“For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.” That line was from today’s reading from the Second Letter to Timothy. Boy, that phrase “a spirit of cowardice” jumped out at me. As the passage continues, its meaning is obvious in the larger context: “So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord,
nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God.” In other words, be prepared to draw on your courage and strength of Spirit to spread the good news about Jesus, even if it may lead to bad times.
However, I kept turning over that “spirit of cowardice” phrase in my mind – especially as it pairs in contrast with “power and love and self-control.” Since such cowardice is not God, it’s perhaps helpful to reflect on what it might be, so we can better recognize, avoid, and – if need be – extinguish it from our hearts. So, how might a spirit of cowardice manifest?
The obvious way would be to do nothing, staying mum about the Gospel, not spreading the truth. This is perhaps the most common way that Christians fail to live up to their obligations; it’s all too easy to keep quiet and not say anything, even when opportunities present themselves. And, of course, someone consumed by a spirit of cowardice would be even less likely to actively seek opportunities to spread God’s love. But what other ways might such a spirit manifest?
Anyone who’s ever seen children act on stage – as part of a pageant, school function, or other mandatory appearance – has seen at least one young person who does not want to be there. Such a child gets into position, says their lines as quickly as possible – almost certainly mumbling, looking down, or otherwise unengaged – and scurries off stage like a terrified mouse.
I’ve seen other Christians try to spread the Word in a similar way, saying their piece as quickly as possible and then retreating from the situation or otherwise shutting down. God bless such folks; at least they’re trying! Courage and conviction can come from practice and prayer. But we should still remain conscientious of that potential cowardice that would seek to dampen our words, lest it stifle our efforts entirely.
Yet, there’s another way in which I think I’ve seen the “spirit of cowardice” try to take hold. I suspect we’ve all known people who do what they can to shout down their opposition, intimidate people who disagree with them, and bully others into acquiescence. In many cases, such people are actually cowards at heart; if someone stands up to them, asks them questions that can’t be shouted down, or presents them with a quandary they don’t know the answer to, they scurry away or change the subject.
Christ’s message is one of love; it cannot be delivered by shouting or bludgeoning people with the truth. “Worship Jesus, You Idiot!” would not make an effective bumper sticker. And the message of Christ’s love is best delivered with love . . . and understanding, dialogue, and listening. Notice in the Gospels how often Jesus engages in conversation with people; he doesn’t immediately start unleashing proclamations, but listens to their concerns or questions and addresses or answers them. Even when confronted with those who oppose him and his message – as in today’s Gospel selection from Mark – Jesus still flawlessly wields “power and love and self-control.” And by doing so in the Gospel today, Jesus manages to turn the Sadducees’ question – about which of seven brothers would be married to a woman after the resurrection – into profound revelations on the nature of Heaven, resurrection, and even marriage.
Let us, then, seek to make certain that the spirit of cowardice has no hold in our hearts, so that we can find our voices to proclaim the good news, ensure we are brave in our words and deeds, and do not succumb to bullying or intimidation. The Spirit is ready and eager to help us as we spread the Word, provided we’re stalwart enough to wield the power, love, and self-control with which God infused our hearts.