I did a double take while reading Revelation 21:8. I knew that cowardice was not a desirable trait, but could it actually keep me out of heaven?
Being brave and tough was a big thing in my family. My father endured untold hardships to rescue us from Czechoslovakia at the end of World War II. Yet here I was: a wimp who could burst into tears if someone even looked at me the wrong way.
“Quit your crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about,” Dad often told me in exasperation. I usually responded by crying harder.
My older sisters were also fed up with me. Because of the privations of war, I was born early and was always delicate. Hunger and exposure played havoc with my immune system, and I broke out in boils. It was my sisters’ duty to take care of them. I screamed so loud that not only they, but all the neighbors, knew that I felt as though I was being tortured.
“You are such a wimp!” my sister Rachel chided as she held me down while Mary squeezed to remove the pus from a boil that seemed determined to wrap itself around my skinny leg. “Think of what the poor soldiers go through when they have their arms and legs blown off. They don’t make such a fuss.”
My chance to redeem myself came when I was in third grade. Through Dutch Social Services the school I attended made arrangements for free dental care by a soon-to-graduate dental student. A chair was set up in the classroom, and one by one my classmates occupied it while the dental student peered and pried around in his or her mouth. Lotte, who also lived in Emergency Village, had to have her teeth cleaned. She cried so loudly that even I was embarrassed for her.
I was next. I could feel the eyes of more than 30 classmates on me as I climbed up into the chair and opened my mouth.
“You have a cavity here,” the dental student said, still shaking from the last procedure. “I’m not sure whether to fill it or pull the tooth.”
“Pull it,” I said, loud enough for all to hear. “My teeth are coming out and growing back all the time.”
After a hasty consultation with her supervisor, they decided that the tooth was still a milk tooth and it was pulled, without anesthesia. Only afterward did they discover that it was, and should have remained, part of my permanent set. At the time I was too elated by my demonstration of bravado to worry about the significance. But as I grew older I had daily reminders of my folly, and paid for it dearly.
When eating candies or nuts, one would invariably slip into the gap; and when I chomped down, it bruised, even cut, the gum. With nothing to keep them in place, the teeth on either side of the gap tilted sideways, pushing like levers on the teeth next to them. To cope with the constant pain, I finally had a bridge put in at great expense.
So much for my bravado, which, I learned, is a far cry from true courage.
Bravado is a false bravery, done to draw attention to oneself. True courage is there even when no one else is around. It’s the kind of courage Hans-Josef displayed, the kind God wants us to have.
Hans-Josef was a teenager who lived in the same emergency housing we lived in. We met by accident one day in early spring,
What Do You Think?
1. What does the word "cowardly" in Revelation 21:8 mean to you? Is it the same as "shy," "bashful," or "withdrawn"? If not, what does it mean?
2. On a scale of one to five (withfive the greatest), how brave are you? Why did you choose that score?
3. What's the bravest thing you've done this week?
4. What outreach or witnessing activity that might require a little extra bravery on your part would you consider?
when my father had taken my older siblings to register for school.
Left alone, I wandered around the harbor that surrounded our makeshift housing. In a moment of careless inattention I fell into the water. Unable to swim, I went down.
At 16, Hans-Josef had been unsuccessfully looking for work. Rather than returning to our dreary housing facility, he had walked to the end of the pier and looked down into the water. When he saw my foot come up and go down again, he didn’t hesitate. He jumped in, steeling himself against the cramping cold, swimming underwater until he found me. He wasn’t deterred by the pollution or the thought that I might already be dead. He focused on only one thing, and he didn’t give up until he had accomplished it, and others relieved him of the task of getting me to breathe again.
To me, what Hans-Josef did was real courage. He didn’t have to rescue me. No one forced him to. No one even saw him do it.
That’s the kind of courage Jesus had. When He saw us drowning in sin, He didn’t hesitate, but left the courts of heaven and came to this sin-polluted planet to save us.
That’s also the type of courage we need, courage to reach out to sinners and bring them to God, who can breathe new life into them.
Elfriede Volk lives in Summerland, British Columbia, with her husband, Heinz. They have four children and eight grandchildren. This article was published March 8, 2012.