17 Mar 2022
Zelensky, Courage, and Cowardice
What does it mean to be a man? I find it’s much easier to answer that question by harping on what a man isn’t, or by pointing out the flaws of our culturally distorted views of masculinity. We can see right through the empty vanity of figures like James Bond with his embodiment of rugged individualism and promiscuous sex. But what does a real man look like?
The recent situation in Ukraine has touched all of our lives on many levels. It is an absolute tragedy of unspeakable proportions. The horrors of war are beyond description. It is in these moments of travail and trial that image bearers of God are revealed in their splendor and glory. I might not be able to give a concise definition of what a man is, but I know one when I see him. And I saw a man of incredible courage and bravery on February 25, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, along with four other government officials, declared that they were staying with the people of Ukraine to fight for their country.
For weeks, I haven’t been able to get that 30-second video clip out of my head. It touched something deep in my soul that not only shows me what a real man is, but also ultimately points me to the truest man, Jesus Christ!
Jesus is the ultimate leader to follow
At the time of writing this blog, millions of Ukrainian citizens are taking up arms and laying down their lives for their country. Many men who have never even held a gun before are being given last-minute training on how to use a firearm. An out-manned, out-gunned people are defying all expectations for what this invasion was going to look like.
Would events be unfolding this way if Ukraine’s leaders had snuck out the back door with bags of cash in each hand? I highly doubt it. As the leader goes, so go his followers. Just as Zelensky is willing to lay down his life for Ukraine’s independence, so too are the Ukrainian people!
Zelensky’s sacrificial leadership is a glorious, albeit imperfect, reflection of our Savior Jesus Christ. We follow a leader who left the perfection of heaven to enter into the lowliest of estates in a fallen world. Born in poverty, in danger of Herod’s slaughter of all newborn males in Bethlehem, scorned, rejected, beaten, and ultimately put to death—all in order to set his people free. Jesus came on a mission to liberate his people from bondage and slavery to sin, Satan, and death. He laid down his own life, taking on the sins of his people, dying the death that should have been ours, so that we might be free. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
What does this freedom look in the lives of Christ’s followers? Ultimately, it is the freedom to lay down our lives in service to our King. What we are witnessing in Ukraine is a free people who would rather die than give up their freedom. What we see in the book of Acts are apostles and believers who have been set free in such a way that no one can place a yoke of slavery on them again. In Acts 4–5, the apostles are threatened, arrested, and charged not to speak in the name of Jesus, but these threats have no power over free men. Instead, they all the more boldly proclaim that salvation is found in no other name than Jesus alone!
What is particularly powerful is that the council of elders and scribes in Jerusalem noticed that these followers of Jesus were not trained scholars. Instead, they were “uneducated, common men” (Acts 4:13). This is the impact of sacrificial leadership. True leaders empower and embolden ordinary men to do extraordinary things.
We don’t follow a coward
Jesus is calling his freed brethren to courage, bravery, and an understanding that to follow him is to lay down their lives. I’ve always been struck by Revelations 21:8. The very first category of people who will be cast into the lake of fire are the “cowardly.” Why is cowardice so antithetical to God’s people? Well, Jesus was the exact opposite of a coward. You will never see one hint of cowardice in the life of Christ. Even in the moments when Jesus escaped an angry mob, he did so not because he was afraid, but because he was being strategic. His time had not yet come.
Ultimately, a coward lacks love. He cares not for the lives of others, but only about saving himself. Zelensky has been quoted as saying, “As for my life: I am the president of the country, and I simply do not have the right to it.”¹ A coward fights tooth and nail to maintain the right to his own life, no matter the cost. A hero willingly lays down the right to his life so that others may live. Zelensky once again points us to our Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11). He’s not a hired hand who runs away at the first sign of danger but instead protects his people at the cost of his own life.
Sexual sin and cowardice
Sexual sin in men is especially connected to cowardice. How can I say that? It is true that Jesus is the standard of righteousness in every way for all of his followers, both men and women. Nevertheless, in Ephesians 5, husbands in particular are given specific instruction on how to relate to their wives—and that has everything to do with sexuality! That specific instruction is to love one’s wife as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her! Men are specifically called to the opposite of cowardice in their sexuality.
Sexual sin often reveals the cowardice that lurks in each of our hearts. Men often turn to sexual sin because we are too scared to face the hard things in our lives. Many husbands feel rejected in the marriage bed, and, instead of doing the difficult, scary work of addressing the topic honestly with their wives, they’re willing to take the easy road of “taking care of themselves” through self-stimulation. The same is true for many single men. Pursuing marriage and the blessing of sexual intimacy in marriage requires courage. Courage to court and woo a maiden. Courage to face potential rejection. Courage to step into a lifelong commitment. But the ubiquitous proliferation of internet pornography and virtual reality allows many single men to feel a false sense of all the perks of sexual pleasure without any of the courage required in pursuing and committing to marriage.
The heart of a coward is also revealed in the secrecy of sexual sin. Many husbands are too scared to let their wives know what’s really going on. Many single men are too scared to let another brother or pastor know about their struggles. Even when their sin is revealed, many husbands are too scared to sacrificially love and pursue a wife who is wrestling with deep anger, fear, frustration, and doubt. Instead of laying down their lives for their wives in their greatest moment of need and pain, they turn back to the very sin that put their wives in this state. What is so damning about cowardly actions is the way they reveal a willingness to let others die so that they can save their own lives. This is the exact antithesis of our Savior.
Jesus died to redeem cowards
That might sound really harsh, but let me be clear: I still wrestle with having the heart of a coward. I see it in the some of the ways I treat my wife. I see it in some of the safe decisions I’ve made in life. Apart from God’s grace, I am a coward deserving the lake of fire.
But praise the Lord that Christ’s work of salvation gives hope to cowards like me! Jesus knew when he called Peter to follow him that Peter would eventually take the coward’s way out in Jesus’ greatest moment of need. Peter chose to protect his life by denying Christ. Left in unrepentance, this denial of his friend, Savior, and King would’ve led to Christ’s denial of Peter himself before the Father. But Jesus had other plans for Peter, and he has other plans for you and me as his beloved brothers! Jesus restored Peter graciously, and that led Peter to a transformed life of courageous, bold, sacrificial witness for Christ, which would eventually cost him his life. Jesus foretold that Peter would deny him three times, but he also foretold the death that Peter would face for his proclamation of the gospel (John 21:18–19).
If you are a man in Christ, at the core of your being is a man who is willing to lay down your life as you follow your courageous Savior. We take our cues as men not from the world, but from the One who has already conquered and who has granted access to the tree of life. Where are you tempted towards cowardice in life? When are you tempted let others die so that you can live? How will you look to Jesus for strength so that you can confidently say, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21)?
In 1987 I was serving as minister of a Presbyterian church in Dunblane, Scotland. The country had been my home since 1972. One evening the news reported the emergence of a new and fatal disease in the United States that was affecting primarily gay men. Accompanying the reportage was a clip from a televised sermon in which the preacher affirmed that this illness was a judgment from God on gays. The manner of delivery was harsh and hateful, and I remember thinking this was not necessarily the best response of the Evangelical Church to an emerging problem.
Sometime later, while reading the Scriptures, the words “you will work with AIDS patients” came to mind. The impression was so strong and overwhelming, I actually said aloud, “No!” What followed was a remarkable series of coordinated events that made it abundantly clear that the words I heard in my mind were a call from God.
Sometime after the strong sense of call I experienced to work with AIDS patients, I was at a minister’s conference in London. In the course of a conversation with another pastor, he suddenly said that I should be working with AIDS patients. Another man who had just come back from America said he had recently worshiped at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, and at the morning service, an announcement was made about a collection being taken to start an outreach in the city to minister to those with AIDS. Shortly after this, I was invited to the Shetland Islands to address a medical conference on the subject of terminal care. As part of my research connected to this talk, I wrote to Tenth Presbyterian Church to find out what they were doing regarding the AIDS crisis. Sometime later, John Freeman answered and told me about the project. That began the process which ended in an invitation to return to the United States.
Harvest USA, in conjunction with Tenth, had gathered enough money to begin an outreach to people with AIDS in the Philadelphia area. There was funding for one year, but still it was unimaginably difficult to take my wife and family away from all that was dear to us in Scotland.
The beginning of what became known as Hope was extremely difficult. The gay community did not welcome the involvement of Christians in what was regarded as their issue, and we had to endure a measure of protest and hateful behaviors that were distressing and discouraging.
Everyone we served knew us as a Christian ministry, but the point of contact was not evangelism or Bible study; it was the illness.
At the time Hope began its work, the gay community was deeply committed to serving its dying members. When word of Hope’s existence spread, there was concern regarding the presence of Christians in this field. On one occasion a protest was staged outside the offices of Tenth Presbyterian Church. I was not present at that time, and the situation was defused by a pastoral staff person. But angry activists continued spreading the word to beware of anyone from Hope visiting sick patients. Occasionally our paths would cross in hospital rooms of individuals who had asked me to visit, and it was difficult to endure snide remarks and hostile looks. Eventually, however, through our relationship with a patient from Tenth, the secular AIDS agencies were told about the good work being done, and the hostility evaporated.
From then on, for the next fourteen years, with no advertising or programmatic plans, Hope ministered to a wide variety of men, women, and children affected by a disease that at that time killed most of them. Everyone we served knew us as a Christian ministry, but the point of contact was not evangelism or Bible study; it was the illness. The initial question we asked was, “What would you like us to do for you in this situation?” In retrospect, we saw over and over that what most wanted was companionship shaped by the changing circumstances of their lives.
And that is what we did, particularly with those who were dying. Each individual case was different. Some needed nursing care, especially at night. Others wanted a listening ear or someone to coordinate with other AIDS agencies. In essence, we were a ministry which offered friendship to those who wanted it. The degree of intimacy and demands of these friendships varied widely but, in some cases, carried us right to our friends’ deathbeds, gravesides, and beyond.
Not a few of our patients came from Christian homes and experience, and sometimes AIDS proved to be God’s way of bringing them back to the faith of their youth.
To form relationships with the dying is both intense and emotionally stressful. With AIDS, it was particularly difficult at the beginning. Concerns about casual transmission meant visiting patients in the hospital wearing protective clothing, which added to the fear and anxiety. Eventually, though, as the disease became better understood, the difficulties for staff and volunteers centered on the distress associated with walking patients through the dying process.
And staying with the dying until the very end was never easy. Sometimes at the end, it was only immediate family members and Hope workers who were there to deal with the messiness of dying and all that follows. Given that some of our patients were from difficult and impoverished backgrounds, it was only the strongest of our volunteers who remained after working with someone who died. Looking back, I see that only God’s grace allowed us to do what we did for fourteen years. But the lessons learned, and occasionally the intimacy of relationship allowed with some individuals, were precious gifts for which we will always be grateful.
What did we learn during those fourteen excruciatingly difficult years? First, that the Church and Christian ministries can and must serve their own, even when sinful choices and destructive behaviors have left them bereft and needy. Not a few of our patients came from Christian homes and experience, and sometimes AIDS proved to be God’s way of bringing them back to the faith of their youth.
Secondly, Christians need never be afraid of engaging creatively with non-Christians in their time of trouble. Our volunteers, staff, and I often had access to situations and places where normally no Christians were welcome, nor our message believed. But as Ambassadors of Christ, we were allowed the privilege of representing him as best we could.
Did we help? Did we have an impact? We are never the best judges of the effectiveness or ultimate meaning of our service. We must simply follow where God leads, through good report and bad, trusting him to use what He chooses for His glory. As one of our volunteers said after the death of a particularly difficult and angry patient, “Even changing diapers is a sacred act.”
And that was Hope. When it became clear at the beginning of the 21st century that AIDS was now a chronic and manageable illness, I realized the reason God called me to work with AIDS patients was over. We closed our doors in 2002. Often we feel Christian work in which we are heavily invested must perpetuate itself, but the Lord may well have other plans. Now, many years later, I look back on Hope’s ministry with gratitude. All but a few of the Christians and non-Christians we served are gone, but their faces, stories, and the lessons learned are ineradicable. The world in which AIDS was the crisis of the moment has changed dramatically, and new issues have taken over the headlines. But the needs of sinful men and women are the same, the Gospel has not lost its ancient power, and Jesus still tells His people to go into that world as His ambassadors.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.