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There is a great line from the movie The Princess Bride, delivered by beloved swordsman, Inigo Montoya. His words are a response to his boss, Vizzini, who is astonished at hero Westley’s repeated survival. Over and over again, Westley thwart’s Vizzini’s plans for his demise, and each time, Vizzini responds with the same flabbergasted cry: “Inconceivable!”
Finally, after Westley survives another one of Vizzini’s traps, and Vizzini again exclaims, “Inconceivable!” Inigo quips this memorable line:
“You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”
Inigo’s words are perfect for so many different word misuses. Like “literally,” or “ironic.” But there’s another word that’s reminded me of Inigo lately, and that word is courage.
But first, let me tell you where my head has been at this week.
It began with Ferguson. Following my post on Ferguson I noticed a common critique of the protests, one that reveals a basic misunderstanding of how racism and racial injustice manifests in our day. These critics argue that hate-fueled racism is mostly a thing of the past, and I think there is a kernel of truth to that. However, they are missing something crucial about racial injustice today: the thing that threatens the safety and lives of minorities in our country is not always hate. More often, it’s fear.
White Americans are afraid of young black men–afraid to see them on their streets, in front of their houses, or outside their cars in certain parts of town–and that fear is what endangers black men. Because sometimes, fear is just as destructive as hate.
On top of my thoughts about Ferguson, a friend of mine shared the story of a homeless man who walked into a local church preschool last week. He was looking for the pastor because he wanted some food, but his presence sent some parents into a panic. One woman called the police.
As a mom, I am completely sympathetic to those parents’ fears. In an age of school shootings we must do our best to keep our kids safe. And yet, something about the parents’ response felt wrong. Don’t we want the homeless to know that church doors are always open? Don’t we want them to come to the church for help? Isn’t that the very reason churches exist?
Between those two events, I’ve been thinking a lot about the problem of fear–in our country, and in our hearts. We often conceive of fear as a personal struggle, that God commands “do not fear” for our own personal good and happiness. And to some extent it is.
But those two stories illustrated for me the important truth that, ultimately, fear’s primary target isn’t our happiness. Fear targets something far more destructive:
1. Our love of God
2. Our love of Neighbor
Just think about Peter abandoning Jesus during his time of greatest need: fear.
Or when Abraham gave his wife to King Abimelech, lying and saying that she was his sister: fear.
Peter’s fear impaired his love for God, and Abraham’s fear impaired his love for his neighbor (who also happened to be his wife). Because that’s what fear does. Ever so subtly, fear goes after the the two greatest commandments, and as long as we feel safe and sound in our comfortable lives, we may never even notice it.
That’s why I’ve stumbled a bit over the trendiness of words like “courageous” and “brave.” Every time I read a quote challenging women to be brave, or commending women on their courage, I wonder, “What exactly are we talking about here?” When we talk about courage, are we challenging women to overcome the fear that keeps them from loving God and loving others, or are we giving an empty pep talk designed to make people feel better about themselves?
That’s not to say that some Christians leaders aren’t challenging women to genuinely courageous lives. Some are. But sometimes, the way Christians talk about courage sounds more like self-help jargon than it does a call to take up one’s cross and die.
That’s why we need to be thoughtful and intentional about the word “courage.” When courage is just a trendy term, we risk these two mistakes:
1. Overshadowing the other virtues. More often than not, the every day living out of life requires not courage but virtues like patience, perseverance, faithfulness, or self-control. And yet, few of us aspire to be “women of self-control”. That’s not a great rallying cry, and it’s certainly not a message that sells books. But self-control, and all the other fruit of the spirit, is just as important. We are not only called to the exciting virtues, but the quiet ones too.
2. Ignoring our deeply rooted, destructive fears. When courage is just a vague notion of “going out there” and “not letting anyone keep you down”, it has almost nothing to do with biblical courage. We know what courage is because Jesus was the embodiment of it. Though he was afraid of his impending death, he laid himself down out of love for God and love for us. For Christians, that is our paradigm for courage.
Christ’s example compels us to look deep into our hearts and ask, Which fears keep me from loving God and loving others sacrificially? Is it a fear about my finances? A fear of rejection? My children’s well-being? My future? My safety? Is it a fear of being exposed? Or a fear of letting people down?
Once we start digging into those questions and identifying our deepest fears, then we can begin the work of really living courageously. But as long as we subscribe to a dumbed down notion of courage, one whose only real qualification is being a decent human being, we will never do the hard work of excavating those fears.
Fear is one of the Enemy’s greatest tools of destruction, so let’s be clear-eyed about what’s at stake here. When God commands “do not fear,” it is not a self-serving instruction. Courage is one of the most powerful ways we love God and others, so let’s be courageous indeed.