Breakfast Club: The Heroic Longing

The Heroic LongingThere is a longing lodged deep in each of us that wants to make a mark on this world, to leave a legacy, to be remembered for something, to do deeds of valor and courage. While this “heroic longing” looks different in each of us, it is a fire that burns in every human heart. In short: we all want to be a hero, to live a heroic life. What is a hero? According to Wikipedia, the term hero “refers to characters who, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, display courage and the will for self-sacrifice – that is, heroism – for some greater good…” 

It seems we cannot live without our heroes. We have our sport’s heroes, political heroes, military heroes; we have the heroes of popular culture: movie stars and musicians. We follow their every move on Twitter, and, if we’re lucky, we get their autograph or shake their hand.

Clearly, this longing for heroism and the worship of our heroes, is not going away. But, we may rightly wonder, is it healthy? It seems to me that there are two fatal flaws with modern hero worship. The first is the fatal flaw of integrity. As our heroes let us in they inevitably let us down. In other words, as we get to know them better, as we see their true character, we see their flaws and realize their shortcomings. The second is the fatal flaw of their powerlessness. It turns out our heroes are just like us: human, mortal, finite, limited. They aren't really able to rescue us. They don't even know our name! In light of these fatal flaws, what are we to do with our longing for the heroic? The Christian answer to question is provocative and powerful.

Christian Heroism

In the New Testament book of Hebrews, the author paints a series of miniature portraits of Old Testament “heroes of faith.” He concludes chapter 11 with a powerful rhetorical climax: And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword….the world was not worthy of them.. (Hebrews 11:32-40)

From this text we see that Christian heroism is distinct from modern hero worship in two important ways.  

First, heroism is expected of all Christians, not only of the elite

Notice how the author of Hebrews motivates his readers (Jewish Christians undergoing persecution for their faith in Christ). He challenges them to persevere in their faith, even in the face of suffering, by going back to their history, the stories of the Old Testament: of Gideon and Samuel, of Daniel and David, of Isaiah (tradition says that Isaiah was sawn in two with a wooden saw) and of many others. He says, look at their faith! Look at how they persevered! He uses this heroic language of doing great deeds, of courage in the faith of suffering. He challenges his readers: have faith like their faith! Persevere in faith as they did!

What is unique about motivating his audience by using Old Testament heroes in this way? Modern hero worship has stories of its “heroes” too. What is the difference? Let me put it this way: Christian heroism is inclusive while modern heroism is exclusive. Modern heroism is almost exclusively reserved for the elite: the famous, the athletes, the rich, the handsome, the powerful. Just like action heroes often display exaggerated physical characteristics such as extreme physical stature and/or fitness, modern heroes are of an “exclusive” caste; regular people can’t expect to find a place in their rank (even though they may long to).  On the other hand, Christian heroism is inclusive: Every Christian is called to live a heroic life because every Christian is called to live by faith. Faith is not a physical, emotional, or even psychological trait. Faith is trust in God; trust in God’s promises; trust in God’s power; trust in God’s salvation. This is why Christian heroism is inclusive: anyone can have faith! Anyone can trust in God! You don’t have to be rich, or smart, or important, or powerful to have faith.

This brings us to the second distinctive of Christian heroism.

Second, the virtue of Christian heroism is faith; this implies that God is the True Hero

Faith is the distinctive virtue of Christian heroism. “Through faith” these Old Testament saints did mighty deeds and suffered for their great cause. Faith is something of a counter-virtue. Unlike virtues of classic heroes - courage, strength, and wisdom - faith has nothing to do with the subject of faith (her courage, strength, wisdom) and everything to do with the object of faith (the Almighty, Personal God).

Another way of putting this is that the Christian hero is God. God is the hero of every Bible story and every Christian life. Christian heroism is based, not on the integrity of the person, but on the integrity of God (God is the only true hero who, when he lets you in, will never let you down). Christian heroism is based, not on the strength and courage of the person, but on the rescuing power of God. Faith looks away from itself to God. It trusts in God! It points to God! God is the true Hero of Christian faith.  

Why does this matter?

My thesis is that in every human heart burns a heroic longing. We can’t erase our longing for the heroic. We have hero-longing hearts and are a hero-making culture. But without faith in God as our True Hero we will either (1) choose unworthy heroes (as our heroes let us in, they will inevitably let us down), or (2) become cynical or quit our “great cause” in the face of suffering (because we are weak, powerless and overwhelmed). But when you exercise faith in God as your True Hero, you will (1) have a Hero who you can trust and who will never let you down; and (2) have the courage to live a heroic life and serve a great cause and endure great suffering because you trust in the Almighty God who has the power to rescue you, even from death itself.