By Pastor Glenn Pease
Max Lucado in his book In The Eye Of The Storm tells the true story of poor Chippie. Chippie was a pet bird just peacefully perched in his cage when all of the sudden life was changed into a living nightmare. It all began when Chippie's owner decided to clean his cage with a vacuum cleaner. She had just stuck the end of the hose into the cage when the phone rang. She turned to pick it up, and as she said, "Hello," she heard a strange sound in the cage. She looked, and Chippie was gone. He had gotten sucked into the vacuum. She gasped, put down the phone, turned off the vacuum, and opened the bag. There was Chippie. He was alive but stunned by his involuntary flight into utter darkness.
He was covered with dust, and so she grabbed him and ran to the bathroom. There she held him under running water. When she realized he was soaked and shivering she got her hair dryer, and blasted him until he was dry. Now you know what I mean by poor Chippie. He never knew what hit him. In a matter of minutes he had been through more trauma then most birds see in a lifetime. A few days later the owner was asked how the bird was doing, and she replied, "Chippie doesn't sing much anymore. He just sits and stares.
As we look at Paul, the jail bird, we are looking at a man who has been through great trauma as well. He has been sucked up into a vast legal system where he is a mere pawn between the major players of Judaism and Rome. To make matters worse, it is not just his enemies he has to put up with, but his friends are also trying to take advantage of his imprisonment to further their own careers. But unlike Chippie Paul is not singing less, and just staring at the prison walls. He is rejoicing, and looking ahead to a greater life in time, and a glorious life in eternity. Paul is an incurable optimist because he cannot lose. For him to live is Christ, and to die is gain, and so no matter which way the ball bounces, he wins. No matter how much Paul was put through the mill, he never stopped rejoicing. He said to others, "Rejoice in the Lord always," and he practiced what he preached.
Paul was honest about his emotions, and he tells us in verse 20 that he did have some fear that he would fail his Lord, and be ashamed to stand fast if it would cost him his life. Paul was not a computer program to smile even when the roof was caving in. He was a man, and he had his weaknesses, and though he expected to pass the test, he knew it would take a lot of courage. Paul was going through what we all do when we think of being put to the ultimate test of our faith. What if a gunman said, "Deny Jesus as your Lord, or I will pull this trigger." We all sweat with self-doubt as we ask, "What would I do?" Would I have the courage to die for Jesus, or would I hang my head in shame as I denied Him? Cowardice or courage-which will it be? Paul says that he hopes he would not be a coward, but have the courage to exalt his Lord by either life or death.
We do not face the same pressure as Paul did, but the fact is, everyone of us faces the alternative constantly between cowardice or courage. Let's look at these two forces that hinder or help us to be what God wants us to be. First consider,
Shakespeare said, "Cowards die many times before their death. The valiant never taste of death but once." His point being that the fear of death that cowards feel makes them taste of death over and over. The courageous, however, only have to taste it when it actually comes. Cowardice is a paradox, for the cowardly fears to suffer, but by so doing he suffers far more than the courageous. By trying to avoid suffering he actually multiplies his suffering.
Cowardice brings on itself more of the very thing that it fears. For example: If I do not have the boldness to tell my peers that I do not take drugs because of my Christian conviction, they will keep bugging me to do so, and I will have to go through the cowardly agony over and over of figuring out how to avoid it. I have to keep faking excuses, and being hypocritical. I add to the problem more misery than anybody seeks to lay on me, but it is all self-inflicted, because I am ashamed to confess with my mouth that I want to honor Christ with my body.
One bold and courageous confession of your Christian convictions can solve a mass of problems. But because of cowardice, and fear to speak out, Christians go through great agony in trying to please both God and the world. Jesus said it cannot be done, for you cannot serve two masters. Your cowardice will lead you to compromise with the world. And God will not be pleased, and neither will you. The world, the flesh, and the devil will be pleased with cowardice, but God will not, and you will add to your own pain.
Peter turned coward and denied he even knew Jesus. Paul expresses concern that he not be ashamed if he has to take a stand at great personal cost. The point we need to see is, every Christian, at some point in their life, is going to be tempted to be a coward. The best defense against this is to be aware of the yellow streak that is in all of us. The fear of pain and suffering; the fear to be rejected and made ashamed, is common to all. We have enough fears to make us fail in almost any trial. We are wise if, like Paul, we admit our weaknesses, and recognize our limitations. It is not being honest about our potential cowardice that will lead us to make the very mistakes we most fear.
This happened to Beethoven. He was ashamed to admit he was going deaf. Everyone else knew it, and they tried to advise him not to conduct a performance of Fidelio. He would not admit his limitation, but went ahead and created a disaster. The orchestra got ahead of the vocalist, and soon there was total confusion. He threw down his baton, and rushed from the building. He was later found on a sofa with his head between his hands shaking with sobs. It was a painful experience from which he never fully recovered. He died with hope, however, for his last words were, "I shall hear in heaven." It was his cowardice and fear to face his handicap, however, that lead to failure in time, and it was unnecessary suffering. He could have been spared this burden had he been willing to acknowledge his weakness.
If Peter would have said, "I have a fear of being accused of being guilty. I feel shame when I am identified with a failing cause. I had better stay back and see what is happening," he could have avoided his cowardly denial. But oblivious to his weakness, he stomps right into the presence of Christ's enemies, and is forced to reveal his yellow streak. We do not always have a choice. Paul did not, for he was a prisoner. But we often do, and we need to avoid situations where we know our weaknesses will lead us to be cowards. If you are a chicken to say no, then you just don't go to places where you will be asked to do what you know is not God's will for you. Be honest about your potential cowardice, and you will be better prepared to either avoid it, or be courageous to make the right choice. Paul faced his potential cowardice, and was confident he could control it, and when the test came he could exhibit courage. Let's look at his-
The primary focus of Paul is on boldness of speech. The area where most Christians become cowardly is right here on this issue of speech. Christians can boldly boast of their love of sports, or their love of the theatre, or any number of loves, but when it comes to the love of God, and the love of His Word, they freeze up and turn as yellow as a dandelion. You would never dream that Paul would ever struggle with this, but the fact is, a verbal defense of the Gospel, when it can hurt you, and embarrass you, calls for the same kind of courage as that of the soldier who is ordered to advance when machine gun bunkers are just ahead. It takes heroic boldness.
The Greek word Paul uses here is PARRHESIA. It is a word the Greeks loved, for it represented one of the essential characteristics of their democracy-freedom of speech. A Greek citizen had the same rights as you and I have in our democracy. They could speak out and disagree with the leaders of the land. If we do not like a policy of the President, we can boldly go on T.V. or radio, or write to the editor, and say in public that we think it is all wrong. We can be so bold because it is a right, and the President cannot send police to shut us up, as is the case in some countries where there is not such right. The Greeks said, bring your complaints to the officials with PARRHESIA, that is, boldness, and with a spirit of courage rather than cowardice. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all saw this as a key virtue of their society. This sense of freedom to speak boldly. They also wrote of its abuse where people insult and say shameful things, and use their tongue as a cruel weapon to do harm. Like every virtue, it can be misused, and become a vice.
In the New Testament this word is used over and over to represent courage and boldness in speech. Jesus said to the High Priest when he was arrested, "I have spoken openly to the world, I always taught in synagogues or at the temple...I said nothing in secret." John 18:20. The word PARRHESIA is here translated openly. Jesus was saying that he taught boldly in public, and not in cowardly secrecy. Jesus did not go about like a secret society with whispers and code language with hidden messages. He spoke openly and courageously, and not behind anyone's back. This is what Paul wants in his life. He wants the ability to come right out and boldly speak forth his faith in Christ, and not become weak, and back off denying that he knew Christ, as Peter did in his weakness.
Paul was aware that he was a model for other Christians. He was the first Apostle to the Gentile world. He would, by his behavior, set the precedent for all future generations of Christians. George Washington was in this same boat as the first President of the U.S. He was fully aware of how his behavior would effect the rest of history in this nation. He wrote, "Few who are not philosophical spectators can realize the difficult and delicate part which a man in my situation had to act....I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent."
Washington was not only courageous on the battlefield, but also in the life of his country. He set the pattern for the leaders of our nation. He was a firm believer in Christ, and a man of prayer who sought God's guidance in his decisions. This bold faith of his made it impossible for an ungodly man to ever reach that high office. Had he been a wimp of a Christian, or no Christian at all, the whole history of our nation's leadership could have been different. He boldly lead the way, and though you may not agree with the faith or the methods of the leaders of our land, you will note that there are none who dare to deny the Christian faith. That is why Washington is the subject of millions of sermons, and why thousands have taken on his name. Some of them have been very famous, such as George Washington Carver, and Booker T. Washington. According to the Smithsonian, "In 1800 "Federal City" became formerly known as Washington, D. C. By 1932, the bicentennial of George Washington's birth, his name had been conferred upon one American state, 32 countries, nearly 400 cities and townships, ten lakes, seven mountains, and a host of schools and colleges. Streets and highways, parks and monuments."
Most of us have heard the story of Washington and the cherry tree, but I want to share the details, for they illustrate the courage that Paul is writing about. Mason Locke Weems wrote the biography of Washington that was read by millions in the early 1800's. The story that has become legendary is the one of 6 year old George damaging one of his father's favorite trees. "George," said his father, "Do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry-tree yonder in the garden?" This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but...with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, "I can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet." "Run to my arms, you dearest boy," cried his father in transports, "Run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is worth more than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold."
The courage to be honest when this could be what leads to personal pain is what Paul hoped to demonstrate, and this is what we see in Washington as a boy, and all through his life. He lived and died a courageous man because, like Paul, he could say, for me to live is Christ and to die is gain. Courage is based on certainty. If you have no assurance about the future, it is hard to take any kind of risk. Uncertainty makes cowards of us all. A Night to Remember is the story of the supposed unsinkable Titanic. The author, at the end of the book, says, "People have never been sure of anything since." When the Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff at the Kennedy Space Center, a lot of people went through this Titanic syndrome again. How can you be sure of anything? Life is just full of risks. This is true, and Paul felt it too as he writes, "I hope I will not fail my Lord, and be ashamed to stand boldly for Him." Paul had a twinge of self-doubt, but he quickly recovers, for he is certain of two things that make it impossible for him to lose-to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
Paul was certain that if he lived he would be a channel of Christ likeness in the world, and he was certain that if he died, it would not be a loss but a gain, for being with Christ can never be less than even the best this life has to offer. Death is a promotion for those in Christ. Paul could face the future with a sense of optimism because whatever his handicap, as long as he is alive, he is a tool Christ can use. If he died, he is a tool Christ will take to Himself. This kind of certainty and optimism makes a man courageous. History is filled with Christian people who had every right to be pessimistic, for they were handicapped and burdened with loads extremely unfair. David McKechnie in Experiencing God's Pleasure tells of some.
Tim Hansel, for example, was a big muscular man who loved to climb mountains. He fell one day and crushed several vertebrae in his back. He had to give up climbing with his body, but not his spirit. In his book, You Gotta To Keep Dancin, he wrote, "My life is filled with pain." But he adds, "I have learned that pain is either a prison or a prism. Pain is inevitable but misery is optional." Like Paul, he chose to not be miserable in his miserable situation. He chose instead to keep on dancin, for he is convinced Kenneth Caraway is right when he writes-
There is no box
Made by God
But that the sides can be flattened out
And the top blown off
To make a dance floor
On which to celebrate life.
Paul was in prison celebrating life. It was a privilege to be alive even in his miserable setting, deprived of freedom, because, no matter what life held, it was a channel by which Christ could make His presence felt in the world. Can you be that optimistic? Can you say that life is hard, and there are so many burdens to bear, but as long as I am alive this body and mind are tools Christ can use to make a difference. Just the way we handle our pain and frustration can bear witness, just as does Paul's dealing with his burdens.
Shakespeare in Othello has the evil Iago say to Cassio, "He hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly." We should feel some of this when we look at Paul's life. The beauty of his courageous commitment should make us feel at least homely in comparison, and motivate us to examine our lives to see if there is any measure of truth for us to say, "For me to live is Christ." History is filled with acts of great courage, but most of us feel like we will never have the chance to show such courage. Sir Irving Benson, for example, tells the story of John Simpson Kirkpatrick in his book The Man With The Donkey.
John was a plain private in the Australian Army in World War I. The allied forces suffered heavy casualties landing on Gollipoli. Wounded men were left to die because there was no means for transporting them. Kirkpatrick found a donkey and got the idea this animal could be an ambulance. For 24 days and nights he went up and down the shrapnel-swept gully putting wounded men on the donkey. He saved hundred lives. The Indians called him Bahadur, which means the bravest of the brave. It was inevitable that he would get killed, for he was in dangerous territory, and he did. In Melbourne, Australia you will find a statue of John and his donkey with a wounded soldier on the donkey's back. He was a man of great courage, and a hero.
The problem with this kind of courageous hero is, he makes the rest of us feel so inadequate. We cannot do what he did, for we will never have the chance, and so it is with hundreds of such heroic stories. But we are mistaken if we think that is the only way to be a courageous person. There is more than one kind of battlefield, and the warfare with evil is just as real as the physical battle. Paul was not wielding a sword, and cutting down Roman soldiers, and freeing captives. Paul was showing courage by taking a stand for Christ, and making every situation in his life a chance to witness for Christ. This is the kind of hero the kingdom of God needs.
It is the awareness that we are in warfare that will bring out the courage of the Christian. It is because we sense no urgency, as those in battle, that we get complacent and indifferent, and feel no call to be bold for Christ. We lose the sense of living in crisis, and so we feel no need for courage. Two of the greatest men the world has ever known were born in our country in the same month. The key to the greatness of Washington and Lincoln was that they were both engaged in warfare. They fought the Revoluntionary War, and the Civil War. Warfare is a setting that produces heroes. They were very different men, just as Paul was very different from most men, but they had this in common, that in their warfare they were determined to be courageous for Christ.