To speak normally—to make intelligible sounds that other people could understand—I had to undergo two lengthy surgeries. The first happened when I was just a toddler. There’s not much I can tell you about that one. I have no memory of it at all.
The second time around I was in my early twenties. For six hours a surgeon harvested tissue from my throat and from the sides of my mouth.
Using those bits of flesh, he built what is called a pharyngeal flap. To make a long anatomical story short, he gave me the soft palate (the roof of my mouth) that nature neglected to provide for me. Following that procedure I remained on a liquid diet for a couple of months.
There are tons of lessons that growing up with a speech impediment and that undergoing major surgeries taught me. But none of them is more important than this one:
I’ve got a body. And to be embodied is to suffer. So taking life on its own terms and making sense of it involves learning how to navigate suffering. In other words, a life worth living requires courage. And, in its truest sense, courage is an expression of love.
Hollywood’s depiction of courage tends to be narrowly focused on physical courage. Tough characters—male and female alike—face bodily harm and near certain death. Scripts tend to portray them as fearless. And that should be your first clue that Hollywood doesn’t know much about courage.
True courage isn’t the absence of fear. Many psychologists and philosophers define courage as the ability to face our fears and to do what needs to be done.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle broadened and deepened this definition. A brave person possesses wisdom.
They know what is worthy of fear in specific situations and respond appropriately to it on the basis of who they are and what those particular circumstances require. Moreover, wise people not only face their fears. They know why they face them.
Reflecting on the life of Jesus has led me to think that, while Aristotle is right, his thoughts on courage are missing a crucial element. What we fear is suffering.
It may be physical pain or emotional anguish, the sting of rejection or the crushing weight of grief, a disfiguring injury or a broken heart. But in the end, it’s suffering that makes us tremble or hesitate, flee or fly into a rage.
We can’t avoid suffering. So our challenge as humans is to make something good and beautiful and meaningful from a life that inevitably involves bruises to body and soul. And I’m afraid that, left to our own devices, we humans all too often make a wreck of things.
Actually, that’s where Hollywood does get the human thing right. Not the healthy human thing. The destructive, self-destructive human thing. We hurt and we’re afraid of being hurt. So we hurt others in response to being injured and we preemptively attack others to protect ourselves.
I’m thinking of every war and feud and violent crime in history. Every act of retaliation ranging from petty passive aggressiveness to capitol punishment.
In short, hurt people hurt people. And we’re all hurt people. So we’re stuck on a suffering hamster wheel.
Now, enter Jesus. He is the example of perfect courage, of divine courage incarnate.
Here’s an example of what I mean.
In Jesus’s day, an unholy alliance had formed between some religious leaders and the political power structure of the day: a subgroup of the Pharisees and the Roman-aligned Jewish ruler Herod. They perceived Jesus’s teachings and his popularity as a threat to their status and their influence.
So, as Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem, a group of these Pharisees issued Jesus a not-so-subtle warning. Turn back, shut up, or else. Herod beheaded John the Baptist. There’s no reason to think that he’ll treat you any more kindly. (Luke 13:31-35)
Jesus told them to go fly a kite. If Herod wanted him, he knew where to find him. He would be teaching God’s love and mending broken lives.
Jesus wasn’t calling Herod’s bluff. He understood that the powers and principalities were lining up to take him out. This was no empty threat.
And there is no reason to believe that Jesus didn’t feel his gut churning a bit when he heard Herod’s intentions. Just consider the story of Jesus on the night before his crucifixion.
Knowing what was coming, he spent time in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus prayed to find some alternative to hideous torture and gruesome execution. As Luke tells us, “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” (Luke 22:44)
And yet, Jesus went to the cross. And he did it as an act of love. He responded to human violence with love. He understood that love—and only love—can make something good and beautiful and meaningful from suffering. Only love can bring greater life from misery.
You see, that’s what God is about in Jesus from the very start. When God chose to be embodied, God knew that suffering would come along with the deal. To be human at all—to have flesh—is to suffer. And in Jesus, God shows us that love transforms suffering. The cross leads to the empty tomb. To a whole new kind of life.
To mend this aching world will take courage. And Jesus teaches us that true courage is an expression of love.
To check out my latest book Looking for God in Messy Places click here. Thanks to all who have reached out to schedule a book study, retreat, or Q&A session. I love getting together with my readers in-person and via Zoom. To schedule a time you can contact my EA Holly Windham (firstname.lastname@example.org).