He was a professional thief. His name stirred fear as the desert wind stirs tumbleweeds. He terrorized the Wells Fargo stage line for thirteen years, roaring like a tornado in and out of the Sierra Nevadas, spooking the most rugged frontiersmen. In journals from San Francisco to New York, his name became synonymous with the danger of the frontier.
During his reign of terror between 1875 and 1883, he is credited with stealing the bags and the breath away from twenty-nine different stagecoach crews. And he did it all without firing a shot.
His weapon was his reputation. His ammunition was intimidation.
A hoop hid his face. No victim ever saw him. No artist ever sketched his features. No sheriff could ever track his trail. He never fired a shot or took a hostage.
He didn’t have to. His presence was enough to paralyze.
Black Bart. A hooded bandit armed with a deadly weapon.
He reminds me of another thief—one who’s still around. You know him. Oh you’ve never seen his face, either. You couldn’t describe his voice or sketch his profile. But when he’s near, you know it in a heartbeat.
If you’ve ever been in the hospital, you’ve felt the leathery brush of his hand against yours.
If you’ve ever sensed someone was following you, you’ve felt his cold breath down your neck.
If you’ve awakened late at night in a strange room, it was his husky whisper that stole your slumber.
You know him.
It was this thief who left your palms sweaty as you went for the job interview.
It was this con man who convinced you to swap your integrity for popularity.
And it was this scoundrel who whispered in your ear as you left the cemetery, “You may be next.”
He’s the Black Bart of the soul. He doesn’t want your money. He doesn’t want your diamonds. He won’t go after your car. He wants something far more precious. He wants your peace of mind—you joy.
His task is to take your courage and leave you timid and trembling. His modus operandi is to manipulate you with the mysterious, to taunt you with the unknown. Fear of death, fear of failure, fear of God, fear of tomorrow—his arsenal is vast. His goal? To create cowardly, joyless souls.
He doesn’t want you to make the journey to the mountain. He figures if he can rattle you enough, you will take your eyes off the peaks and settle for a dull existence in the flatlands.
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A legend from India tells about a mouse who was terrified of cats until a magician agreed to transform him into a cat. That resolved his fear . . . until he met a dog, so the magician changed him into a dog. The mouse-turned-cat-turned-dog was content until he met a tiger—so, once again, the magician changed him into what he feared. But when the tiger came complaining that he had met a hunter, the magician refused to help. “I will make you into a mouse again, for though you have the body of a tiger, you still have the heart of a mouse.”
Sound familiar? How many people do you know who have built a formidable exterior, only to tremble inside with fear? We tackle our anxieties by taking on the appearance of a tiger. We face our fears with force. Military power, security systems, defense strategy—all reflect a conviction that muscle creates security.
Or if we don’t use force, we try other methods. We stockpile wealth. We seek security in things. We cultivate fame and see status.
But do these approaches work? Can power, possessions, or popularity really deliver us from our fears?
If power could, then Joseph Stalin should have been fearless. Instead, this infamous Russian premier was afraid to go to bed. He had seven different bedrooms. Each could be locked as tightly as a safe. In order to foil any would-be assassins, he slept in a different one each night. Five chauffeur-driven limousines transported him wherever he went, each with curtains closed so no one would know which contained Stalin. So deep-seated were his apprehensions that he employed a servant whose sole task was to monitor and protect his tea bags.
If possessions conquered fear, the late billionaire Howard Hughes would have been fearless. But you probably know his story. His distrust of people and his paranoia of germs led this billionaire to Mexico, where de died a lonely death as a cadaverous hermit with a belly-length beard and corkscrew fingernails.
What about popularity? Beatle John Lennon’s fame as a singer, songwriter, and pop icon made him a household word, but his fears brought him misery. His biographers describe him as a frightened man, unwilling to sleep with the lights off and afraid to touch anything because of its filth.
Though Stalin, Hughes, and Lennon are extreme cases, they are indicative ones. “Though you have the body of a tiger, you still have the heart of a mouse.”
Parallel their stories with the life of a little-known but gutsy young man named Paul Keating. On a cold night in February 1980, twenty-seven-year-old Keating was walking home in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village when he saw two armed muggers robbing a college student. Keating, a gentle, much-admired photographer for Time magazine, had every reason to avoid trouble. He didn’t know the student. No one knew he saw the crime. He was outnumbered. He had nothing to gain and much to lose by taking the risk, and yet he jumped on the muggers. The victim escaped and ran to a nearby deli to call for help. Moments later, two shots cracked the night, and the muggers fled. Paul Keating was found dead on the pavement.
The city of New York posthumously awarded him a medal of heroism. I think you’ll agree with the commentary offered by Mayor Edward Koch at the ceremony: “Nobody was watching Paul Keating on the street that night. Nobody made him step forward in the time of crisis. He did it because of who he was.”
Courage is an outgrowth of who we are. Exterior supports may temporarily sustain, but only inward character creates courage.
And it is those inward convictions that Jesus is building in the Beatitudes. Remember, Matthew 5 is not a list of proverbs or a compilation of independent sayings, but rather a step-by-step description of how God rebuilds the believer’s heart.
The first step is to ask for help—to become “poor in spirit” and admit our need for a Savior.
The next step is sorrow: “Blessed are those who mourn . . .” Those who mourn are those who know they are wrong and say they are sorry. No excuses. No justification. Just tears.
The first two steps are admittance of inadequacy and repentance for pride. The next step is the one of renewal: “Blessed are the meek . . .” Realization of weakness leads to the source of strength—God. And renewal comes when we become meek—when we give our lives to God to be his tool.
The first two beatitudes pass us through the fire of purification; the third places us in the hands of the Master.
The result of this process? Courage: “. . . they shall inherit the earth.” No longer shall the earth and its fears dominate us, for we follow the one who dominates the earth.
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Could you use some courage? Are you backing down more than you are standing up? If so, let the Master lead you up the mountain again. Let him remind you why you should “fear not.” Listen to the time Jesus scattered the butterflies out of the stomachs of his nervous disciples and see if his words help you.5
We need to remember that the disciples were common men given a compelling task. Before they were the stained-glassed saints in the windows of cathedrals, they were somebody’s next-door-neighbors trying to make a living and raise a family. They weren’t cut from theological cloth or raised on supernatural milk. But they were an ounce more devoted than they were afraid and, as a result, did some extraordinary things.
They would have done nothing, however, had they not learned to face their fears. Jesus knew that. That is why he spoke his words of courage.
The disciples are being sent out on their own. For a limited time they will go into the cities and do what Jesus has done—but without Jesus. Jesus assembles them to give them the final instructions. Perhaps the disciples look nervous, for they have reason to be nervous. What Jesus tells them would raise the pulse rate of the stoutest heart.
First Jesus tells them not to take any extra money or extra clothing on their journey.
Then he assures them that they are being sent out “like sheep among wolves.”
“Uh, what do you mean, Jesus?”
His answer is not reassuring. He tells them they will be taken before the authorities, (uh-oh), flogged, (ouch), and arrested (groan).
And it gets worse before it gets better.
Jesus goes on the describe the impact their mission will have on people: “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
Some eyes duck. Some eyes widen. Someone swallows. Feet shift. A brow is wiped. And though no one says it, you know someone is thinking, “Is it too late to get out of this?”
That’s the setting for Jesus’ paragraph on courage. Three times in five verses he says, “Do not be afraid. Read the words and see his call and cause for courage. See the reason you should sleep well tonight:
“So do not be afraid of them. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.”
On the surface, those words would seem like a reason for panic rather than a source of peace. Who of us would like to have our secret thoughts made public? Who would want our private sins published? Who would get excited over the idea that every wrong deed we’ve ever done will be announced to everyone?
You’re right, no one would. But we’re told over and over that such a thing will happen:
Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him.
But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.
You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts.
To think of the disclosure of my hidden heart conjures up emotions of shame, humiliation, and embarrassment in me. There are things I’ve done that I want no one to know. There are thoughts I’ve thought I would never want to be revealed. So why does Jesus point to the day of revelation as a reason for courage? How can I take strength in what should be a moment of anguish?
The answer is found in Romans 2:16. Let out a sigh of relief as you underline the last three words of the verse: “This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ.”
Did you see it? Jesus is the screen through which God looks when he judges our sins. Now read another chorus of verses and focus on their promise:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
[God] justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything.
For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.
For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.
If you are in Christ, these promises are not only a source of joy. They are also the foundations of true courage. You are guaranteed that your sins will be filtered through, hidden in, and screened out by the sacrifice of Jesus. When God looks at you, he doesn’t see you; he sees the One who surrounds you. That means that failure is not a concern for you. Your victory is secure. How could you not be courageous?
Picture it this way. Imagine that you are an ice skater in competition. You are in first place with one more round to go. If you perform well, the trophy is yours. You are nervous, anxious, and frightened.
Then, only minutes before your performance, your trainer rushes to you with the thrilling news: “You’ve already won! The judges tabulated the scores, and the person in second place can’t catch you. You are too far ahead.”
Upon hearing that news, how will you feel? Exhilarated!
And how will you skate? Timidly? Cautiously? Of course not. How about courageously and confidently? You bet you will. You will do your best because the prize is yours. You will skate like a champion because that is what you are! You will hear the applause of victory.
Hence, these words from Hebrews: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus . . . let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith.”
The point is clear: the truth will triumph. The Father of truth will win, and the followers of truth will be saved.
As a result, Jesus says, don’t be afraid: “What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Earthly fears are no fears at all. All the mystery is revealed. The final destination is guaranteed. Answer the big question of eternity, and the little questions of life fall into perspective.
And by the way, remember Black Bart? As it turns out, he wasn’t anything to be afraid of, either. When the hood came off, there was nothing to fear. When the authorities finally tracked down the thief, they didn’t find a bloodthirsty bandit from Death Valley, they found a mild-mannered druggist from Decatur, Illinois. The man the papers pictured storming through the mountains on horseback was, in reality, so afraid of horses he rode to and from his robberies in a buggy. He was Charles E. Boles—the bandit who never once fired a shot, because he never once loaded his gun.
Any false hoods in your world?