It’s often a bad practice to take a single verse of scripture out of full context and make too much of it. But sometimes particular lines are so very comforting and hopeful, and so fully consonant with the rest of God’s teachings, that taking them out of their immediate context does no harm.
From Paul’s letter to Timothy, the beginning of which is one of the readings from this week’s Revised Common Lectionary, such a line invites our attention.
“God did not give us a spirit of cowardice,” Paul wrote, “but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
Note the interesting, and slightly unusual, juxtaposition of concepts here.
One can easily see how a “spirit of power” might be seen as being somewhat contrary to “a spirit of cowardice.” And one might contrast cowardice with courage, of course, or with, perhaps, fortitude or even endurance. But where do “love” and “self-discipline” come in? They are wonderful attributes, of course, but they seem to belong to a realm unrelated to courage or cowardice. One might contrast love with hate, of course, or self-discipline with indulgence. But why does Paul include these particular ideas in the same thought, as if they are attributes naturally opposed to each other?
Paul was a careful wordsmith. His epistles all show not just that he chose words carefully, but that he used them with remarkable eloquence and insight. So, what was he doing here?
The answer, perhaps, is that cowardice in matters spiritual is of a different quality than cowardice (or its natural opposite, courage) in the rest of life. When it comes to faith, what is cowardly is not a failure to face a physical challenge, or a refusal to stand firm against a misguided crowd. Instead, faith calls us to love the unlovable – to love even when we are angry, even when we are hurt, even when we are embittered.
Likewise, faith calls us to do the right thing even when tempted by something wrong; to be sober (literally and figuratively) when it would be easy to indulge; to keep negative emotions in check even when every part of our nature yells out that we should, well, yell out in anguish or despair.
To find the inner strength to love when we don’t want to, to show discipline when things feel out of control, is indeed to exhibit a courage that is the exact spiritual opposite of moral cowardice. The juxtaposition is quite carefully chosen: Paul is telling us to call on our inmost resources – to act with courage, not moral cowardice – in order to practice the radical love, and tremendous self-control, to which God calls us.
One might ask, though, to what end Paul asks us to do these things. A few verses later, Paul explains [with my emphases added]:
[God] saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed to us through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.
God’s grace is far greater a gift, in degree, than any degree of discomfort or loss we might endure by finding the courage to show love and self-discipline at difficult times. The abolishment of death, replaced with life eternal, is far more a reward than the troubles of life are a burden.
To not accept God’s daunting grace, to not live in it with self-discipline and love, is indeed a form of cowardice. But we can be better than that. We absolutely can, if we have the courage of our faith, do as Paul instructs at the end of this reading: “Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” It is treasure indeed, if we only have the courage to accept it.
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology from Georgetown University and has served for years in various forms of ecumenical lay leadership.