Be alert, stand firm in the faith, act like a man, be strong. — 1 Corinthians 16:13
The core virtue of a coward is niceness. You must lick the boot that kicks you. ~ Tim Dunn1
Thomas Cranmer was a coward and a traitor to Jesus Christ, but I wonder if I’m anywhere near the man that he was.
My daughter, Ashton, and I stood in Christ Church, a medieval cathedral in Oxford, England. I’d taken Ashton to Paris, Copenhagen, and Prague on a business trip because, at twelve, she was already a prolific reader and budding intellectual. I’d read her The Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit when she was little, so she’d convinced me to add London and Oxford to the trip so she could walk in the footsteps of G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien.
In the cathedral was a notch in a stone pillar. Above the notch was a sign that this was where they had built the altar where Cranmer was to kneel, recanting his teaching about the grace of Jesus. I knew the story. It was a foregone conclusion — Cranmer, the coward who watched his two friends burned at the stake, had never missed an opportunity to be weak. But Cranmer wasn’t going to be weak this time; he wouldn’t need the altar. Instead he was going to shock the world.
Thomas Cranmer had made several bold reforms under King Edward. He was a stalwart for the reformation of the church and wrote many bold policies against the established Catholic Church while serving as the archbishop of Canterbury. His boldness had come while there was a monarch on the throne who agreed with him. Then an inconvenient thing happened: Edward died, and Bloody Mary came to the throne. Mary got her name because of the slaughter she instigated against those who were perceived as enemies of the Catholic Church, and Cranmer was at the top of her list. Cranmer was put on trial with two other Reformers, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. Following the trial, Latimer and Ridley were immediately burned alive while Cranmer was forced to watch.
Latimer died almost immediately from the smoke. Ridley died slowly. The wood around him wouldn’t ignite well and he burned for a long time before dying. He cried out for someone to put more wood under him to hasten his death. Cranmer, horrified by watching their murders, couldn’t seem to write enough letters recanting everything he’d stood for to avoid the same fate. Cranmer was given the opportunity to publicly refute everything he had preached about the grace of Christ, and he took it.
As Cranmer entered the cathedral that Ashton and I stood in 450 years later, he began to preach the sermon everyone expected. But when he was supposed to recant his teachings, he instead affirmed them, denying everything he’d written in trying to save himself and condemning the hand that had written such things.
Cranmer was ripped from the pulpit and rushed past the altar where he was to kneel as a coward and out to where his friends were murdered six months earlier. As the flames raged, Cranmer placed his right hand into them so that the instrument he’d used to deny the truth of Christ would burn first.
What gives a man such boldness?
How does a person move from a history of opportunism and cowardice to such immense bravery? It’s appropriate for us to ask ourselves whether we could bear up under such circumstances as Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley. Would we stand strong? As the flames raged, would we climb onto the stake and be burned to avoid compromising the truth of Christ?
Revelation 21:8 gives us a list of those whose “share will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur.” Revelation 20 has already assured us that only those whose names are not written in the Book of Life will be condemned to the lake of fire, so the list in 21:8 is a warning to all who have lived a life typified by certain actions that testify they aren’t truly believers. There is an entire chapter devoted to this near the end of this book, but it’s helpful to discuss a brief part of it here.
Here is the list of actions. I’ve blanked one out; let’s see if you can guess what it is.
But the _______, unbelievers, vile, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars—their share will be in the lake that burns with fire.
Since salvation is a gift based on God’s grace and comes to us only through belief and through no merit of our own, the list above is clearly stating that anyone whose life is typified by such actions doesn’t truly believe in Jesus.
So what is the one action I blanked out? Is it being a thief? A greedy person? An addict? No, none of those. The person who starts the list of those who the Bible says will go to the lake of fire for eternity, who are not saved, is the coward.
When was the last time you heard a sermon on not being a coward?
Yet the Bible lists it as one of the eight sins for which, if you are typified by them, you are guaranteed to be condemned. It isn’t just on the list; it starts the list.
Notice that everything on the list, except for cowardice, is a definable thing. Lying is telling something that is not the truth. A murderer takes another’s life without justification. But what defines cowardice? Cowardice is disobeying God’s commands because of fear. For instance, if a person refuses to stand up against abortion because they’re worried about losing their job or being unpopular — that’s cowardice. It doesn’t necessarily make one a coward if it doesn’t typify one’s life, but if fear for one’s reputation keeps them from standing up for helpless babies in the womb, that person might want to take a serious assessment of their life and wonder if they’re a coward.
I remember committing a cowardly act while preaching to a large crowd in Asia many years ago. It was in a poor, high-crime area, and several thousand people came to hear the message on salvation. We had a great altar call, and many people came forward to publicly place their faith in Christ. As I was down in the crowd praying for people, an older woman came hob- bling toward me, supported by a teenage girl. “Preacher,” the girl said, “my grandma is crippled, and she wants you to ask God to heal her.”
I wasn’t “that kind” of preacher. I had no idea what to do. The old woman, who clearly didn’t speak English, just stood there, smiling hopefully. The young girl politely stood several yards away while I got on my knees to pray.
My heart went out to the woman and her granddaughter who’d come to hear the gospel, but I was really at a loss of what to do. “Lord,” I prayed, “You and I both know I don’t have any idea what to do right now. But if You don’t heal this lady, You and I are really going to look stupid. Would You heal her despite my inadequacy? Don’t withhold a miracle from her because of my unworthiness.” (That’s exactly what I prayed.)
The woman got healed.
She leaped away from me and started screaming and praising God. She started bouncing and dancing, far more than anyone her age should have been able to. It attracted a crowd — and I got away from there. I hopped onstage and walked into the back where no one else could ask for a miracle.
I ran away and hid.
Even though the Lord had shown He would do something amazing despite my inadequacy, my faith failed. Days later, I realized that He may have been ready to pour out His Spirit in an unbelievable way. We may have seen miracles beyond imagination — I’ll never know, because I walked away. I kept thinking of that hopeful look on her face and was relieved that she hadn’t been disappointed, but I was unwilling to risk it again. My faith was too little and pride too much, such that I didn’t realize the obvious, which was that someone’s healing was completely up to Him. All He was asking was that I obey and act as His vessel — and I walked away.
It was an act of cowardice, and many people may have been robbed of a blessing because of me. Am I a coward? No. But I definitely needed to repent of cowardice and pray for those who may have lost out on a blessing because of my inaction.
Courage is the opposite of cowardice and similarly vague. Courage is obeying God’s commands despite fear.
Courage is valuing obedience to God’s Word more than whatever the consequences from the world might be. In fact, the more fear one has, yet obeys anyway, the more courage one displays.
When I was serving on the Los Angeles Police Department, I noticed that character separated the good police officers from the bad ones. But it was courage that separated the good officers from the great ones. We had a saying on the LAPD about cowardly officers: they were first in line to eat and last in line to die.
The most repeated command in the Bible is to not fear. It’s a command, not a suggestion. But can we actually control whether we are fearful? Yes. God doesn’t command something that is impossible to obey. Controlling fear comes through exercising courage.
The more one obeys God’s Word, despite fear, the less control fear has.
Soon a mature believer finds that the things that once seemed intimidating are now invigorating. It can be scary to share the good news of Jesus to a stranger, but after one does it several times, fear turns to excitement. Sharing your faith turns from a chore to a delight.
- Tim Dunn, conversation with author, September 10, 2021.
Excerpted with permission from A Daring Faith in a Cowardly World by Ken Harrison, copyright Ken Harrison.
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Have courage! No matter what fears we face, the Lord is with us! Courage is obeying God’s commands despite fear. What area of your life needs a boost of boldness? ~ Devotionals Daily