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)?