Courage by John Burke – League of Ordinary People

At Gateway Church in Austin we are going through a 3 part series to help with character development. Inspired by Uprising: A Revolution for the Soul by Erwin McManus, we are tackling the following three topics:

  • Captain Status Quo: The Courage to Face Monday
  • Epic Mom: Real Wisdom in a Busy World
  • Cubicle Guy: Generosity on a Budget

John Burke shared at the McNeil campus, and I shared at the South campus the following message:

How would you define courage?  We know it when we see it, but what is it—really?  What does it look like in its greatest, purest, most admirable form?  We know courage when we see it in heroes, when we hear about it on the news, but is courage only required in times of war or life and death situations?  Or is courage required even of us? What does it mean to have everyday courage?

According to Webster’s dictionary, “courage” is “having a mental or moral strength to resist opposition, hardship or danger.”  Have any opposition, hardships, or threats of danger with which you’re struggling?  If so, you need an everyday courage!  Sometimes the greatest acts of courage come in simply standing up for what you believe even in the face of opposition.

Ruby Bridges was an elementary-age kid who lived in New Orleans. About the time she started school, a federal judge said the schools in that city had to open their doors to African-American children. Every day, little Ruby Bridges would kiss her mom goodbye and march off to school. Only she had two federal marshals walking in front of her, and two federal marshals walking behind her. She needed them because she had to walk through a crowd of people, and they shook their fists at her, yelled at her, and they threatened her and her family if she kept coming back to school. Every morning, at ten minutes to eight, Ruby Bridges walked past all those people, with her head up, her eyes straight ahead. She walked into that empty school building to learn. Then she went home. Every day.

What’s amazing about her is not just that she kept coming back. What’s really amazing about her is how she did it. The white schoolteacher described what she saw when Ruby walked into school. She said, “I saw a woman spit at Ruby, but miss. Ruby smiled at her. I saw a man shake his fist at her, and Ruby smiled at him. Then she walked up the stairs, and she stopped at the building, and she turned and looked at the crowd, and she smiled one more time. Do you know what she told one of the marshals? She told him she prays for those people — the ones in the mob — every night before she goes to sleep.” A little first-grade girl kneeling by the side of her bed, God bless those people who are mad at me. Help them God. Then the next morning, the little six-year-old girl gets up, kisses her mom and dad goodbye, and walks to school with two U.S. marshals in front, and two behind.

There’s a Harvard psychiatrist by the name of Robert Coles who wanted to know what could create that kind of courage, that kind of heart in a six-year-old girl. He left Harvard and went to New Orleans to interview her and her family. He found that conventional psychiatric, psychological language could not explain this girl and her courage. He wrote a book called “The Moral Life of Children.” In it this is what this non-believing Harvard psychiatrist said about this little girl, Ruby Bridges, about what made her the way she was:  He said, “If I had to offer an explanation, I think it would start with the religious tradition of black people, which is of far greater significance than many white observers have tended to allow. In home after home I’ve seen Christ’s teachings, Christ’s life, connected to the lives of black children by their parents.”  This Harvard psychiatrist came down to New Orleans to look at this amazing thing and said, “I think it’s Jesus.”

God calls all of us to lead courageous lives – a courage required to love when it’s hard, to do the right thing in the face of opposition, to live out what you believe and show moral courage even when persecuted.  It’s a courage we all need, everyday.  But how do we become Courageous people?  Jesus did show us the path. Let’s look at it outlined in Philippians 2

3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name. (Philippians 2:3-9)

Jesus shows us the path to developing courageous character. Courage is not something you can just grit your teeth and produce. You can’t just muscle out courage. Courage comes from what’s within. So if what’s within is fear—fear that you won’t have enough, fear that people will make fun of you, fear that you’ll get hurt again, fear that people won’t like you, fear that you won’t be important or successful—if fear rules your heart—in the heat of the moment, when courage is required to do the right thing in the face of opposition, you’ll hesitate. You’ll waiver. You’ll give in to fear.  You’ll fear disapproval, so you’ll do what others want rather than what God wants. You’ll fear losing money, so you’ll give in to greed over generosity. You’ll fear not being loved, so you’ll give in to moral pressure rather than respecting yourself.

The path toward Courage is Humility.  Emptying yourself of yourself. Taking your eyes off yourself—dying to self, so you may truly live.  Jesus showed us the way.  This passage in Phil 2 is known in academic/theological circles as the Kenosis passage—Kenosis is the greek word “to empty.”  Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing [Kenosis—to empty himself] by taking the very nature of a servant…. (Phil 2:6-7)  

Our society teaches us to focus on Self—Your rights, your entitlements, the service you deserve, nobody’s gonna look out for you but you—right!? Yet God does the opposite!

If anybody has rights—it’s the Creator and Owner of Everything—right? Yet Jesus demonstrated something about the heart and character of God that flies in the face of a self-centered world. Jesus had the right to be served, but he emptied himself of that right to be a servant.  Jesus had the right to use his power to destroy His enemies—yet He used his power to heal, even people who didn’t believe.  He had the right to be treated as royalty, as God—yet He emptied himself of those rights even letting himself be mistreated—why? For your sake, for mine.

If we ever want to be courageous human beings, we must follow Jesus. We must take our eyes off ourselves and put them first on God, then on others. There’s no other way to become courageous. You must empty yourself of self-protection, self-sufficiency, self-promotion, or just self-preoccupation (what do others think of me?). You can’t muster up courage—but you can take your eyes off yourself, and put them on God.

This doesn’t mean you won’t feel afraid. Everyone feels fear at times—fear of ruin, fear of failure, fear of job loss, fear of rejection, fear death. We all feel afraid. The question is what do you do then?  Do you look to self or do you look to God? Do you trust your own ways, or do you trust God’s ways?

God doesn’t start with courageous people, He starts with fearful people who will look to Him—then He makes them courageous.  God never takes away the fear, or the danger, or threat—He promises something else.  Look where people faced real enemies, real threat of death, or persecution, or threats…look what He says:

  • To Moses and the Hebrew Slaves facing opposition: Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6
  • Joshua leading people into battle: Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9
  • David also said to Solomon his son, “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you….” 1 Chronicles 28:20
  • Hezekiah when being attacked by enemies: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or discouraged because of the king of Assyria and the vast army with him, for there is a greater power with us than with him.”
  • So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. Isaiah 41:10

There are around 365 verses saying “Do not fear?”  One for each day of the year. Courage does not come from shoving down your fear—it comes from looking to God who is with you. His answer to all our fears is always the same—I am with you, so don’t fear.  How does that help?  Because we can let go of self-protection if God is with us and we know we are ultimately safe. The worst thing people can do is kill my body—but that’s gonna happen anyway—they can’t kill my soul. God’s got me. He’s with me. So I can empty myself of self-protecting fears that just hold me back.  I can focus on God, and do what He wants for the sake of others.

So emptying yourself of self, leads to humility, which leads to courage. I love the way Erwin McManus ties these ideas together in his book Uprising: A Revolution of the Soul :

“Courage is not the absence of fear it’s the absence of self. Courage is the highest expression of humility. Courage moves us to risk ourselves for the sake of others or a higher cause. Courage allows us to live free from self-preservation and to live generously creative lives. Courage frees us from the fears that would rob us of life itself.”

—Erwin McManus

Jesus emptied himself of his “rights” and then humbled himself by becoming obedient to God’s will.  That’s the other pre-requisite to living a Courageous life. Humility. “He humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:8) Ironically, God is the most humble of all – He demonstrated that in Christ.  And what the world needs are not more arrogant, proud, self-centered Braggarts but people who have a Courage that comes from Humility. Like this passage in Philippians says Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Phil. 2:3-4)

Humility is not self-deprecation. “Oh, I’m nothing—it’s all God.”  That’s often false humility.  Humility is seeing yourself accurately.  The good and the bad.  The gifts and the Gift-giver. God created you as His Masterpiece—in His Image.  You were made to be like God.  But to become true children of God, we have to give up trying to BE God.

Humility calls us to submit ourselves to the One Who is most humble of all. God is God—which by definition means Ruler of the Universe. So if I’m going to see myself accurately—humbly—I must not try to usurp God’s role. That means I must submit my will to His will.  I must obey God rather than trying to get God to obey me. The difficulty in this comes not when we agree with God, but when we do not agree. Living a life of genuine submission to God when it’s convenient, or easy, or we are in agreement – that’s not humility or submission.  The real test that takes courage is when we don’t agree – when we don’t like what God says because it goes contrary to our personal interests or desires. That’s where true Moral Courage is formed—one small step of simple obedience at a time.

This is the path Jesus walked.  As a human, He actually had choices and decisions just like we do. He was actually tempted to take the easy way out, to gratify his fleshly desires against God’s will. Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered. Hebrews 5:8 

You want to be a Courageous person, one who can make a true difference in this world for good.  courage grows decision by decision?  When we humble ourselves by submitting to God—we give up Playing God. In other words, if God says “This is my will—follow it.” And I say “That’s not easy—or that my cause financial loss—or I may be rejected and made fun of—or what if I never find a husband or wife because of Your will?”  See these are all fears that arise from self-focus. Don’t focus on self, focus on God—is He good? Yes!  Does He have your best interest in mind? Absolutely! Does He want good things for you in this life and for all eternity? That’s His promise. Can He be trusted?  Has anyone else loved you enough to die for you?

Then let go of controlling the future—humble yourself, submit to God, be strong and Courageous and just do the next right thing.  You’ll be amazed at what happens. You’ll find a new freedom. A Courageous freedom that grows with each decision and makes you stronger and stronger from the inside out.  Where do you need Everyday Courage right now?  Some of you need Everyday Relational Courage.

If someone hurts you or somehow damages your relationship with them, what do you do?  Do you take the path of least resistance or the path of courage?  The path of least resistance–you stuff it and act nice on the outside, all the while distancing yourself from them on the inside?  But it kills the relationship.  The path of Courage—you ask God’s Spirit to help you let go of “your rights”—let go of self. Think about them and the relationship. Ask God to give you the strength to express kindly what’s bugging you with the intent of reconciliation.

The kind of courage some of you need right now is relational courage.  To overcome your fear of how they might respond, or being misunderstood, and look to God:  “Be strong and courageous, do not be a relational wimp, why?  Because God will be with you.”

The second kind of everyday courage we need is Moral Courage.  This is the courage to do the right thing, even though we know there may be opposition or hardship or even danger.  Again, it’s the kind of courage God is looking for in ordinary people.  Courage demonstrated by doing the right thing morally, even if it’s not popular.  Even if you get demoted.  Even if it means monetary sacrifice.  Even if it means losing the relationship.  You see—it takes courage. Because Courage means facing down you fears of what others think, or of what others might do to you for doing what you know is right.  But that’s what our world needs—Leaders, not more Pawns. Courageous People like Ruby—who are not afraid to go against societal norms, so that society can be set free.

For some of you, that means deciding to honor God’s will sexually.  But there’s real fear, isn’t there? Fear of rejection, fear of being alone, fear of never being loved. Or maybe you must decide to not cut ethical corners when everybody else is. But there’s fear—what if I get fired, what if we can’t compete? But you have to realize—this is a test. Will you give in to fear, or will you trust that God is With You—that’s He’s got your best interest in mind. He’s got a way to shape you into a person who would be worthy of the kind of person you’re looking for. He wants to trust you with more success and responsibility if you’re trustworthy—but you must empty yourself, look to Him, and have the Courage to do what He says. Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name. (Phil. 2:9)  He wants to do the same for you.  Those who humble themselves, He says in due time, He will lift you up.  He will exalt you. He will give you a name that will last.

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