You can tell a lot about a culture by what they put in “scare quotes.” This year I have seen “conscience” and “religious liberty” more times than I can count. What’s interesting about these two particular phrases is that I’ve seen my more liberal friends using “religious liberty” and my conservative friends using “conscience.” In both cases, they have seen people marching outside of the mainstream and they use the scare quotes to mock the reasons they give for not falling into line with everyone else.
We don’t admire courage anymore; at least not real courage. In our culture, the quiet, settled resolve to do the right thing in the face of overwhelming opposition has been drowned in a sea of manufactured outrage. Outrage should not be confused with courage, even though it often tries to dress in courage’s clothing. Outrage bullies the courageous into silence. Courage quietly does the right thing and invites others to join in on the journey. Outrage demands that everyone fall in line or face its wrath. Courage points people in the right direction but doesn’t seek to impose its will on them. Outrage costs nothing because it joins a chorus of voices. Courage stands alone and knows that no price can be paid for a clear conscience. Outrage only lasts until the newest controversy comes along. Courage perseveres even when everyone else has moved on to other things.
In Proverbs 28:1, Solomon says that “The wicked flee when no one is pursuing, but the righteous are bold as a lion.” In this short Proverb Solomon contrasts the response of the righteous and the wicked in the face of adversity. The wicked run away from trouble even when no one is pursuing. Following the path of least resistance, they run headlong into the easy way. In our culture, getting outraged with the crowd is the easy way. Running away from facing real problems and joining in the deafening chorus addressing the latest manufactured crisis is the path of least resistance. Sending out a strongly worded tweet and signing online petitions feel like doing something courageous, but they are a cheap alternative.
“The righteous are bold as a lion.” There’s something interesting I’ve noticed about the lions at the zoo. We go several times a year, and I can count on one hand the times I have heard the lion roar. Often they are lying on a rock or quietly prowl around their cage, but I remember the times I have heard the roar because I hear the power behind it. The lion is quiet and majestic, but he means business when he bears his fangs and never backs down from a fight.
In the same way, the truly courageous do not have to make pretensions at courage. They possess it without pomp or circumstance. They have the willingness to take a principled stand without backing down, but they don’t go around picking fights. Courage doesn’t set out to be recognized or win acclaim, but it jumps into action when the right time comes.
The difference between the righteous and the wicked is not that one lives in fear and the other lives without it. They both live with a fear, but they fear different things and their fear has a different source. Solomon closed out the first paragraph of Proverbs by saying, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” The righteous person fears the Lord. He lives in a reverent awe of who God is and recognizes that every single step is lived before his ever-present eye.
Since the righteous person fears God, he has nothing else to fear. Since fearing the Lord is rooted in his sovereignty and power, the wise person knows there is nothing in the world that bless in the way that they Lord blesses or bring judgment in the way he brings judgment. The wise person acts with courage in the face of opposition because he knows whatever man may do to him pales in comparison to the devastating effects that would follow from being unfaithful to the Lord, but he also knows the blessings of obeying the Lord are infinitely more glorious than whatever gain might come from bowing before the wishes of a sinful world.
The wicked has a completely different kind of fear. With no fear of God before his eyes, his is a slave to the opinion of others and his own sinful appetites. He has to live in fear of rejection and want. The desire for the acclaim of man is so strong for him that a principled stand based on the truth alone is the farthest thing from his mind and heart. The truth is for sale, and it can be bought with money, a promotion, a slap on the back, or a retweet. Without the fear of God to guide him, he stays in a constant state of fear as he continually aims at the moving target of man’s praise. When the fear of losing man’s praise comes, he will flee before the real danger has even manifested itself. Unfortunately, he does not know that a far worse fate than what man can do awaits him.
In 2 Corinthians 5:6, Paul says, “So we are always of good courage.” The word he uses here for “courage” connotes a boldness and a confidence. Then he moves into a discussion about the ultimate hope and confidence a Christian has that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Paul risked himself so often for the sake of the Gospel and was willing to put himself at odds with so many people because he had a hope that was secure. Because Jesus offered him an inexpressibly glorious future, Paul risked life, limb, and reputation in this present evil age.
The days in which we live demand real courage. The pressure for Christians to cave on both Christian doctrine and Christian ethics becomes more intense every day as the perpetual outrage machine churns on. We may not be called to risk everything in exactly the way the Apostle Paul did or stand courageously like Martin Luther, but we will have a thousand little tests of courage along the way. Are we willing to have the difficult conversation? Do we hold the rope on historic Christian doctrine even when everyone tells us that we should abandon it? Will we refuse to wrap Christianity in the cheap garb of a hateful nationalism? These pressures and more will face us continually, and only when we remember the only one who should be feared that we will stand in the difficult day.
“Colin Kaepernick and the Perpetual Outrage Machine“
For Further Reading:
Onward by Russell Moore