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].
Using Your Thumos
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.