In 480 BC, an estimated 200,000 warriors led by Xerxes, the King of Persia moved into Greece. A force of this magnitude met very little resistance. That is, until they arrived at the mountains of central Greece with only one path forward: the Pass of Thermopylae.
The Pass of Thermopylae was not only narrow, but it was also blocked by a force of 7,000 Greeks. Among the 7,000 men was a core of 300 Spartans led by Leonidas. Threatened by the oncoming winter, Xerxes threw the full weight of his army at the tiny Greek force for two straight days. The pass provided protection to the Greeks, a wall to put their backs against.
But on the third day, the wall disappeared. Due to the guidance of a local Greek, Xerxes became aware of alternate paths in the mountains that would allow him to outflank his Greek opponents. Soon the force of 7,000 was surrounded and presented with two options, best summarized by The Clash: Should I stay or Should I go now?
The majority of the Greeks did what many of us would do in the face of imminent death surrounding us on all sides: they high tailed it out of there!
But the 300 Spartans led by Leonidas, did something courageous: they stayed to fight another day. The fighting was brutal. Hand to hand combat in close quarters with a relentless enemy attacking from every angle. Spears and swords gave way to daggers. Daggers gave way to hands and teeth. Finally, Xerxes ordered volleys of arrows to mow down the Spartans, and the Battle of Thermopylae came to an end. The Greeks lost the battle, but the courage of the 300 Spartans provided both hope that the Persian force could be defeated and a practical strategy for doing so: force the fighting to a confined space.
It also does a third thing. It provides us with another picture, another understanding, of courage as a virtue.
Often when I think about courage, I think about it actively. A firefighter running into a burning building to save a family. My aunt jumping into a pool to save me, which I shared in the last post. Even Christ coming down from heaven to save each of us, His children, is an example of active courage.
But the Battle of Thermopylae reveals that there is another mode of courage, a passive, or a stationary mode. In this mode, one is courageous simply by staying put. Some would refer to this particular mode of courage as fortitude, literally translated from the Latin as “strength.”
On this distinction between courage and fortitude, 19th-century Presbyterian theologian William S. Plumer writes:
“There is also, in strict propriety of language, a difference between courage and FORTITUDE. Courage faces and resists danger; fortitude endures pain. …Courage is for action; fortitude for suffering. In this sense, fortitude differs little from constancy and patient endurance.”William S. Plumer
In other words, fortitude is the courage to stand fast in your circumstances, to endure pain, suffering, and difficulty when all you want to do is run to safety.
William S. Plumer again:
Active courage leads to bold deeds; passive courage is not moved by fears in times of peril and suffering. By active courage Jonathan and his armor-bearer captured the strong-hold of the Philistines; by passive courage, Joseph sustained himself in the dungeons of Egypt. By the former, David performed the great exploits of killing the lion, the bear, and the giant of Gath; by the latter, he endured the revilements of Shimei as—he was retreating from the holy city. Daniel was passively courageous when in the lions’ den; he was actively courageous when, in unfaltering tone and with great solemnity, he pronounced sentence of death on Belshazzar.William S. Plumer
So too are we called to exhibit fortitude in the midst of trials. Paul exhorts us with the Corinthians of old: “Watch, stand fast in the faith, be courageous like men, be strong.”
Look again to the cross. Christ actively came down to save us from our sin and from the death we deserve. But in the moment of his death, when he was nailed to a Roman cross, abandoned by all of those He came to save, surrounded on all sides by the enemy, we should not lose sight of the fact that he stayed. The author of life stayed and endured the pain of death. What was the fruit of Christ’s fortitude?
In 2 Corinthians 5:21 we are given an answer: For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Are there circumstances in your life right now where you feel surrounded on all sides and tempted to run? Is standing fast where you are the most challenging posture?
Then consider Thermopylae. Consider the Cross. Standing fast might just be the courage you are being asked to exhibit.