Updated: Feb 9, 2019
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. —Theodore Roosevelt
Teddy Roosevelt’s words are as poignant today as they were over one hundred years ago. At present, we live in a world where heroic leaders come cheap. Western culture has set the bar so low that fame, success and heroism can be attained by little more than a touchdown in a big game; being a flamboyant billionaire; starring in a reality TV show; or just getting a million clicks on YouTube. Many are convinced Amazon is working out a plan to package fame, glory and success with a single click, as soon as they figure out how to deliver it to your door. In today’s culture, movie stars testify before congress on a variety of national and global issues. Professional athletes maintain a continual standing on the New York Times best seller list. Entertainment figures are the first ones approached to throw their weight into national elections. The world is content with this type of hero. They are safe, entertaining, amusing and never cause much of a fuss.
What the world won’t tolerate are those audacious and arrogant individuals who act on what some call, “principle.” They are dangerous people who name some things good and others bad. They brazenly use words like integrity, truth, virtue, evil, beauty, convinced these words mean something. They take their stand, not on opinion polls or cultural norms, but on the belief our existence is rooted in a moral universe. These are the leaders the world fears and maligns. They are bombarded by epithets; accused of bigotry, prejudice, narrow mindedness and fanaticism. These rare individuals are judged by every choice and action they make. Their actions may be true or bring about some good for the world, but they are not criticized for this. They are criticized because their vision is fixed; anchored into something enduring and unshakeable. When they are condemned, it is often for opposite extremes at the same time. Some will say they are too passive, others say their actions too harsh. Some will be accused of being too conservative, and immediately labeled liberal because of the love they show to dysfunctional people. They are cursed for being “holier than thou,” and then too “weak or meek” to do the world any good. What a ghastly and confusing monster this person must be.
This is why Roosevelt’s words are so powerful. The true Christian leader thinks little if any about his critics. He is not swayed by someone sitting in the stands casting insults. Whatever he does, whatever he says, he knows he will be mocked and ridiculed. He will be judged if he acts, yet judged if he doesn’t. If he confronts evil, he will be deemed dogmatic and judgmental. When he affirms certain things as good, he will be dismissed as a zealot. When his business is successful, the critics will proclaim he is greedy, selfish and heartless. When profit isn’t the final goal of his business, he will be branded naive. Through the torrent of accusations, the heroic leader is undeterred, unflappable, and unstoppable. He doesn’t look for praise from the stands, his affirmation comes from somewhere else. If he falls, he is unchecked because he knows he is weak. If he fails, he knows this is where he truly learns. The heroic leader knows the battle is not in the stands but in the arena. If he chooses the easy road, he may take his place with the critics, judging the actions of others from a safe distance. But he knows this is impossible. In the arena there is meaning, risk, victory, and defeat. The leader in the arena is the only one who is sure there are things worth living for, which means there are also things worth dying for. May God raise up an army of these heroic leaders. If so, they might just change the world.