During conferences when I reveal how cowardice, like termites, quietly destroys the foundation of many lives, and how it is even listed in the Bible as a sin—equal to murder, fornication, sorcery, idolatry and lying [Revelation 21:8]—bewildered looks and an uncomfortable hush often fill the room. Neither cowardice nor courage are currently on our spiritual radar the way they should be in order to obtain the abundant life God wants to give us and to be agents of love, light and truth.
This is especially troubling since courage is the virtue that underpins all other virtues. For example, when Jesus saved the life and retained the dignity of the woman caught in adultery [John 8:3]—a crime punishable by death under Mosaic Law—he did so in part through His internal capacity to withstand the criticism and even hatred of the Pharisees, whom he embarrassed and enraged. Without courage, Jesus’ acts of incredible grace and mercy were impossible.
Unfortunately, each generation has its preferred virtues, the ones they emphasize at the expense of others, leading to cultural, psychological and spiritual blind spots and deficiencies. Today within evangelical culture, we extol the gentle virtues often at the expense and even ignorance of the tougher virtues—none more key than courage and its fruits of fortitude, perseverance and especially strength.
Courage is the capacity that allows us to take risks, make sacrifices and to be, as Martin Luther King Jr. said regarding Christian faith, “dangerously unselfish.” Courage helps us to withstand and grow through ongoing pain, suffering, isolation and related difficulty. Righteousness requires it, and the Bible commands us to be bold and courageous more than 25 times. God takes courage and its lack very seriously.
This foundational virtue is so important that according to Jesus, some people actually walk away from faith because they don’t possess enough of courage. In Jesus’ illuminating Parable of the Sower [Mark 4:1-20], He tells us about the kind of person who receives the Good News with initial jubilation, but on account of tribulation due to the same divine revelation of God’s love and desire for His creation—they fall away. His disciples didn’t quite get was He was talking about, so they pressed Him for additional information. And Jesus’ explanation tells us something profound about the relationship between courage, faith and life everlasting.
There are people who fall away from the faith, He said, even when they experience initial joy, because they possess no staying power or rootedness in them. "But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away." (Matt. 13:21 NIV) Staying power is one of the primary benefits of courage—it may as well be a blue-collar definition. What Jesus was really saying is that some people leave their faith because they are cowards.
In the following articles, you’ll learn what drains us of courage, what grows it, and how it helps us to live larger, more faithful and more substantial lives.
The reassuring news is that each of us is born with a capacity for this fundamental virtue. The challenging news is that in many ways, the tenor of our life depends on our ability to honor and grow this virtue that underpins all other virtues for our own benefit, the benefit of others, and to God’s glory.
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Many conditions and fallacies drain our lives of courage. Cynicism drains our lives of hope, optimism and creativity—raw material that help build our foundation of courage. Men are especially seduced by cynicism’s ability to look like you are on the playing field of life, committing deeds that are useful and powerful. But in reality the cynic is comfortably anchored on the cushy sidelines of life, lifting no burdens, creating no light and being no salt. This ability to always see the worst in people and situations is often a hiding place for fear, timidity and indifference. It allows us to be invulnerable observers rather than participants at risk and of sacrifice. Worse, the cynic often justifies his lack of redemptive and courageous action. Ultimately, cynicism is the language of self-preservation, which drains us of courage and shrivels our souls.
Jesus’ warning against materialism—a life comprised of a full garage but an empty and trivial soul—has largely gone unheeded, especially in America, and the impact upon our capacity for courage is devastating. This is because the love of money and possessions often keeps us from doing the right thing with our time, treasure and talent. Materialism conditions our soul to play life very safe and to be very selfish. By contrast, courage requires an ability to be dangerously unselfish. Materialism actively opposes sacrifice because the goal of materialism is comfort, which stunts spiritual growth and harms our ability to persevere through hardship—part of the definition of courage.
But the condition that robs us of this life-giving virtue is one of the largest roadblocks to a larger and more purposeful life: Fear.
This emotion is like cholesterol: Some of it is helpful and necessary yet some is also harmful. When it comes to creating a more courageous orientation toward life, understanding the two sides of fear is essential.
The Bible tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom [Proverbs 1:7 and Psalms 111:10]. Here we learn about what theologians call “Holy fear.” This kind of fear is God-given and enables us to reverence God’s authority, obey His commandments and hate and shun all forms of evil. This holy fear is even one of the divine qualifications of the Messiah, Christ, as foretold in Isaiah 11:2.
But some fear is destructive and irrational. For example, some people possess a destructive pre-occupation with what others think about them—what the Bible calls part of the “fear of man” that causes them to betray their values and integrity. They have the “disease to please” man instead of God.
And some people believe that they are going to be harmed by forces that are possible but not probable in their life. The fact is fear is often best described by the helpful acronym: False Evidence Appearing Real. Many times what we fear simply does not come to pass. Still, when in the grip of such irrational fear, we hide and cower. We live very small lives by avoiding any potential risk and sacrifice. When fear possesses our heart, we will not live with boldness and courage, which the Bible exalts us to do more than 25 times.
This is where a better understanding of our created nature and our inner capacity for courage comes to our rescue, which is found in the next article.
Courage isn’t found solely within our emotional capacity (that is, our heart). Courage, the Greeks told us, is found within what they called our thumos. Just as we say that reason and logic are found in our brain (the Greeks called this capacity logos) thumos is found in our chest and lungs.
This understanding is more helpful than we might realize at first. Here’s why: If we relied only upon our emotions in order to do the right thing during difficult times, what we would hear and obey is the often cowardly and safety-loving power of fear. In order to be truly courageous, we have to sometimes ignore our emotions and soldier on anyway, like Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane [Matt 26:42].
You have probably been using your thumos to fight fear and grow your courage more often than you realize. It’s no coincidence that when we struggle to bolster our courage, one of the first things we do automatically is breath more deeply and vigorously. Without really knowing it, we are trying to melt the fear in our heart through the animation of our chest and lungs, which grows our capacity for courage.
Our emotions fuel the flame of courage, but they are not the flame itself. Courage is born and grown when we marry our emotional capacity, especially the feeling of indignation, with our God-given understanding of right and wrong—especially our understanding of justice.
Think of your thumos as the place within you where feelings and thoughts wrestle and heat up to the point of taking action on behalf of what is good and right. No wonder that it is from the word thumos that we get the common word, Thermos, a more obvious container of heat. When we grow our thumotic capacity, we grow our ability to courageously attach our lives to transcendent causes, aligning our will with God’s will.
The word indignation means in part “much to grieve.” To grow your courage, find out what grieves you. Write it down and share it with someone you trust who will encourage you to act upon your godly indignation. But be careful. In ways that remain somewhat mysterious, we harm our ability for courageous action when we fail to act upon what we know we should do. C.S. Lewis put it this way in Screwtape Letters where a demonic being instructs another demonic being on how to destroy a person’s soul: "The more often [your subject] feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel."
Courage is also grown through belief in God, which brings us assurance of God’s love and care in our lives, as seen in the lives of many in the Bible, especially Moses [Exodus 15:2]. When we have a belief that God is with us, we are encouraged, which means both being comforted and urged forward. Belief in God gives us a tangible strength as we walk through our everyday life.
God also longs to give us a courageous spirit as well. He told us so through the apostle Paul’s second letter to his timid protégé, Timothy. A young man with a difficult job, Timothy was often out-gunned and disrespected by older members in his community who questioned his authority due to his younger age.
Paul provides one of the most helpful insights that a person who struggles with timidity can receive: “For the spirit that God gave us is no craven [cowardly or timid] spirit, but one of strength, love and self-discipline” [2 Timothy 1:7] Once again, we see our three fundamental capacities: strength, synonymous with courage, love, the greatest of all emotions, and self-discipline, the product of logic and reason. God gives us a courageous spirit and we need to pray for wisdom on how this spirit can grow within us even more.
And here’s some more good news regarding this foundational virtue: Our capacity for courage increases with age, so each and every one of us is moving this direction without even trying. With age, we gradually lose our unbiblical “fear of man” and in doing so, are more open to doing the will of God, which is sometimes opposed to the will of man. With this greater capacity for courage comes the understanding that like faith, courage is grown in the doing, expanding the richness of our lives and the depth of our faith as well.
The quality of our lives expands or contracts based upon the amount of courage we possess or don’t possess. With courage, we are far more likely to attach our lives to a transcendent cause and mission, which demands sacrifice but through it deepens our soul, faith, and grafts into our lives greater meaning, purpose and significance. With courage, we are better able to produce tangible expressions of faith in action.
But the area in our lives where courage is most needed is love. Without courage we can obtain some degree of three out of four forms of love. We can get to the love of the familiar (storge), we can obtain some level of sexual love (eros) and even some degree of loving friendship (philia). But it’s agape, deep and abiding love, we cannot obtain. Deep and abiding love is risky, sacrificial and dangerous to our self-preservation and sense of control. To love deeply is to open yourself to inevitable suffering, usually through rejection or loss. But it is this kind of love that we are commanded to obtain and spread, and it is the kind of love that makes life glorious and heroic.
When asked what is the greatest expression of love, Jesus did not provide a sentimental example, such as giving your wife 12 long-stem roses on Valentine’s Day. Rather, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” [John 15:13]. Jesus was foreshadowing His own death, but he was also telling us that the greatest form of love is more Marines than Mother’s Day, more courage than sentiment.
More so, we are called to love people through our courageous strength. Jesus said that the greatest of all commandments is to “Love God with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself" [Mark 12:33]. Not only do we see once again the three parts of our human essence, we are told that we are to love God and others through our courageous strength—not God’s strength in our lives.
And finally, courage fuels the most noted examples of Christian witness and faith, examples that even the cynic cannot ignore. Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr., William Wilberforce, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Mother Teresa, Harriet Tubman, Pope John Paul II, Chuck Colson, Dr. James Dobson—to name just a few—all in their own way, through their courageous capacity, have battled to defend human dignity, which is a gift from God that no person should tear asunder.
These people of tremendous faith in action, the kind of people that the book of Hebrews says are “too good for a world like this,” [Hebrews 11:38] shook the world by their courageous faith in action by reflecting the nature of the God they serve, setting captives free and making both atheists and believers weep with awe, gratefulness and sometimes even envy.
God has given each of us the capacity for courageous strength. When honored, grown and maintained, this virtue that underpins all other virtues finds its most noble expression in the service of dangerously unselfish love.