What Is the Line Between Courage and Foolishness?
Welcome back to another week on the Ask Pastor John podcast. David writes in to ask: “Dear Pastor John, in wake of recent terrorist attacks around the globe and the rise of violence targeted more or less directly at Christians, the daily reality of us, western Christians, is changing. We have been accustomed to relative peace and safety here in Europe, but it seems that times are quickly shifting. That which used to be considered reasonably safe is now becoming increasingly risky — like travel or attending a concert. This leads us to re-evaluate our behavior: should we just trust in God’s providence (maybe pray) and act as if nothing was happening, that is, continue our travel as before, continue to visit our favorite public venues as before, or is there some reasonable level of caution that we should apply? And in more general terms: what is the difference between wise biblical caution and a fearfulness of unbelief? To put it in another way: What marks the difference between courage and foolishness?”
The first principle that I would lay down is, the greater the cause, the greater the risk. God never calls us to risk our lives for meaningless or silly or merely recreational thrills. But he has regularly called his children to risk their lives and often lose their lives for the sake of the gospel or to bring blessing to other people. So that is the first thing to think about. When the cause is great, risks are warranted — great risks are warranted.
The second thing to ponder is that the Bible presents faithful discipleship as sometimes standing firm in the face of danger and other times fleeing to avoid danger. John Bunyan wrote a whole book about this called Counsel to Sufferers in which he shares his own struggle about whether to stay in jail for preaching the gospel or to get out of jail and take care of his family, which he could have done, and, thus, minimized the risks to their lives.
And he pointed out that the Bible allows for sometimes standing and suffering and other times fleeing and avoiding suffering. And it seems to me that he is right that there is no clear, biblical rule that has any precision, anyway, for when to do the one and when to do the other, except, maybe as the Spirit leads.
Sometimes faith stands in the face of threat, like how when Paul was stoned in Lystra, he gets up and goes right on to preach in Derbe (Acts 14:19–22). And you want to say: Paul, going to meet the same mobs a few miles away? Come on. Take a vacation or take a break. And he doesn’t.
Or, Paul escaped from Damascus in a basket through the window because he was not going to face down those enemies at the gate who were ready to kill him (Acts 9:23–25). So why escape through a window one day and walk right into danger another day?
We might find some guidance if we ponder a few other things. For example, we should ask: Is our fleeing or, in general, our caution for the sake of advancing the gospel and helping people to see the value of the gospel and believe the gospel? Or is our fleeing, or our caution, simply an expression of our instinctive desire for self-preservation? I am not saying that it is always wrong to act for self-preservation. Clearly it isn’t, in view of what we just saw from Paul. I am asking us to test our hearts as to whether we are being motivated merely by self-preservation or whether the advancement of the gospel and the glorification of Christ are figuring significantly in the choices that we are making when we pursue caution. That is what I know. I am just pushing to consider seriously those higher goals rather than just self-preservation.
Or another factor we might ask — and I base this question on 1 Peter 3:15 — does our behavior in caution or risk, does our behavior tend to encourage people to ask us about our hope and why it is in heaven? First Peter 3:15 says, “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” Why do people ask about the reason for your hope? And it is because your behavior, your attitude, your joy in difficult situations look as though you have a treasure that is different from theirs. Theirs is in money and safety and security and health and family, and you seem to act with such courage and abandon and freedom and joy in the midst of danger. Where is your hope? And I am saying that it wouldn’t hurt for us to ask the question whether our lifestyle and our attitudes are the kind of thing that might cause someone to ask about our hope in heaven.
And the last thing to say would be that we seriously consider this biblical truth; namely, fearlessness in the face of danger is a great witness to the reality of Christ. And I see that in 1 Peter 3:5–6 where wives are told to be fearless. But I read it recently in the book The Insanity of God a story about a 24-year-old widow with a Muslim background, a convert, Aisha, who was arrested for being so outspoken in her Islamic town and put in the basement of the police station’s unfinished cellar.
At the point where she felt she could stand it no more and was about to scream, instead, to her surprise, out of her mouth came a heart song of praise to Christ. And as she sang in the dark cellar, silence happened upstairs and she could tell they were listening. That night the police chief came down and said that he was taking her home on one condition: “You must come to my house in three days.” And then he said, this is a direct quote from the book: “I don’t understand. You are not afraid of anything. My wife and daughters and all the women I know are afraid of everything. You are not afraid of anything. I want you to come to my house so that you can tell everyone why you are not afraid. And I want you to sing that song.”
So even though the Bible doesn’t draw a simple, precise line between wise biblical caution and fearfulness or unbelief, it seems to me it certainly encourages us to lean in the direction of going about our business joyfully, peacefully, in faith in God’s sovereignty, rather than acting in fearful ways.