Acclaimed author James Fenimore Cooper once quipped that “History, like love, is so apt to surround her heroes with an atmosphere of imaginary brightness.” It’s true. The older we get, the better we were. The more time passes, the larger the conquest, the more significant the victory. It is the nature of history. But what now stands as epic and historical was frightening and intimidating in real time. Heroes in their prime weren’t heroes. They were common people with a resolve to do something hard because that something hard was the right thing to do.
I often find myself in awe of the courage of those before us. I am a sucker for any and every book, story or movie that depicts uncommon courage in harrowing circumstances. This explains why my favorite movies are epic stories like Gladiator, Braveheart, 300, Saving Private Ryan. These are the stories that kickstart my heart and move me to action.
The afore mentioned 300 movie is a story that has intrigued me from the very first time I heard snippets of its details. Years ago, in the middle of a brutal workout, my friend Rick mentioned to me that I should read a book entitled The Gates of Fire. It was novel depicting the historical account of the Battle of Thermopylae, where three hundred of Sparta’s finest warriors, led by their King Leonidas, held back the invading hundreds of thousands of the military might of the Persian empire and valiantly gave their lives in the selfless service of democracy and freedom. I was riveted the moment I picked up the book. The movie was simply icing on the cake. And the courage and honor birthed and nurtured within the Spartan culture inspires me to this day.
Spartans really loved their shields. Along with being a weapon and symbol of strength, shields were more often than not family treasures. They were passed down from father to son, and it wasn’t uncommon for a soldier to beat an enemy to death with same shield his grandfather had used.
It also wasn’t uncommon for Spartans to decorate their shield. This served two purposes: it helped the individual Spartan be identified on the battlefield, and it looked intimidatingly dope.
I recently came across one particularly amusing story concerning the shield of a Spartan. History (or legend) relays that an unnamed Spartan soldier spent many hours painting a life-sized fly onto his shield. This annoyed his peers, who accused him of cowardice (because his enemies wouldn’t be able to tell who he was) and of complete idiocy to boot.
The young Spartan then stunned his peers by explaining that the fly would be the size of a giant when he smashed it into his enemies’ face. The Spartan warrior is said to have declared
It will be the size of a lion when I bore down on my enemies.
Many different versions of the quote exist, but the overall gist of what the Spartan was trying to say is clear. “I’m going to shield-punch these guys so hard, my future family will get paid royalties from Captain America.”
“It will be the size of a lion when I bore down on my enemies.” I stood up on my chair after reading this the first time screaming LET’S GOOOOO!
It was this kind of mentality that fueled 300 warriors to give their lives in a narrow Greek mountain pass, in the face of insurmountable odds, for the sake of freedom. Today a simple engraved stone marks their burial ground. And in their prime, they didn’t see themselves as heroes. They certainly didn’t realize just how far their courage would stretch.
Their courage stretches to you even as you read these words…
How, you may ask?
Historians believe that the Battle of Thermopylae was the birthplace of democracy. It is cited as the first time a people group withstood dictatorship and tyranny. Thousands of years later, in a small room in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, fifty-six men would sign what is now known as the Declaration of Independence, declaring a new nation’s independence from the tyrannical rule of Great Britain. Two of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, would cite Thermopylae as a model for thirteen colonies standing up to King George the bully.
Interesting that two hundred plus years later you read these words while living in a free country. Every year, on July 4th, you eat burgers, shoot fireworks, and celebrate the courage of our founding fathers. Their courage has stretched to you…
And I would add the courage of 300 Spartans as well.
C.S. Lewis once stated, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Yours is a generation of students who grow fearful, who bow out at that testing point. In matters of faith, family, relationships, choices, courage gives way to mediocrity, to hesitancy, to compromise. But what would your life look like if your heart were bolstered by courage? The Scriptures have much to say about being brave. Since Jesus raised Himself from death and conquered sin, doesn’t it make sense that He intended His followers to live a life of unquestionable courage? What happens when those who should have the most courage whimper into the shadows?
David encouraged readers in Psalm 31:24 to “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the LORD.” The phrase take heart translates have courage in Hebrew. And David qualifies who should be strong and full of courage – people who have placed their hope in God. So here is what I want to ask you: In what area of your life do you need to be brave?
One day someone may cite a decision you made in the prime of your life, a decision that you never considered within the realm of heroism. A choice you made that was hard at the time but the right thing to do…
And you have no idea how far your courage in that moment will stretch.