“How few there are who have courage enough to own their faults, or resolution enough to mend them” ~Benjamin Franklin
It’s been said that courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to overcome it. This might seem like an odd sort of spiritual principle at first. Don’t we usually associate courage with physical bravery? Storming a machine gunner’s position, standing up to a playground bully, dashing into a burning building to rescue a helpless child?
Yet risk to life and limb is hardly the only thing we must sometimes face that requires courage. It takes courage to stand up for what’s right when it might cost us others’ approval, or a job, or a friendship. It takes courage to settle for nothing less than the truth, when accepting a lie is more convenient or profitable. It takes courage to venture into the unknown: a new career, committing to a relationship, or trying something scary that we’ve never done before – or even a new way of doing something we’ve done dozens of times a different way.
And it often seems to take the most courage of all to face uncomfortable truths about ourselves – to take a hard look at our own behavior, attitudes, fears, and especially to admit to ourselves that we have been mistaken or foolish or wrong.
Let’s look at what all these examples of courage have in common:
In the first place, there is risk: risk to our bodies, our physical health; risk to our financial well being or social standing; risk to our beliefs the world and other people; and scariest of all, risk to our beliefs about ourselves.
Next, there is action: plunging into icy waters to rescue a drowning child; giving honest testimony in court under the baleful eye of the accused; writing a 4th Step inventory that means facing painful truths about ourselves.
Finally, some greater value than satisfying selfish desire must be served. Spending your life savings on lottery tickets certainly includes action and risk, but it serves only a trivial purpose, thus is merely foolhardy, not courageous. On the other hand, confessing to your wife that you’ve blown your life savings on lottery tickets may require a great deal of courage! The confession serves your wife’s right to know-and it serves your own integrity and the integrity of your marriage. It also serves your own honor and self-respect.
The word “courage” derives from “cor,” the Latin word for heart. How fitting, since it not only takes courage to open our hearts to others, as in marriage, but also every greater cause served by our courage must be something near and dear to our hearts: the welfare of our children, the lives of our comrades, the cause of social justice, our own personal integrity, or serving the will of God. If we let fear stop us from serving what’s in our hearts, then something vital in our hearts dies. We serve fear instead of faith, and we lose our self-respect.
But when courage guides our conduct, we can look ourselves in the eye without flinching. We know that we’re not cowards, dominated by our fears. We know we have the strength to do what it takes to make our actions match up with our values. We know we can be trusted to do what’s right, and that gives us the power to trust others as well. And to find that courage, we must put our trust in God.
Finally, courage is more than a just virtue in its own right: it’s also the foundation for other spiritual principles to work in our lives. Without courage to face the truth and to do what’s right, we’ll never make much progress in developing honesty, integrity, self-discipline, or responsibility. Without courage, we’ll never dare to forgive, to make our hearts vulnerable by loving another, or to take that scary step into faith. And yet, ironically, it is only through forgiveness, through love, and though faith that we can find the ultimate source of all our courage, lying deep within our heart of hearts.
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Links to more information about Courage:
Janette Marie Freeman on “4 Keys to Developing Courage”
From margiewarrell.com, 5 simple steps to help you find your courage.
Roger Bertschausen on “Spiritual Courage, the voyage to self-knowledge and self-discovery”
A sermon by Barbara Wells on “Spiritual Courage,” distinguishing it from bravery.
Recommended Books about Courage:
Paul Tillich, The Courage To Be
Paul Tillich’s modern classic on courage as the essential spiritual quality necessary for a meaningful life, based on a series of lectures given at Yale about the convergence of religion, science, and philosophy.
Nina Lesowitz and Mary Beth Sammons, The Courage Companion: How To Live Life with True Power
Lesowitz and Sammons’s reader offers dozens of real life stories that explain the nature of courage and inspire us to meet challenges courageously in our own lives.
Guy Finley, The Courage to Be Free: Discover Your Original Fearless Self
Finley’s little book is about practicing the spiritual courage necessary for real self-discovery, and how knowing the truth about ourselves sets us free.