Over the last few years my single most consistent prayer has been for spiritual courage. Being a coward comes quite naturally to me. I don’t like to fight. I don’t like rejection. I am definitely not a fan of pain. All of these are essential qualities of a coward.
Seriously, as I look in the rearview mirror at more than thirty-five years of ministry, one of my regrets has to do with this issue of courage. My fear of people leaving our church, my fear of people not liking me, my fear of criticism, and my fear of the “old guard” often kept me from making courageous leadership decisions. I could always justify my inaction in the name of “not going too fast” or “bringing people along” or “keeping unity,” but the truth is, sometimes it was lack of courage. My courage often seemed to stumble over my propensity for people pleasing.
As I read Scripture and the history of the church, I am encouraged to see that God has used people who weren’t naturally courageous. I believe Joshua was one of these. While Joshua had been courageous as a younger man, later in life he is named by God as the successor to Moses.
For decades Moses had been the unquestioned leader of the people; his leadership was all they’d known. The Bible says he knew God “face to face,” and that “no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”
And now God comes to Joshua and says, “I want you to take his place.” How intimidating would that be? No wonder six times God says “Be strong and courageous”!
It’s interesting that Joshua was about to lead Israel into war, yet God doesn’t talk strategy or tactics. He talks character. He talks courage. I think Erwin McManus is right when he says “The history of God’s people is not a record of God searching for courageous men and women who could handle the task, but God transforming the hearts of cowards.”
Courage is not an issue of wiring, but of willingness. It’s not an issue of DNA, but of heart. I have always found comfort and hope in Ambrose Redmoon’s definition: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”
In recent years my willingness to be courageous in spite of my fears has been tested. And, while I’m not the poster child for spiritual courage, God has been answering my prayer for it. In some difficult situations I haven’t run. I’ve had the hard conversations. My people pleasing didn’t win the day.
Looking back I realize there’s a correlation between my communion with God and my courage for God. The deeper my intimacy, the greater my tenacity to stand courageously. The more Christ is my life, the less I need to find life in others’ opinions.
As Martin Luther King Jr. began to receive threatening phone calls and letters, fear began to paralyze him. He had a defining moment one night with just him and God.
“It seemed as though I heard . . . an inner voice, saying ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. . . . The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.
Three nights later, our home was bombed. Strangely enough, I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My experience with God had given me new strength and trust. I know now that God is able to give us the interior resources to face the storms . . . of life.”
Let his words soak in. “My experience with God had given me new strength and trust.” It wasn’t primarily the cause and the community that sparked courage, it was his communion with the Father.
As spiritual courage has begun to take root, I’m learning some key principles that help me in my quest to be courageous.
What’s the right thing to do? In the last few years, I have been disciplining myself to ask, “What’s the right thing to do?” When faced with a situation where I’m tempted to do what’s politically expedient, I am forcing myself to wrestle with this question. And most of the time I have a clear sense about what’s right. Following through is not easy and there have been plenty of times I have wimped out.
Paul was very clear when he said, “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.” Courage is like guardrails on a highway. You may not know where the road will twist and turn, but godly courage will keep you out of the ditches of sin and compromise and political expediency.
Separate decision making from problem solving. This principle was engrained in me through my years at Saddleback, and it’s served me well since. I’ve been on teams where everybody knew the right decision, but the potential problems kept things stuck . . . sometimes for years.
By separating decision making from problem solving, I don’t let the problems cloud my ability to make the best decision. Once the best and right decision has been made, then we can dig in and start to problem solve.
God is faithful. For most of my ministry, I knew this was true theologically, but in recent years I have found it to be true experientially. When I’ve done what I believed to be right and acted with spiritual courage, God has been faithful to show up with provision and presence.
This doesn’t mean everything will go smoothly just because I do what’s right and live with courage. Look at the life of Joseph. He suffered for doing what was right; nevertheless, his trust in God carried him through dark and lonely days.
As Paul closes the book of 1 Corinthians he gives four imperatives that are as relevant today as they were in the first century.
Be on guard. Stand true to what you believe. Be courageous. Be strong.