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Courage is Not Optional!

  • Paul Coughlin Contributing Writer, Author, Speaker
  • Published Dec 30, 2008
Courage is Not Optional!

You don’t have to go to a house of worship to know right from wrong.  But we expect something more, don’t we, from people who know God’s commands to confront injustice?  Yet year after year I am sorely disappointed by the cowardly behavior of kids who belong to God and know He desires that His people defend the weak.  These children need to be inspired and empowered to do exactly that.

If you doubt this observation, put it to the test.  Read your children’s Sunday school or youth group curriculum.  Go back as many years as you can.  Volunteer in their classes and observe what they’re being told.  Ask them what they talked about and learned.  You’ll discover this:  Churchgoing kids are instructed nearly exclusively on how to avoid sin.  Their spiritual training consists of what a person shouldn’t do.  Avoiding sin is good and right.  But what they’re missing, what our culture is missing, is full and consistent instruction about what to do—which includes standing up for those being abused.

We want our children to stay away from sins of commission—choices and actions that are wrong.  Yet we’re not also teaching them the consequences that come from the sins of omission:  not making choices and not doing acts that are right.  Yes, it’s good when they avoid doing wrong.  But what about when they avoid doing right?  Sometimes it’s what they don’t do that facilitates disharmony and decay in the world.  When we fail to love, we sin.

Many Sunday school curricula don’t even include courage as fundamental to a virtuous life.  Some teachers relegate courage to the personal realm, telling children they need to exercise the courage to say no to others.  That’s important.  But it entirely misses the Bible’s admonishment to say no on behalf of others.

Christians are encouraged to feed and clothe the needy, and this is excellent.  But we’re rarely challenged to defend those in need.  Why the distinction?  Because helping the poor usually doesn’t include conflict; defending the needy often does.  We don’t like conflict, so we ignore this side of our faith life, yet we’ll never attain a purpose-driven life if we don’t learn how to do conflict well.  And until we do, the weak will continue to suffer.

I explained in No More Christian Nice Guy how being nice instead of good ruins individual lives.  My wife and I showed in Married…But Not Engaged how being nice instead of good ruins families.  Now I’m demonstrating that being nice instead of good about bullying shreds souls and abdicates our responsibilities to the most needy among us.  Bullying burns a child’s psychological skin; how can we imagine that it’s “unchristian” to put out the fire?

Good people stand up to injustice.  Nice people don’t—they slink away and cover their cowardly tracks.  Good people make enemies for the right reasons—Jesus wouldn’t have told us to pray for our enemies if He thought we wouldn’t make any.  Nice people worry too much about the approval of others to make an enemy when they should; they go with the crowd, right or wrong.

Niceness is often a disguise for indifference and apathy.  With time, with enough failed opportunities to forge moral courage, goodness, and righteousness, the reward many nice people receive is that everyone likes them—except themselves and those who depend on them for protection and provision.  A nice person is usually an appeaser, one who, as Sir Winston Churchill said, “feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”  An appeaser is willing to overlook injustice in order to be liked by those who desperately need correction; he worships the quicksand they walk on.

Christians talk about the Culture War.  But how many are Culture Warriors?  Worst of all, many who do take up this redemptive work are quickly criticized for “not doing it right”…by those too cowardly to venture outside their lives of excess and comfort…those who can’t even bring themselves to protect children.

And even worse, many believers contend that it would be wrong to verbally or physically confront others in order to help the timid and defend the weak.  Christians, sadly, need permission to be morally courageous again, as when they battled to abolish slavery, as when they have warred against expanding fascism, for minorities; basic civil rights, and for unborn children.  People of faith need permission to be good again—permission to exercise moral courage in civic life.

On my radio talk show, when I’ve talked about bullying and our need to protect children from it, I’ve received adamant calls from believers who say we should not confront such behavior.  If a child suffers, it’s God’s will she suffer, they allege.  If a kid suffers at the hands of a bully, then God is teaching him patience and humility—he’s being persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  The facts say otherwise, and the children these people influence are getting terrible advice.

I got some of this as a young adult.  I once worked for a wicked bully who abused with his body and his mouth (though he was ever so careful not to do or say anything illegal—at least nothing you could prove without recorded conversations or access to vital records).  Like many bullies, he invaded physical boundaries, that hula-hoop-like space around each one of us, approximately the length of your arm in all directions from your center.  He invaded intentionally, when it was to his advantage.  I could see the look of satisfaction in his eyes when he stepped into another’s unspoken area—not illegally, just unethically.  I’d watch the other person back up in discomfort as the boss moved in, winning the negotiation advantage through physical intimidation.

He was a gifted twister of words.  He knew just how far he could falsely state and falsely accuse without too much backlash.  He measured people’s tolerance, then exploited it.  When you defended yourself, he’d question your loyalty and spirituality.  He only backed down to someone who threatened to use more force than he was willing to use, a brute who only respected power.  He devoured and exploited the precious social grace that people extend to one another (this is a form of infidelity), consuming it and turning it into a paycheck.

Making matters worse was his practice of hiring a certain kind of Christian: the gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild variety.  The kind who’s easily led, manipulated, and not trained to stand up to wrongdoing.  The kind who thinks it’s wrong to erect healthy boundaries.  The kind who’s already often psychologically damaged and so is ripe for exploitation.  The kind who too easily follows the mandates of authority, even when corrupt.  The kind who will not confront wickedness because he’s been taught that he shouldn’t.

Being around this man for eight-plus hours a day felt like being molested while half awake.  You knew it was real, but you didn’t have sufficient evidence to prove it.  He had the ability to make you think you were going crazy.  His smile often lacked authenticity but frequently was still able to charm.  When he smiled, it gave you the creeps because you knew something wasn’t right.

Seeking spiritual guidance on how to deal with this man was among the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made.  Let me back up: It’s wise to seek spiritual guidance, but make sure the people you seek it from actually possess wisdom. 

I received unanimous “guidance.”  The reason I was at that job?  God was trying to teach me patience and humility.  Sound familiar?  What’s interesting is that I wasn’t known for being too impatient or arrogant—in fact I was already patient to a fault.  Yet this was the spiritual direction I received, given with amazing confidence, so I acted upon it with a blazing naivete of my own.  When you are naïve and too trusting, you’re unable to guard your heart, a wellspring of life (Proverbs 4:23).

I was told just to wait: “The Holy Spirit is going to do a mighty work” in this man’s heart.  “Just give it time.  Pray for him and get out of the way.”  I did all this with the devotion of a medieval monk.  If the Holy Spirit did correct him, it never showed.  He got worse.  Most in the office and many outside knew he was out of control, yet no one intervened.  I watched people with sparkling church reputations pretend they saw nothing wrong.  Their cowardly nature was mistaken for virtue; it was self-interest disguised as stoicism and faithfulness.

For my part, I kept waiting.  Waiting for the Lord to teach me more patience with being abused, and waiting for my good behavior to bring about a transformation in my boss.  What I saw instead was a fiend take even greater advantage of others who continued to lie down and roll over in the name of being Christians.  I saw the powerful abuse the weak.  I saw people break apart, become disillusioned and frail.  I saw co-workers plunge into despair.  I saw rashes break out on skin.  I saw staff members attack each other like rats in an experiment.  I heard people yelling at their spouses on the phone, people who didn’t do this before.  I witnessed sin loosening its tether and expanding its territory without resistance.  I learned to tolerate wickedness.  I heard people curse God.

I learned to lie to my soul, to live with evil instead of denouncing it when I saw the perverse pleasure the boss received by playing with people’s lives like a cat with mice.  Common human sin and its clear consequences were so highly spiritualized that the environment no longer had contact with reality.  Wickedness wasn’t wicked, not really; it was goodness in the making, I was told.  Though I believe in redemption, that good can come from bad, my experience is that it doesn’t happen automatically or inexorably.  Believing good is emerging from evil, when it isn’t, can make people accomplices to wickedness.

I learned to pretend I didn’t feel angry or humiliated.  When I did admit I felt this way, I was told I was wrong to complain or feel injured—this was God’s way of beating pride out of me, so “consider it all joy.”  God ordained my misery, and He did not want me to exert my will in self-defense, which would cut short His education for me.  This was a devastating parcel of guidance considering I was far more prone to self-doubt than self-promotion.  Self-doubt and self-loathing escalated.

I allowed myself to be plundered with well-intentioned foolishness.  I wrestled for years with my resultant wounded spirit, which was partly self-inflicted by my own negligence to defend myself.  I labored to drain a small lake of resentment inside me, hard to do without stopping the inflow of abuse through healthy boundaries.

Even more remarkable is that I later had a business dealing with one of my erstwhile “spiritual” advisors who, with great charisma and confidence, had advocated a non-assertive approach toward my problem.  This man who advised patience and humility in suffering was as ruthless as any secular CEO.  He made sure no one ever got the better of him.  Suffering, apparently, was what other people were born to experience.  “Do as I say, not as I do.”  You know the story.

I suffered at the hands of a bully because of foolish advice I received that sounded pious and virtuous.  What I was told to do, today’s bully-victims are told to do.  Like school kids, I didn’t suffer because of my faith or for righteousness but because others knew they could take advantage of an uneven playing field.  I didn’t suffer because of my beliefs.  I suffered because it was to someone else’s advantage to strip me.  I suffered because in his mind my dignity was expendable, convertible into currency, or as on a school ground, a good laugh or display of power.  I was told to lay down my worth because it was “worldly” to retain it.  This man possessed excessive self-esteem, yet I was told the real problem God was trying to correct was my inflated self-esteem.

I have since seen how truly successful and virtuous people do not listen to such spiritualized stupidity.  They are crafty, shrewd, boundary-setting people.  I would come to see this in better bosses and colleagues.

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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