The evangelist Luke tells us that some Pharisees once came to Jesus to warn him, “Get away from her, for Herod want to kill you.” But he replied, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work . . . .’”
There are at least two types of courage I know of. The one kind belongs to those reckless young motorcyclists who zoom helmetless up and down US 19, darting in and out of traffic at the speed of sound. Their utter contempt for dismemberment and sudden death is the type of courage called “daring.” Daring is most appropriate to the young, and most sensible people grow up and out of it, like acne. Some, however—and they are mostly men, though not exclusively–never really do, and they often end up with shattered bodies and a string of memorable if broken relationships. Over their third beer they are likely to say they were born with “a lively sense of adventure” or “a thirst for excitement.” They are “the players,” “the boys who will be boys,” “the girls who “just wanna have fun.” But what they call themselves hardly matters—they possess the kind of unreasonable, pointless adolescent boldness that measures life by its intensity and not in hours and days. Either you were born a player, beloved, or you weren’t, and if you weren’t you’ll probably live longer–or at least it will seem longer. And there isn’t really much more to say about daring, except that it doesn’t wear well.
There is, however, another, better variety of courage that grows more attractive the longer we practice it and flourishes with age. Fortitude is reasonable courage, courage with a purpose, and fortitude is something we should nourish in ourselves and cherish in others, because it is both rare and precious. And daily more necessary in a world that appears to be coming apart at the seams. Considering the dangers of the present and the uncertainly of the future, all sensible people are at times afraid. But to give way to our fears is cowardice, and cowardice is what fortitude overcomes—consciously, purposefully, intentionally.
Fortitude is a grown-up courage. It was a habit my father had in spades. As a man he was widely and greatly liked–but not universally, mostly because he also had the habit of telling the truth. He called stupidity and evil by their right names. And that is a habit always gets you into hot water with ignorant people who prefer lies. “You’re nobody ‘til somebody hates you,” daddy used to say and laugh. But experience has taught me the sober truth of it. Fortitude and the habit of telling the truth go together. They cannot be separated, beloved.
And Jesus also had the habit of telling the truth–he showed how. He not only told the truth, he was the Truth. And for that reason our Lord was likewise widely loved and deeply despised. He was crucified for it. He experienced the consequences of truth telling, and from beyond the resurrection he says to those of us who try to follow him, “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). Take courage.
Every human being is afraid at times. Jesus was no exception. To fear is part of what it means to be fully human. But fortitude is the gift that overcomes our fear, and it comes preeminently from the Spirit of the risen Lord which has been poured out upon us. It comes first of all from the lively realization that our lives are finite, limited in time. Jesus told those Pharisees, “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” He was aware of the shortness of his life. And whenever you and I reflect upon the undoubted fact that sooner or later we are going to die anyway, the question always arises–So what else can happen? That our lives are limited in time is not a sad thought at all—for followers of Jesus it is an encouraging one, even a joyful one. We can “take courage,” or as the old translation renders it, “be of good cheer.”
So we can go on and live with cheerfulness in this dangerous and uncertain world because the death and resurrection of Jesus has placed our finite lives in the context of God’s infinite life. “I have conquered the world,” the risen one says. Apart from that cheering news of his resurrection it would do precious little good to say “take courage” or “buck up.” Fortitude is not a decision we make on our own. But the good news of the third day–that nothing whatsoever that will happen to us, in life or in death, can disrupt of eternal destiny in Christ–makes fortitude possible. As my daddy used to say—“Check your shirt, Billy. If there’s no blood on it, you’re all right.” We have been all right so far, and we always will be—far better than just all right. In this world the smart money is always on evil. But you and I have a tip from the stable. We have inside information. We know that because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus death is dying. Jesus has overcome the powers of darkness for us. And we will also rise.
So be of good cheer, beloved, and let me hear you call things by their right names. This is not the moment in time to keep our mouths shut. For us right now nothing is more important than to purposefully display the courage of Jesus. In the face of bloody-minded authorities and wicked institutions, both religious and political, he did not step back. Tyrants like Herod are not nice. Handing them sweeties just tends to make them worse. So when some Pharisees came to warn him of what was essentially a death threat, Jesus didn’t miss a beat—“Go tell that fox. . . .”
And you and I, in our own small ways, need to stand up against the evil powers we see at work around us. It is not recorded that Jesus was never cruel, but neither did he ever roll over and play dead either. And neither should we. Because what we fail to do and say in time, beloved, we will regret in eternity. We cannot waste our short years worrying about what other people might think of us. You know I have had reason before to scold you—and myself—for being too nice. Because niceness may render you harmless and liked by all, but it will not make you like Jesus. We are looking for a better crown than Miss Congeniality.
True bravery, which goes beyond mere daring, is a great mystery. We should by all rights be cowering under the covers, but it is inside us—the strength to go on and do what you know needs doing—the bravery to speak out against evil and cope with loss. So where in the world does fortitude come from? Well, from nowhere in this world, strictly speaking. It comes from somewhere else. True bravery is always a first degree miracle. And when we see it displayed in others or discover it in ourselves, we really should indeed marvel. Because it shouldn’t be there, but there it is.