Criminal Cowardice

Paul Coughlin

Lack of thumos disgusts more than wives—it disgusts us as a culture as well.  You might remember seeing footage of or hearing about an elderly man being assaulted by a young man trying to steal his car.  That elderly man was ninety-one-year-old war veteran Leonard Sims of Detroit, who was punched in the face and neck more than twenty times during a brutal carjacking in 2007.  The attack was caught on video and broadcast throughout the world.  But what most of us didn't see was the wide-angle footage that showed four bystanders watching the attack—and doing absolutely nothing to help the man being pummeled like a punching bag.  They stood there like ravens on a power line, like the proverbial monkeys who saw, heard, and spoke no evil.


Mr. Sims was unable to life his hands—he used them to brace himself against the gale-force attack until he was knocked to the ground and was almost run over as the shadow-thumos thug pulled away.  The punk stood only five-foot-nine and was slim; the crowd could have taken him easily.  Instead they just watched.  They didn't even call 9-1-1.  A nearby convenience store clerk did.


We witness low-thumos life and feel gut-piercing remorse, righteous anger, and stomach-turning disgust.  We're designed this way.  This is a natural, God-given response to one of the most despicable behaviors in humans (especially men).  God made us to disdain cowardice, not so that we'd be consumed by guilt and shame, but so that when we face trials we'll be compelled within to forge greater character: fortitude, strength, boldness, courage, and love.


British preacher Paul Scanlon talks about a baby who was dying in a nursery ward in England.  The child's chart showed how doctors conducted every possible test to find out why this child was dying.  Then, at the bottom of the chart, in the sobering diagnosis field, was written, "Failure to thrive."  This child had no fighting spirit, no lust for life.  Unlike other children in that nursery, he was missing an animating quality or soul-blood that would compel him toward the activity necessary to survive.  He seemed to have been born without the essence that no machine could install or induce; he needed an animus to help move him past adversity and into a life of vitality and growth.


Many of us adults have the same actual but mysterious ailment that's killing us spiritually.  Gichin Funakoshi, known as the creator and founder of modern karate, gave us something essential to chew on regarding this lack: "That in daily life, one's mind and body be trained and developed in a spirit of humility; and that in critical times, one be devoted utterly to the cause of justice."  He meant real humility, not the false form of humility that tells us that we are nothing but worms—that's just another form of lying.


Worse, our false humility undercuts our God-given gifts and power, and I don't think this is a coincidence.  When we reject our strengths or our talents it's often because, like thumos, they make us conspicuous.  We show up on people's radar.  In other words, if we woke up to their realities, then we would wake up to their responsibilities.  Fearful and selfish, instead we slink away with a pious smile, a pledge to pray, and a wish for blessings.


Thumos helps us to play our part in the kingdom of heaven, a kingdom of love, light, and truth.  It also help us to avoid what Francis Schaeffer noticed with chagrin:


One of the greatest injustices we do to our young people is ask them to be conservative.  Christianity is not conservative, but revolutionary.  To be conservative today is to miss the whole point, for conservatism means standing in the flow of the status quo, and the status quo no longer belongs to us.  If we want to be fair, we must teach the young to be revolutionaries, revolutionaries against the status quo.


Schaeffer wasn't using the word conservative in its popular and narrow political dimension.  He meant it in the broader sense of how young Christians are inculcated into maintaining what currently is.  What currently is includes a vast indifference to the well-being of others and catering to our own comfort.  Cain's comeback to God—"Am I my brother's keeper?"—is often our unsaid snotty remark, except that we usually lack the audacity to be so direct.  Nonetheless, our actions too often are the same.


We know that thumos deficiency is a spiritual ailment.  But is it a psychological disorder as well?  Counselors complain that sometimes their best insights go unheeded by clients.  They often scratch their heads as to why one finds his way to healing and spiritual growth while another barely moves in a better direction.  I think thumos has a lot to do with this quandary.  If one has no internal urge to push past a misconception or neurosis, does he really have a chance?  If he has no inner urge to grasp the better life above him, and if he's too cowardly to face his fears, he simply isn't going to make much progress.


Thumos is part of what philosopher William James described as "reserve energies," a capacity that every person possesses and that should be depleted by the end of life.  The energy in this reservoir lifts people to higher and better places; as a man who was horrified by the waste of human energy in armed conflict, James believed this energy should be used to "drain marshes, irrigate the deserts, and dig the canals, and democratically do the physical and social engineering which builds up so slowly and painfully what war so quickly destroys."  This energy recognizes that while there will be defeats, there also are victories yet to be won.


As a lay minister, I know that people who are unable to carry on through life's inevitable suffering and pain are eventually somehow stuck, very much like people addicted to drugs.  If they are skilled at manipulating others, they usually will prey upon the weak and the earnest to meet their cravings.  They will line others up like bowling pins and mow them down.  Cowardice is an orientation toward life that leads to apathy in all who possess it; in some it likewise leads to manipulation.  These sound like psychological ailments.


Making matters worse, we don't live in a world that rewards courage, except the selfish kind where we'll applaud others who have enough thumos to keep our borders safe.


But what about the kind of courage that rushes toward Twin Towers ablaze?  "What happened to the respect for that kind of manliness?" a friend asked me during a recent fishing trip.  "For a time we really appreciated people like that.  Now we've just slipped back into a flat existence where we don't even acknowledge heroes, much less honor them.  We're not even sure they exist anymore.  I mean, everywhere you turn, including church, it's as if everyone is trying to rip courage out of you."


This is a man with a prophetic nature, a man who believes that some things are right and others wrong.  He recently had to clean up after a head pastor made a shambles of his congregation and was eventually fired.  The wreckage took place right under the noses of deacons and elders who did virtually nothing to contain (let alone stop) it.


This angered him profoundly.  "You guys are a bunch of cowards," he told them.  "One of the reasons he [the pastor] made such a mess is because you watched it happen and did nothing."  He said there's still more cleanup to do, and he's afraid there isn't nearly enough will to create the necessary healthy changes.


"Can you create a coalition of the willing?" I asked.


"I really don't think it's there," he said, sounding tired.  "What do you think I should do?"


This is among the hardest questions to answer since I know what it often leads to.  In an average group of ten people, one, two at the most, have a functioning thumos.  That's plainly a minority.  You can comfort yourself by saying that one person plus God is a majority—and it may be.  But I speak from experience in affirming that it doesn't always work that way.  People of noble thumos often get their head handed to them on a platter, actually or figuratively.


So I replied, "It may not be a battle that's worthy of your blood."  After thinking about it more, though, I said, "But then again, your integrity and your loyalty to Christ will take a beating if you don't speak up.  If you do speak up, make sure it's done lovingly and with wisdom, but then expect to be slandered and ostracized later.  Planning on this can take out some of the sting and disappointment.  And, if you're right, time eventually will vindicate you."


I'll say it again: Thumos is a burden made lighter by Christ, who is life itself, who is disruptive courage, and who honors those who tell the truth the way he did, does, and will.


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. 

Visit Paul's websites at:, and

Visit Sandy's website for reluctant entertainers at: