“In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” (Jn 16:33)
February 2019 marks the fourth anniversary of the brutal murder of 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians by Daesh or ISIS in Libya. It is difficult to forget the video of ISIS fighters marching these Egyptian Christians along the beach in orange prison suits.
What is not widely known is that during the 43-day captivity before their executions these Christians were given the choice to live if they would reject their faith and embrace Islam. They refused.1 In the face of death, these Christians—many of whom hailed from poor villages and towns in Upper Egypt—acted with extraordinary courage and remained faithful till the very end.
The great theologians of the Church—from Augustine in the fifth century to Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth—have produced erudite tomes about Christian courage. Alongside wisdom, temperance and justice, courage is one of the four cardinal virtues, so called because they are foundational to the spiritual life.
Christian courage must never be confused with acts of bravado or even bravery. As the 20th century Christian theologian and philosopher, Josef Pieper, explains, “The virtue of fortitude has nothing to do with a purely vital, blind, exuberant daredevil spirit.” 2
The Christian faith does not champion valour in itself. Neither does it urge Christians to suffer injury for its own sake. As Augustine said, “it is not the punishment but the cause that makes the martyr.”3
The cause for which the Christian must have the courage to suffer and even to die for is not a doctrine, a religious institution or a revered religious tradition, but a person—Jesus Christ, his Saviour and Lord. Christian courage therefore has to do with Christians’ resolve to stand firm in their faith in Christ in the face of opposition, hostility, ridicule, threats, persecution, danger and even death.
Such courage is required not only of martyrs. Ordinary Christians are also called to display this virtue because it requires fortitude to be a faithful disciple of Christ in this sin-marred world.
There are numerous forces at work in our culture that could cow Christians into concealing their faith or acting against their convictions. These forces, which some writers have called “cultural intimidators”, are everywhere—in our homes, at our workplaces, in public spaces, and even in the church—pressurising Christians to “conform to the patterns of this world” (Rom 12:2).
It takes courage to live our lives for God instead of for the world’s approval or applause. It takes courage for a Christian scientist to refuse to participate in experiments that would result in the destruction of a human embryo; for a Christian politician to speak up against injustice and against social policies that would erode public morality; for a pastor to refuse to acquiesce to the secularising forces at work in the church today and pander to the latest fad.
The Christian can only muster such resolute courage when he puts his faith in Jesus Christ. Christian fortitude is possible only when we entrust our lives to the One who has overcome the world and draw strength from Him alone.
As the late Pontiff John Paul II so powerfully put it:
There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us. There is no enemy that Christ has not conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not bear with us… This is our faith. This is our witness before the world.4
1 For a riveting account of these martyrs and their faith, see Martin Mosebach, The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2019).
2 Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues (New York: Pantheon Books, 1955), 124.
3 Augustine, Sermon 328, “On the Birthday of Some Martyrs.”
4 Homily of His Holiness John Paul II, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Baltimore, 8 October 1995, https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/1995/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19951008_baltimore.html.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).
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