Once upon a time hero was easy to identify but I wonder if we have misappropriated the word in recent years. A hero is identified as someone we admire or idealize. If you asked someone 50 years ago who his or her hero was, he or she could likely tell you without much thought. Usually, he or she would be a person who stood for strong principles, a person of character, the cowboy with the white hat who stood up for justice in the town torn apart by scoundrels. They represented qualities we hoped to emulate perhaps.
As time passed heroes became “superheroes” in films and cartoons for many children as they were growing up and the TV western disappeared from the scene. And along the way our models of heroism began to change and often became more of those that we viewed as successful – athletes, entertainers, millionaires – those who had excelled in performance in one area or another whose character often had nothing to do with the designation “hero” even though we called them heroes.
What happened along the way?
We celebrated the warriors who returned from WW II but seldom any conflict or war afterward. Changing times were punctuated by changing values except here and there when something so heinous occurred and someone stepped into the fray so that our perception of heroism was adjusted for a time. We did that again when the pandemic blasted across our lives in 2020 and we saw the toll on doctors and nurses struggling to save thousands of lives without the equipment or medicine to do all they hoped.
At times and places, we have viewed firemen, police officers, and military service persons as heroes as we observed behavior that we pronounced heroic but far too often we failed to look at the person’s sacrifice or what it said about their character to do those things. Earlier we would recognize that sacrifice is always involved with heroic acts. We would have known it meant a willingness to lay down our life for someone else that we likely did not know.
But maybe our definition of sacrifice has changed as well. If we are blessed to live in a free and prosperous culture, we might consider not being able to see a film on opening night a sacrifice if we need to work or not being able to get the model of car we want. But sacrifice, real sacrifice, connotes suffering is involved at a level beyond hours of rehearsal or going to the gym at five in the morning.
Heroism has a long history of looking far different than it often does in recent years.
“For three hundred years of the church’s life, the single most important model of the Christian life was that of a martyr – the person whose witness was authentic to the point of death.”Eugene Peterson in This Hallelujah Banquet
And for some in different places around the globe that is still true today. These are examples of the heroes of the faith the writer of Hebrews talks about in chapter 11 of that book. One not named there was Polycarp who was influenced by the life of Christ and his disciples like John. He was a pastor during the days of the Roman Empire, was arrested and taken into a large arena and ordered to curse the Christ he loved and served. He refused not once but multiple times as the threats intensified. In the end Polycarp stood serenely as he was set aflame.
Who are your heroes and why have you chosen them?
Perhaps this quote by Charles Spurgeon gives a clue to our choice and the choices of others as well. Spurgeon challenges us all to consider carefully what rules our hearts and minds because he knows that it will become central to us and guide our choices, our decisions, our values, and likely our heroes. If we dream of fame, fortune, and recognition, our path will take us along the journey of performance as the primary measure of our worth. If we choose the path of service and sacrifice, of delighting in blessing and helping others, that will also take us down a path, and it will look different. It isn’t that excellent performance is bad but maybe we need to consider that principles should be what we revere above performance.
Each day we are given presents multiple moments of time where we are given a choice to make. Most of those choices will be small decisions that appear inconsequential at the time and yet each of them adds up to what means the most to us, what rules our mind, governs our affections, and becomes the object of our delight.
“If we spend all our energies trying to protect our interests, to preserve our safety, and to negotiate and compromise with the opposition in order to keep what we have at all costs, we will live meagerly. But if we live at risk, giving up all in witness and commitment and love, we are released from death to live in the power of the Resurrection.”Eugene Peterson in This Hallelujah Banquet
If our goal is to become a hero, we will miss the mark.
It is not the extraordinary thing we do that matters most but rather how well we love and what we love most that will one day grant us a crown as we finish the race. We are never taller than when we bend down to serve or help another. We are never wiser than when we admit we don’t know it all. We are never stronger than when we admit our weakness. We are never as courageous as when we acknowledge our fear. We are never richer than when we sacrifice what we have for another. Our character is never as bright as when we stand for principle over popularity.