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Traits of the Courageous

  • Paul Coughlin Contributor
  • Published Mar 11, 2009
Traits of the Courageous
To have courage for whatever comes in life—everything lies in that. ~Mother Theresa

Courage helps us digest reality for breakfast and keep it down, converting it into vital energy and momentum.  It helps us overcome obstacles that might otherwise halt us.  Courage is essential to meaningful attainment and to our integrity, the definition of which must expand if we want to help our children achieve the real thing.

All good-willed parents want their kids to obtain healthy and honorable achievement, but currently we’re handcuffing them with nice-sounding intentions that dissipate when applied to the real world.  Good behavior alone won’t fly; it was never designed to.  We need to guide our children to achievement not fulfilled upon the broken backs of others—which leaves in its wake resentment, bitterness, and cynicism—but instead toward achievement that’s nourishing for themselves and others.  This is especially relevant in America, a nation awash in ambition, much of which is good, some of which is bad.  It takes courage to follow integrity because that often means taking the longer and harder route.

When a person possesses integrity, it means far more than whether or not she swore when she stubbed her toe on the leg of her desk.  Explains Dr. Henry Cloud:

When we talk about integrity, we are talking about being a whole person, an integrated person, with all of our different parts working well and delivering the functions that they were designed to deliver.  It is about wholeness and effectiveness as people.  It truly is “running on all cylinders.”

Our kids becoming effective people means that as children they begin to learn what it takes to be successful, whole, and integrated, as opposed to merely following traditions, fads, homilies, and platitudes.  Otherwise they’re in trouble—remember, too much sweetness and softness, too little wisdom and discernment turns children into victims, both now and later.  Warns Cloud,

You have known people who love, for example, without the benefit of judgment and reality testing….Strengths turn into weaknesses without the other parts of a person to balance them out.  In fact, historically, the word diabolical actually means “to compartmentalize.”  Things go “bad” when they are out of balance and integration.  The person of “integrity” is a person of balanced integration of all that character affords.

Buildings lack structural integrity when they’re unable to carry their load in the way they were designed to provide shelter, and even inspiration.  We lack integrity in the same way when our moral backbone, courage-unfortified, isn’t strong enough to carry the weight of our own lives and when we lack sufficient power to donate our strength to others in need, providing protection and inspiration.

Helping our children obtain the courage necessary to produce moral integrity is so much more than turning them into what Thomas Merton called “little morality projects” defined exclusively by avoiding sin.  We should avoid sin, in part, so that we move closer to God’s bonfire blessing of an abundant and eternal life—this is the God-centered life He desires for everyone made in His image.  But avoiding sin is just part of this God-glorifying journey; it’s not the journey itself.  Abundant living is the journey. A rich life is the peak toward which we want to guide our children, and our instruction should include the steps, skills and virtues necessary to reach the top.

Once more, our lives lack integrity when they lack wholeness and balance.  Our current definition of wholeness as personal piety is a major contributor to this sincere but precarious imbalance.  Our children need wisdom and its corresponding virtues (e.g., shrewdness and ingenuity) in order to find this balance, and the courage it takes to graft wisdom into their lives.

Recall that virtue, a word closely associated with integrity, has as one of its meanings the word force.  A virtuous person is defined by far more than what she doesn’t do, what force she doesn’t exert.  She’s also defined by what she does—her strength is hers to spend in proactivity or waste through inactivity.  Fear of using force and its potential backlash is why nice spouses have repeated marriage woes, why nice bosses are eaten alive by sneaky employees, why nice coaches lead teams toward turmoil, and why nice kids get picked on at school.  It takes courage to use force virtuously.

Please understand what I’m really saying.  Being honest is intrinsic to integrity.  It’s foundational.  But it’s not the only quality our children need in order to possess integrity, and with it success.  The main reason I’m making this distinction is what I’m around so many who’ve only been given this false script of personal piety.  Some are oblivious to entire facets of reality; others ignore reality largely because they don’t have the skills to fact it well and fear the pain that might come their way if they did.  They don’t like conflict, and they haven’t been trained to do it well, so their honesty-first policy goes out the window when they’re unwilling to disagree truthfully with others when it’s needed.  Then their personal piety takes a hit anyway.

Somewhere inside they lie to themselves and stick to the just-be-nice-and-life-will-work-out-right approach.  It’s what they don’t acknowledge and don’t act upon that takes them out of the game of life.  They miss or ignore important components of reality (top of the list: the inability to spot deceit in others and the boldness to confront it), and without the courage necessary to feel fear, really feel it, they don’t push through toward a clearer view of life.

Much of our collective confusion would dissipate if it weren’t for our fear about earning other people’s disapproval, even when deep down we know (or could know) precisely the right thing to do.  Courage helps us push past this fear with the force of virtue.  What are the traits that help grow the hardy fruit of courage?

In The Moses of Rovn The Stirring Story of Fritz Graebe, a German Christian Who Risked His Life to Lead Hundreds of Jews to Safety During the Holocaust, Presbyterian minister Douglas Huneke describes the behavior of a single soul whose tale of courage and bravery should be told to every child in every country.  Songs should be written about the rare character of this unsung “Oskar Schindler”; his valorous life should be captured on film.

Holocaust survivor and renowned author Elie Wiesel said that “Graebe’s courage justifies our faith in humankind.”  Rabbi Harold Schulweis said, “The world is hungry for moral heroes like Fritz Graebe, Because of him, they who knew the sadness of the disillusioned heart know also that there is an alternative to complicity with the enemies of humanity.  They know that there is meaning to our belief that humanity was created in the image of God.

But to some timid-hearted people, Graebe didn’t behave like a Christian at all.

Herman Friedrich “Fritz” Graebe (1900-1986), a manager and engineer in charge of a German building firm in Ukraine, witnessed mass Nazi executions of Jews.  Following the war he provided vital testimony in the Einsatzgruppen Trail (one of the subsequent Nuremberg Trials), invoking bitter persecution from many of his countrymen.  He moved his family to San Francisco in 1948, where he lived until his death.  He was honored as “righteous among the nations” by the Israelis.

Graebe was born in Grafrath, a small town in the Rhineland, where the population was predominantly Roman Catholic.  He was the eldest son of a poor Protestant couple: His father was a weaver, and his mother helped supplement the family income by working as a maid.  After primary school, Herman went on to study at a technical college to become a licensed engineer.  He completed his state-licensing examinations shortly after being married in 1924.

In 1931, Graebe joined the Nazi party.  However, he broke with it in 1934, after boldly criticizing a Nazi campaign against Jewish businesses.  Following this he was apprehended by the Gestapo and jailed for several months.  He was subsequently released without trial.

From 1938 to 1941, Graebe participated as a civilian contractor in the construction of the “West Wall” fortifications on Germany’s western border.  In the summer of 1941, shortly after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, Graebe was directed to report to the offices of the Reich Railway Administration in Lwow.  His assignment was to recruit construction teams to help build and renovate structures essential for the maintenance of railroad communications in Ukraine.  Arriving there in September, Graebe set up his head office and proceeded to deploy subsidiary offices throughout Soviet Ukraine.  The Jewish work force employed by his company comprised some five thousand men and women.

As a large-scale civilian contractor with extensive connections, Graebe witnessed the atrocities perpetrated by the Germans and their Ukrainian henchmen against the helpless Jews.  On October 5, 1942, he was present at a mass-killing site and saw how approximately five thousand Jewish men, women, and children were lined up in front of already dug pits, ordered to remove their clothing (some even folded it), and were cold-bloodedly executed by SS firing squads.  Graebe would be haunted by what he saw until his death.  After the war, his graphic accounts were incorporated into the evidence of the Nuremberg Trials.

In his efforts to rescue Jews from the Nazi destruction machine, Graebe could take advantage of his official position as the representative of the Josef Jung Company.  By arguing that he was performing work essential for the German war effort, he acquired effective leverage over the German district commissioner and his subordinates.  Graebe deliberately attracted and accepted more assignments and contracts than his company could possibly handle so as to employ more Jews.  He would then go to great lengths to protect them and their families.

For example, in July 1942, Graebe learned that an imminent “liquidation action” was going to be directed against the Jews of Rovno, where he had 112 Jews working for him.  Having obtained a “writ of protection” from the deputy district commissioner, he rushed with it to Rovno where, gun in hand, he managed to secure the release of 150 Jews.  It was a very close call: Ukrainian policemen were already busy driving the ghetto inmates to their deportation train.  Graebe marched the lucky ones away on foot, out of harm’s clutches.

When, some months later, the Germans incarcerated the Jews of Zdolbunov in a ghetto and started deporting them, Graebe provided twenty-five workers with falsified “Aryan” identification papers.  He subsequently transported them in stages, with his own car, to the far-flung company office in Poltava, hundreds of miles to the east.  The Poltava branch was pure fiction: Graebe had set it up and maintained it at his own expense for the sole purpose of providing shelter for his Jewish workers.  With the advance of the Red Army later in the war, the group was able to escape to the Russian side.  Had the car been stopped at one of the numerous German roadblocks on the way, both rescuer and rescued would have been doomed.

In the course of time, Graebe’s uneconomic policies and unconventional practices began to arouse the suspicion of his company chiefs.  They wanted him recalled and put on trial for embezzlement.  After the collapse of the German positions in eastern Poland, Graebe moved with his Jewish office team first to Warsaw and from there to the Rhineland.  In September 1944, he defected with about twenty of his charges to the American lines, where he was still able to render valuable strategic advice concerning the West Wall.

From February 1945 until the autumn of 1946, Graebe worked closely with the War Crimes Branch of the U.S. army on the preparation of the Nuremberg dossier on crimes committed by the Germans.  He was the only German to testify for the prosecution.  In 1948 he and his family emigrated to the United States.

Graebe’s acts of righteousness, explains Huneke, “were not impulsive, solitary gestures, but involved, sustained commitment over a long period of time and entailed incredible risks.”  He had to be away from his family constantly in order to carry out his redemptive work.  He depleted his personal resources and suffered serious health consequences.

Like most rescuers, he disdained the label of hero.  He referred to his acts of simple, often inadequate, tokens of human decency.  He told visitors, “I did what anyone could have done, should have done.”

Next time:  More on the courageous life of Fritz Graebe.

Published March 27, 2009 in Crosswalk Parenting

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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