Courage seems to be in short supply these days. And what is courage? Courage has been defined as bravery. It also has been defined as fear that has said its prayers. Being courageous is overcoming something. It was Mark Twain who said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.”
A courageous person is not one who is fearless. That is essentially a stupid person. A courageous person is someone who can control his or her fear and then do the right thing. It is overcoming the fear that you naturally have.
We certainly see courage on display among firefighters and those who are in law enforcement. Every day they put on their uniforms and put their lives at risk. And certainly our brave soldiers who are serving our country display courage every single day. We read periodically of acts of heroism. I wish we would read more about these things, because they happen all the time. But they are not in the headlines as often as they really ought to be.
I read an article awhile back about Pfc. Ross McGinnis, who served with the U.S. Army in Iraq. While perched on a gunner’s hatch of a Humvee that was carrying four of his fellow soldiers, a grenade whizzed past him. In a split second, McGinnis did the unthinkable. He shouted a warning to the others and threw himself on the grenade, absorbing its full impact. He was killed immediately, but he saved the lives of the four other soldiers. He was the fourth soldier in the Iraq war to be awarded the Medal of Honor. That is courage. McGinnis didn’t have time to think about what he was doing. He just did it.
There are other kinds of courage, too. There is moral courage. That is the ability to do right in the face of opposition or discouragement. Having moral courage means being an honest person. It means that you have integrity. It means that you don’t cheat on the test, you don’t cheat on your taxes, and you don’t cheat on your spouse. We need more moral courage today. Moral courage is honoring the vows you made to your wife or your husband. It takes courage to stand by your vows. It takes courage to stay sexually pure before marriage and to resist the temptations that come your way when you are married.
We all need courage in our lives. And none other than the apostle Paul needed a call to courage.
Paul was not afraid of death or even hardship. The only thing that Paul seemed to fear was the disapproval of God. How do you stop a man like that? Answer: You don’t. This is why God used him in such an amazing way. And that is why Paul and the others turned their first-century world upside down. But even Paul had moments of discouragement.
Paul had been determined to return to Jerusalem, even though he had been warned not to. And sure enough, he was arrested and thrown into prison. Then he was brought before the ruling religious party, and he gave a defense for himself. Next we read in Acts 23, “But the following night the Lord stood by him and said, ‘Be of good cheer, Paul; for as you have testified for Me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness at Rome'” (verse 11 NLT).
Paul’s middle name could have been trouble. There was never a dull moment with this guy. It was always something. But on this particular night, he seemed to be deeply discouraged. Why? Because the Lord came to him and said, “Be encouraged.”
We have to understand what Christ was saying to Paul. How could he be of good cheer in a cold, damp, dark dungeon? This would be the equivalent of someone coming up to you when you are really in pain and saying, “Hey, man, cheer up! Gray skies are going to clear up. Put on a happy face!” That is not a good thing to say to someone who is down. In fact, by saying that, you could actually make a person more miserable.
But Jesus wasn’t simply telling Paul to cheer up. The word used in this text for “cheer” is really not the best translation of the word. The fact is that cheerfulness is the outcome of what Jesus actually commanded. He did not command Paul to simply be cheerful or to smile. A better translation of what Jesus was saying would be, “Be of good courage.”
This is an interesting phrase that we see used a number of times in the New Testament. The first time we see it is in Matthew 9:2. There was a man who was a paraplegic, and he was carried by his friends into the presence of Jesus. Jesus saw this man and said, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” Then Jesus told him, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house” (verse 6 NKJV), and the man did it.
This shows us that God does His part and then we must do ours. God gives His forgiveness to us, and we must accept that forgiveness.
It also shows us that God’s power gives courage. His power will be there to help you in your time of need. Sometimes we wonder, What if I am tested above my ability to endure? What if I am tempted above my capacity to resist? You never will be, because God knows your breaking point. And He never will give you more than you can handle.
When I talk to people who are going through very difficult suffering, I find myself asking, Would I have the attitude they have if I was going through that? And, I don’t think I can do what they are doing right now. But if God were to ask you to do something, then He would give you the strength to do it.
It comes down to this: I would rather be in a jail – or in a storm, or in a hardship – with Jesus than anywhere else without him. A nice, happy place with Jesus is good, too. But the thing is that he is with us wherever we go. And that is what God was saying to Paul: You are not alone.
God is with us in the good times, and He is also with us in the bad times.