peter repeatedly suffered as he denied even knowing Jesus.  By contrast, through the prophetic voice born of thumos, a man can become free to serve in the way the prophet Micah told us the Lord desires: “To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”


Our spiritual training has us object and say, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.  Generally this is true, and it’s best—for instance, in marriage—to understand this sooner rather than later.  But the Bible doesn’t say gentleness is the only disposition that turns away wrath.  A stern response can also do the job.  Sometimes, depending on the circumstances, sternness does it even better.


Said Martin Luther,


When my heart is cold and I cannot pray as I should, I scourge myself with the thought of the impiety and ingratitude of my enemies…[Soon,] my heart swells with righteous indignation and hatred and I can say with warmth and vehemence, “Holy be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done!”  And the hotter I grow the more ardent do my prayers become.”


I call these moments “blessed dissatisfaction.”  Bill Hybels, a man with plenty of thumos (which has gotten him into trouble, especially with legalists), calls this attribute “holy discontent.”  It comes during instances where you don’t ignore your God-given thumos.  You grapple with it, learn from it, and let it propel you.


Hybels explains the power of this key to courageous living and muscular faith:


This energy causes you to act on the dissatisfaction that’s been brewing deep within your soul [thumos] and compels you to say yes to joining forces with God so that the darkness and depravity around you gets pushed back.

It was thumos that urged me to birth The Protectors, so far the only faith-based solution of its kind to adolescent bullying.  I was indignant that so many of the people to whom I minister were bullied as children, so I harnessed my discontent with the status quo and underwent the difficult work of creating a program that would provide a Christian response to this growing worldwide problem.


The Protectors is one example of preventative medicine against future crimes and their crushing influence upon the living.  Through our curriculum, Awana, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and other faith-friendly organizations around the world are learning how to push back against the scourge of bullying by taking seriously God’s love for justice and his hatred for cruelty.


Remarkably, interest in The Protectors is coming more from private Christian schools than Sunday schools.  There’s something about a martial spirit’s penchant for forging courage and creating justice that doesn’t go down well with many evangelical churches.  Some churches feel it’s off limits, but private schools know they can’t succumb to such an illusion because they must grapple with the real world in real time.  They can’t afford the kind of Petri-dish thinking that survives in a cloistered environment but soon dies when exposed to reality.


Years ago a friend of mine, who’s a kickboxing coach, tried to encourage his congregation to take their protection seriously by teaching them how to take down a potential bad guy at church.  “Some of the elders and deacons loved it,” he said, “but other were shocked and outraged that the church would even consider such training.”  As for objectors, he had served with them for years and couldn’t remember their ever expressing a strong opinion about anything—until it came to using force justly to protect the weak and the timid.


Incredibly, we’ll fight for our right to by-stand, but we won’t fight for a righteous policing force that protects the innocent and the helpless.  There are brave pacifists, such as Clarence Jordan (1912-1969), a powerful, visionary Christian who established an admirable interracial cooperative in the deep South during the 1950s—a courageous act that was met with prejudice, guns, and even dynamite.  But there are also many cowards who hide behind pacifism and will contend only to maintain the status quo of their fearfulness.  Anemic spirituality and a vacuum of courage have us believing that the most impact we can have is by dropping to our knees and praying really hard…even if a madman were to rip through our church, injuring and killing others.


During conferences, I explain how Catholic priests in New York slums during the early 1800s weren’t chosen only for their ability to comprehend God’s Word; they also were selected for their ability to subdue an intoxicated man who was abusing his family.  His wife would summon the church, which usually would dispatch two priests.  They’d explain to the man that if he beat his family again, he’d receive a beating from them.  This martial spirit kept many men in line during a time when police would not respond to such injustice.  It reminds me of Shakespeare’s wise observation: “Lions keep leopards tame.”


However, most guys don’t know what to do with this information.  Their gut and their lungs applaud it, but their spiritual training, so opposed to martial spirituality, has labeled it sinful.  Christian men can’t act that way, they think.  Tell that to the wife and kids of an abusive man.  Lots of church foil will call you a sinner if you behave like those priests.  But vulnerable women and children will call you a hero.  You’ll have to choose whom to please and whom to offend. 


And lest we forget, it’s God—not the timid herd—we don’t want to offend.  When it comes to the truly weak, the outmanned and outgunned, we are to move toward them with power and boldness.


A Greek word for manliness, andreia, is the same word used for courage.  Talk about setting the bar high.  Can we say today, without blanching from embarrassment or growing queasy from remorse, that contemporary man, sweet lover of comfort, highly trained to be innocuous in and out of church, is courage?


Men: Courage is what we were made to embody.  It’s the very trait that must be manufactured in the neglected portion of our soul that is home to the martial spirit.  It is from this deep, heated, rumbling place that our unique form of love flows—this is exemplified by police officers who risk their lives to safeguard citizens, by firefighters who rush toward (not away from) danger, by soldiers who fight for freedom and protect the weak.  It’s found in the teachers who denounce and defy bullying, thus defending human dignity.  It’s found in missionaries who sacrifice themselves for the lives of others.


Again, for many of us, this is the piece in our spiritual grid that when fitted into place electrifies and repairs the entire circuit.  The military has shown us for centuries (if not for millennia) that it needs to be trained, not jettisoned.  And the rediscovery of courage will prove to be providential right here, right now.


I have focused mostly on men, and here’s why: Men have more martial spirit in them than women.  History confirms it, and our experience confirms it as well.  Most women just don’t have men’s taste for fighting, physical or spiritual (though some do).  My observation has been that most don’t want it either—and again, that’s most women, not all.  As the expression goes, fighting is just not in their blood.  By the way, soul-blood is another term the Greeks used to describe thumos.


I think back to my favorite Thanksgiving: My kids and I and another father and son got together to fire about six hundred rounds into an abandoned car.  We took out taillights, headlights, windows, gauges, tires.  My sons and I would do it again in a heartbeat.  I hadn’t felt such childlike glee and delight in a long time. 


But not my daughter. 


“Here you go, baby,” I said, handing her my rifle.  “Just aim and shoot.”


Abby hesitated a very long while.  Eventually she raised the barrel, sheepishly popped off one round, then asked, “Can I go inside now?”  Her blood ran cold, not hot, from that visceral experience.


Shooting an abandoned car is not the same as fighting on a battlefield—I’m just trying to illustrate by example.  Harnessing that sort of power, part of a martial spirit, just isn’t in my wife or my daughter the way it is in me and my boys.  And even if it were, this would be the exception, not the rule.  That doesn’t make either gender one bit better or worse than the other—it just makes us different.  The company of the Thumos-Courageous includes both men and women, but this quality and its offshoots aren’t brought out of us in the same ways, and this difference, like countless others, should be honored and respected.

Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including Unleashing Courageous FaithNo 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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