Getting the Courage We Long For

Getting the Courage We Long For June 18, 2012

“Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”  Maya Angelou

Somehow in my thirties I became aware of how much of my life had been occupied and driven by fear and anxiety and I wanted that to change.  A noticed a conversation about fear was rising to a public sphere (i.e. shows on Oprah).  People who had been victims of violent crimes were often saying they had ignored their ‘instincts’ about a person or circumstance to their detriment.  Similarly, others were describing moments when trusting their ‘instincts’ saved them from harm. Ultimately, the value of trusting one’s ‘instinct’ or ‘intuition’ was increasing.  As well, I came to see that that the way I approached God, Jesus and Christianity had hindered the very growth I longed for and expected from “being a Christian”. I was coming to see that I had been racked with fear my whole life, but just ignored it.  Despite seeing myself as ’emotionally intelligent’ and on the sensitive, artistic side of the spectrum, the fear was too scary to face. So, I spent a season intentionally asking people I admire about courage.

A number of people I knew appeared to have much more courage than I.   I wanted to learn from them.  When asked about courage, their responses were strangely ambiguous and similar – they didn’t really know where their courage came from or how to increase it. The dozen or so I asked whom I consider confident, successful, and courageous typically fumbled around answers which typically alluded to growing up and childhood and their fathers.  At first, I was disappointed not to receive any particular insight.  In fact, I briefly felt even less courageous, left with the possibility that one’s measure of courage is imbued in utero.  Then I began to see it differently.

Courage is often described as the ability to act in spite of fear, not the absence of fear.  Maya Angelou points to courage as the chief of virtues, noting that it takes courage to be virtuous; to be patient, diligent, charitable, and humble.  Courage, however, is not something we feel. The feeling which accompanies courage is paradoxical: it is fear. By definition, courage is required only when we feel enough fear that we may not act virtuously, but rather in response to our fear. We “fight” or “flight”.  Ironically, what we are repeatedly told is “don’t be afraid”.  Telling someone to “not be afraid” is akin to telling them “don’t feel what you’re feeling”. Not exactly good advice.

Jesus repeatedly says, “Don’t be afraid,” throughout the Gospels. I think many people, myself included, have unknowingly operated on the unconscious conclusion that Jesus, in fact, saying, “Don’t feel what you are feeling”.  We are brought up hearing these words and subtly receive the message that faithfulness requires being highly skeptical of our instincts and feelings, and like victims of violent crimes, we wonder if we could have avoided pain and injuries if we had only acted on our instincts, or simply paid more attention to our fear.

This dynamic can become acute and hurtful in communities.  Rather than feel our fear, we fend it off with ‘beliefs’ – “I have nothing to fear because God will take care of me, God knows me, God loves me, ‘Immortal, Invisible, God only wise,’ ‘You are more than enough for me,'” etc.  We rely on faith and community and God to shield us from the trauma of living in a world full of danger and violence. We invest heavily in creating a ‘safe place’ and end up with an illusion of safety by welcoming only those who are like us, those who comfort us, and avoid (even resent) conversations which cause us anxiety.  People who join churches expect this because churches advertise it: “Join our [fill in the blank; caring, compassionate, courageous] community”.  In other words, if I join this community, I will feel cared for and less afraid.”  Furthermore, when a person or idea even indirectly suggests a different way of thinking or being, we are apt to want to lash out to protect what is so fragile – the accumulated and unprocessed feelings we have been shielded from actually acknowledging.  We also have to give up the dream, that God/Jesus/church will meet my needs. Unfortunately, in the process, we never gain the ability to actually feel our fear and consequently gain the very courage we long for.

There is an alternative. The opportunity is to become increasingly aware of our fears – of rejection, of failure, and of growing older.  In this way, our communities can consist of people who help us acknowledge, feel, and face our fears.  A community like this hesitates to describe itself as ‘courageous’ (or friendly, caring, and inclusive) and instead dreams and works toward becoming a “courageous community”.  In this way, Jesus, in saying, “Don’t be afraid,” is not telling us to shut down emotionally and get courageous, but is alerting us of our fear and our propensity to avoid discomfort at all costs.

Facing fears together is difficult and uncomfortable, but necessary.  When we feel uncertain, we are confronted by uncomfortable questions:  Am I still safe? Does anyone see what I need?  Will I get what I need…ever?  In short, what is revealed are our ‘attachments”, things and people and ways of being we have called upon to ease the discomfort of living. The benefit, however, the good news, is clear.  We become more courageous.

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  • Margaret

    Sean, don’t you think that in the context of the Gospel this response places salvation from fear on the community instead of the Gospel? I think you’re right that some churches falsely advertise “safe” community and that people interpret that as “I never have to face the bad”. But I think that if you look at Scripture Christ offers relief from fear because he has overcome it. We can hope in the face of fear not because we can discuss but because Christ has conquered fear. It’s sort of a nuanced point that perhaps you already assume, but I think it’s important, especially when discussing fear, to point to the Overcomer of Fear first. And then that our courage doesn’t come from ourselves, but from the One who gives it. Side note: an *excellent* book on fear is Running Scared, by Ed Welch. Seriously excellent.

  • Sean, I think you are dead on. This highlights the need for community, while at the same time acknowledging something our western church has abandoned: Jesus calls us to a dangerous way. We love the idea of a Jesus who comforts us and makes us feel at peace, but that isn’t at all what he tells us he does “I do not come to bring peace but a sword.” I identify with people who have “ignored their ‘instincts’ about a person or circumstance to their detriment” but never had the courage to own this as a lack of courage! Good article.

  • Ron S

    My first time to read this blog. Hope the rest of it is anywhere close to as good and tantalizing. I really appreciate the insights and the challenges. I have believed for a long time that two basic responses underlie all of our primary choices – fear or faith (sometimes more like terror or trust). And, I think you are right that trust (and the courage that can flow from it) is not the absence of fear, but the pushing through our realistic fear to a trust that can be even deeper. Surely this has to be the main reality Jesus wrestles with in the Garden – will God come through? am I crazy? what if I have misheard and misread my Father and God? then the decision to trust and courageously move forward with God with “all the chips on the table this time.” – Thanks again.

  • Sean


    A thoughtful observation, calling for the primacy of ‘the Gospel’. What I am interested in critiquing is our approach to fear and increasing the value of honesty. I am, indeed, emphasizing the role of community, but on the premise that there is no Gospel without community.


    You are a courageous man.


    Tx for postIng. Glad to have you.

  • Nice. “Be angry and do not sin” …. “Be fearful and don’t be afraid”.

  • Kevin Fusher

    Great article! reminds me of the lion in the Wizard of Oz seeking for what he already had. I used to think when I was young in both faith and years that Jesus would take away my fears and leave me in a state of inner tranquillity, now I just reach reach out for His hand so to speak and walk through the storm with him. Sounds a bit religious but sensing him with me calms my fears and gets me through the crisis. The possibility of a bad outcome present in my mind sometimes but an assurance that I will get through. Another book which explores courage is Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad, Jim tries to be courageous but fails. I suspect courage is something forged in the moment fear a lifelong lesson in trusting Jesus and listening to the Spirit to walk in the ways of peace.

    With regard to community I think courage to handle conflict and difference is a must. The last 30 or so years have seen many communities fall apart because of failure to deal with so many different issues so for the most part we walk away and try again with a different set of people. Maybe it would be a good thing if as Christians we more readily embraced conflict as the place where truths and solutions are born rather something to run from?

  • Melissa

    I appreciate this post, Sean. This rings so true. Ignoring my fears alienates me from myself and others and hinders the development of true courage.
    A journey of creating a courageous church community is compelling; it’s not safe or easy but it’s compelling.
    I’m struck by Joshua’s statement “Jesus calls us to a dangerous way”
    I’m also struck by Kevin’s statement about conflict being a creative space that we needn’t turn away from, in order “”to ävoid discomfort at all costs.” Harmony is appealing and valuable, but maybe conflict sometimes plays a role in creating harmony?

  • Robert F Revier

    Learning to handle stress and stressors compassionatley and effectively might be the modern transliteration of ‘live w/o fear(w/couurage)’. Thanks for a great, timely and insightful conversation!