We all know that scene in a war film where the main characters are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Chaos has erupted around them, and they are about to make a charge. Maybe it’s on a PT boat approaching Normandy beach punctuated by the staccato of bomb blasts and bursts of light in Saving Private Ryan. Maybe it’s in a castle on the ramparts when all hope seems lost in The Two Towers. It’s that scene of hopelessness, but one that is stirred into bravery by a leader who inspires everyone to take that stand, abandon fear, and charge forward. In the audience, you are similarly stirred by duty, honor, and patriotism. You feel full of emotion and tell yourself that this is what true courage looks like.
Or maybe you don’t watch war films, so you see courage in a David and Goliath, underdog type story. You cheer for the little guy who is bullied in a high school movie and who learns to fight back, like in Karate Kid, or who gains powers to fight back, like in Spiderman. Or maybe you feel caught up in a story involving justice for the oppressed in a courtroom, workplace, or city streets drama. Perhaps the bullying involves prejudice or the rich exploiting the poor. The hero struggles for justice, then gets angry, finds allies, and turns the tables on the bully. You hear the stirring music during that final showdown scene and celebrate the hero’s triumph. That’s real courage. It’s fighting back. It’s growing stronger and taking on previously more powerful oppressors.
Or maybe you see courage in the love the hero shows when saving a friend or family member by dying in their place. There are many instances of this in movies and television dramas: the parent who dies so their child can live; the cop who pushes his partner out of the way to take a bullet meant for him; the soldier who jumps on a grenade to save his team; or the hero who tells the villain, “Take me instead. Take me in his place.” This, you tell yourself, this is the fullest version of courage: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13, ESV). It’s the higher purpose of love. That’s what courage is.
These are three main ways the world defines courage. Join the group and fight for a cause that’s bigger than you. Overcome bullies. Sacrifice in love for someone else. And whichever the case, risk your life while doing so.
If I were to combine these definitions of courage into a formula, then
Courage = (higher purpose + social pressure + love for others) – (fear + self-preservation + ego)
A recent formula for courage
So how is it, then, that we celebrate so many other acts in our society as examples of courage? We celebrate as bravery people “telling it like it is” on the news and social media. We laud rebel figures “sticking it to the man” or “telling truth to power” or acting selfishly lawless against a larger oppressive system. There are many films where the action hero is fearless like a robot, moving machine-like through scores of enemies without hesitation. We see courage in the sports figure or team who regularly dominates the field and humiliates the competition. We assume courage in a person’s position rather than inner self – if they are exposed to danger, perhaps as a soldier, cop, or spy, they must be courageous. But is there really such a thing as courage without fear? Is there courage without higher ideals or love? Is courage a trait of boldness rather than an overcoming of the self?
In our culture lately, a new (but actually very old) version of courage has sprung up. Here’s the formula:
This formula, in most cultures throughout history, isn’t a definition of courage, but of dangerous ego, recklessness, and often villainy.
Courage = fearlessness + rebelliousness + self or team centeredness + anger
Perhaps we need to go back to the earlier definitions of courage above. In a culture which believes that courage is the absence of fear, honor, and love, perhaps we need to teach through our examples and our stories that courage only happens when fear is felt and overcome and when one invokes a higher purpose to sacrifice the self for others.
However, rather than being content only with our world’s definition of an ideal, we as Christians must also ask ourselves if has God revealed to us another way. Is there a different, sometimes higher, version of courage? Instead of only attacking or devaluing what is in culture, we need to express positive Christian versions of what is good, true, and beautiful.
If we take a look at the courage that overcomes fear and sacrifices for a higher ideal, we find something lacking. Don’t people we consider evil do the same thing? Didn’t the Nazis in Saving Private Ryan fight just as courageously? And while the orcs in the Lord of the Rings trilogy aren’t exactly selfless, they do talk of obedience, duty, bravado, and strength in the fight. What about criminals in gangster films, freedom fighters in wars, and super-powered villains in our other movies? Don’t they also fight for justice for themselves or their families by rebelling against socioeconomic conditions? Don’t they sacrifice for love? Don’t even terrorists possess any of these types of courage?
A Christian formula for courage
I believe that there are “extra ingredients” to Christian Courage, variables that change the equation above. I’m going to offer a different formula for courage, as shown Biblically, and coincidentally, through the three trials at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
In the 1989 film, the titular character is forced by Nazi forces to go through three trials before he can claim the Holy Grail and use it to save his dying father. Each trial involves a riddle phrase and a trap and symbolizes the journey of courage towards faith:
- The Breath of God: “Only the penitent man will pass.” This represents humility and is a saw booby trap which cuts the head off those who don’t kneel.
- The Word of God: “Only in the footsteps of God will he proceed.” This represents knowledge of God and is a puzzle trap in which Indy must step on the proper letters that spell God’s name or fall into a pit.
- The Path of God: “Only in the leap from the lion’s head will he prove his worth.” This represents a leap of faith and is a trap in which Indy must step onto an invisible platform over an abyss, which he must trust will hold him.
If we take this as a Christian formula for courage, as I will discuss below, the formula is this:
Courage = (humility + knowledge of God + a leap of faith) – (fear + self preservation + ego)
The Breath of God: “Only the penitent man will pass.”
The first necessary element in Christian courage is humility. It’s the first way that Christ’s followers should be different from the broader world in their bravery. In your Christian journey, who have you met that most embodies faithfulness? Who most represents the fruits of the spirit? Chances are you would characterize that person as humble before God and humble before other humans, boasting in the Lord rather than themselves. They likely serve others rather than overly valuing their own needs. Humility is a posture and bearing of being made simultaneously of dust breathed into life and in the divine image. It is following the example of our Lord, “who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6, ESV).
The Word of God: “Only in the footsteps of God will he proceed.”
Think again about that Christian friend or mentor from earlier, the one who most represented Christian life and flourishing to you. Chances are they weren’t only humble, but also confident. How can this be? We often confuse humility with humiliation and believe that the humble are not confident. Humiliation is the state of being ruled by fear, shame, and insecurity. It is a weak shadow of true humility, which, when combined with knowledge of God, becomes confidence. The person who is first humble later becomes confident over fear through knowledge of God’s hope, joy, and love. They rest in God’s grace, building their house on the rock of His foundation rather than the shifting sands around them. This is the person who still may suffer in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 34) but does so with the Lord’s comfort and thus fears no evil. They may still feel the primary emotions of fear, but they hold onto His promises and person. Their courage comes from knowing that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. For by me your days will be multiplied, and years will be added to your life” (Proverbs 9:10-11, ESV). The courageous Christian knows that God is sovereign and that no matter what happens in the here and now, He will overcome. Theirs is a courage founded in wisdom, with a deliberate patience. They do not get easily swayed by the shifting gusts of controversy into anger, anxiety, or apathy.
The Path of God: “Only in the leap from the lion’s head will he prove his worth”
The third element of Christian courage is the leap of faith, the action taken towards God and away from fear. If faith “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, ESV), then action must follow this conviction. Without action, there cannot be courage, whether in the Christian or secular senses. C.S. Lewis stated that “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point” (The Screwtape Letters). The testing point is the point of action. It may be something grand like mortally sacrificing oneself as a martyr or entering real danger to save a friend. Or this action may appear small and quiet, in persevering through suffering or resisting temptation. Actions done through Christian courage supernaturally resonate through the cosmos, even though our perishable senses may not register the vibrations.
Do you seek courage? Do you wish to be stronger in your resistance to fear and insecurity in this world? Do not strive after courage as if it is boldness, bravado, or lack of fear. Do not try to grasp it whole, as if courage was a simple, tangible thing. Do not believe that courage is perfection or a trait someone possesses innately. Rather, seek humility, learn about God’s ways and find wisdom, then trust in Him when the moment arrives and take the leap of faith. And if your fear is too strong, build up these things, rebalance that equation, and try again.
Steven is a lover of deep conversation, literature, film, comic books, video games, and travel. He is a father of a daughter more talented than he, husband to a wife more creative, and a leader of many people who are more skilled, but he manages to get by. He writes memoir, poetry, essays, and fiction. Loving balance in all things, he makes this exception: he doesn’t believe there are such things as thinking too much, learning too much, or caring too much. He spends his non-hobby time as President at the C.S. Lewis Foundation, working with great joy planning and managing events with his merry band of volunteer superheroes.