No Coward Souls
January 7, 1990 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | II Corinthians 4:1-18
The great apostle Paul writing in II Corinthians has this to say: “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.” Beautiful words on the part of the apostle? Perhaps. Yet, as A. J. Gossip once asked: “Who can challenge it?” Well, who can challenge it?
A quick look at Paul’s life will begin to illuminate the point.
I do not need to tell you that Paul was a most complex and controversial figure. He was capable of eliciting both the most intense loyalty and the most bitter opposition. He was accused of being cantankerous, judgemental, opinionated, and fiery-tempered—and at one time or another he was all of these things. He had a razor-sharp mind which he sometimes used to cut down those about him. He had a sandpaper personality which sometimes rubbed raw the sensitivities of others. Yet whatever else may be said of him, no one could ever accuse him of a lack of courage. He never once backed down in the face of physical danger. He himself spoke of being “often at the point of death”—not figuratively but literally. Five times he was lashed by the authorities to the very limits of the law; three times he was beaten by the Romans with rods; three times he was shipwrecked; once he was stoned and left for dead outside the gates of the city; and on one occasion he was set adrift for a night and a day upon the stormy, threatening waters of the Mediterranean Sea. He lived year after year with nagging pain, with unrelenting danger, and with unceasing hardship. Yet through it all, he would not be swayed from his course. Yes, Paul was no coward—and both friend and foe alike would acknowledge that.
Yet having made the point, let me go on to say that that kind of physical courage is not really so unusual in the long story of humankind. Physical courage to endure in the face of pain and hardship has been illustrated in the lives of countless numbers of individuals. There are a multitude of examples of a kind of clenched-teeth, set-jaw courage that closes its eyes and refuses to give in no matter what the circumstances. The Pass of Thermopylae in Greece carries the inscription of the last message of Leonidas and his Spartan band: “Tell Sparta you saw us lying here.” That speaks of the kind of courage and last-ditch gallantry of people who would not give in or give up the post regardless of the odds against them. It is there in Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade”:
Half a league, half a league
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of death
Rode the six hundred.
Theirs not to make a reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
It’s there in Pickett’s men at Gettysburg, streaming through the wheat field on a hot July day, breaking over the crest of Little Round Top where they were cut down in a scythe-like hail of bullets. That is the sort of physical courage we tend to immortalize in our songs, and ballads. And of course it can be awe-inspiring. It can add new dimensions to our appreciation of the human spirit. And make no mistake, Paul had more than his share of that kind of raw physical courage.
Yet here I need to clarify the point.
There is more to the valor of the human spirit than blank-eyed, grim-faced determination not to give in. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians “We do not lose heart; we are not cowards,” he was not referring to physical endurance at all. Instead, he was writing about the courage of being committed to something, the courage of his convictions and his faith, the courage of a dedication to the service of God. He said “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.” His valor was intertwined with his commitment and service to Christ. In other words, Paul was saying that the secret of his courage was the fact that he was caught up in a purpose and captured by a larger meaning in life. Because he possessed Christ, and was possessed by Christ, he could face any challenge life set before him.
Sometimes I think we preachers would do better to offer from the pulpit fewer star-spangled, rocket-bursting promises of what God can do and give more attention to what God does do in everyday life. He gives grace to answer ordinary calls for courage like sometimes just getting out of bed in the morning. He provides the valor necessary for a person to maintain integrity in the marketplace when all of the pressure would make that person cave in. He gives an everyday sturdiness to life which enables us to make our “yes” mean “yes” and our “no” mean “no.” He enables us to put one foot in front of the other not just in meaningless movement, but in pursuing the path in life Jesus Christ has called us to follow. Paul puts it so plainly here in Corinthians. He says: “We have renounced disgraceful and under-handed ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word.” In other words Paul is saying, “In my life I’ll do it not my way—but God’s way.” He was not afraid to be his own person, to live his life with directness and openness, to live by the standards which God in Christ had set before him. That is real courage—that kind of courage which is rooted in faith in God.
But let me draw the point clearer still.
There’s a big difference between the kind of raw physical courage of which I spoke earlier and the kind of spiritual courage of which Paul is speaking here in II Corinthians. There is something admirable about both kinds of courage, to be sure. However, courage without faith is courage without hope. It is courage which cannot see God at work bringing some redemptive good out of the tragedies and the difficulties that come our way in life. Therefore, courage without faith may enable us to endure in the face of tragedy, but when our courage is intertwined with faith, we not only endure but we also overcome. We do not simply come through the onslaught, we triumph over it. As Paul put it: “We are afflicted in every way but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed.” In other words, when we lock our lives in faith to the power of Jesus Christ, nothing in this life, no matter how hard or hurtful, can ultimately defeat us.
I saw a bumper sticker on the back of a car the other day. It read: “Born to lose.” Well, my friends that attitude was stamped upon that fellow’s mind and heart long before he ever stuck it on his bumper. What a shame! Christians ought never to have such an attitude. We are not born losers. Rather in Jesus Christ, we are twice-born winners. Having been gripped by the mercy of God in Christ, we do not lose heart. Or as Paul put it so eloquently in another place: “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Or as Emily Bronte put it so beautifully in verse when, ravaged by tuberculosis and facing her own death, she wrote:
No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in this world’s storm-tossed sphere,
I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And my faith stands equal arming me from fear.
You see when courage arises out of faith, not only can we endure the tragedies and difficulties of life, but we can triumph over them.
A few years back the game “Trivial Pursuit” took American by storm. I suspect that most of you have played one form of that game or another. It is a game of facts and information, and it is great fun to play. Do you remember some of the questions?
- How many fingers did Anne Boleyn have?
- What was Hitler’s favorite movie?
- What Hollywood film star was a cousin to Lady Diana, the Princess of Wales?
You can see why the game is called “Trivial Pursuit.” It is full of information that doesn’t really matter. I am reminded of what T. S. Eliot once said: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” In other words, success at playing “Trivial Pursuit” is no indication of wisdom and it is no guarantee of triumphant, significant living. Nevertheless, once you hear the questions, you have an intense desire to find out the answers. In fact, some of you are probably worried right now that I am not going to give you the answers to those three questions and you’re going to have to hustle to your encyclopedias after church to find out. Just relax. I wouldn’t do that to you. Anne Boleyn, one of the wives of King Henry VIII, had eleven fingers; Hitler’s favorite movie was “King Kong;” and the seventh cousin of the Princess of Wales was Humphrey Bogart!
It’s fun to play “Trivial Pursuit,” but not with your life. Yet there are so many lives today being shipwrecked on trivial matters, foundering on circumstances that don’t really count, being lost in a sea of problems that could be overcome. The answer is found in the courage for living which comes from true faith in Jesus Christ. Paul was right. “Therefore, being engaged in the service of Jesus Christ by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.” We are not cowards. Why? Because Christ is in us and we are in Him forever.
My friends, there is nothing trivial about that! That is the greatest Good News the world has ever heard…