Courage and Religious Faith
Courage is recognized as a principal virtue in every society. We usually think of it as bravery, as when risking life and limb during combat in war. But spiritual courage is equally valued in the religious traditions and scriptures of diverse cultures. For instance, it’s described at length in one of the greatest spiritual classics of world literature: the Hindu scripture known as the Bhagavad Gita, or Song of God.
The Gita’s text is in the form of a dialogue between the charioteer, Krishna (presented as an incarnation of God), and the warrior, Arjuna. By explaining our essential spiritual nature and the virtues of right action in daily life, Krishna encourages Arjuna to find the inner strength necessary to combat his own family for the greater good of the nation. In this context, courage may be understood as having the strength to take right action, even in difficult circumstances, based on correct understanding of our responsibilities in life.
The great Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — all share a common heritage of pre-Christian Hebrew texts. The Psalms, or Tehillim, of the Jewish poet-warrior-king, David, are among the best known of these texts, and the best known Psalm is undoubtedly the 23rd, which celebrates God as the source of David’s courage:
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me. (Psalms 23:4, NIV)
This is but one of many Old Testament passages stating that the source of courage is our trust in God, and that conscious awareness of God’s presence empowers us to overcome fear even in the face of evil or death. In other words, it encourages us to take right action.
For Christians, the most profound example of the meaning and power of courage is found in the Gospel story of Christ’s personal struggle at Gethsemane. Jesus’s challenge to the authority of the ruling elite had already led them to try arresting him at the Temple. During the Passover dinner known as the Last Supper, after identifying Judas as the man who would betray him, and then breaking bread with his disciples for the last time, he told them to sell their coats if necessary to buy swords, presumably for their defense as the authorities closed in.
But later that same night, in the garden of Gethsemane, knowing that he would probably be arrested soon and then and condemned to an agonizing death, he prayed that God would “take this cup from him,” asking God to spare him the impending martyrdom.
In response, “An angel from Heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.” (Luke 22:43, NIV) Afterwards, Jesus surrendered to God’s will and let himself be arrested without putting up a fight, telling Peter to put his sword away when he started to resist.
Here we see all the elements of courage previously discussed: an action (surrendering to the authorities) taken at substantial personal risk (torture and death) for the sake of a greater cause (obedience to the will of God, redemption of humankind). In his time of greatest doubt and fear, Jesus found the courage he needed by reaching out to his heavenly Father.
And the same courage is available to each of us whenever we call on our heavenly Father in prayer and step out in faith to do His will.
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“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you or forsake you.” ~ Deuteronomy 31:6
“When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?” ~ Psalm 56:3-4
“Therefore do not fear them. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known.” ~ Matthew 10:26
“For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” ~ 2 Timothy 1:7
“Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong.” 1 Corinthians 16:13
“The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself, in spite of being unacceptable.” ~ Paul Tillich
“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt
“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear-not absence of fear.” ~ Mark Twain
“Clear thinking requires courage rather than intelligence.” ~ Thomas Szasz
Links to more information about Courage and Religious Faith:
Several links to Bible verses about courage are offered at Open Bible.
Jay Wegter on “The Source of the Godly Man’s Courage.”
“Christian Courage,” from DesiringGod.org.
Rabbi Alan Lurie on “The Power of Spiritual 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.
Gordon T. Smith, Courage and Calling: Embracing Your God-Given Potential
Smith writes about the courage required to examine who we really are, to understand our weaknesses and strengths, and to discover our calling to serve God in our daily lives.
Gary Haugen, Just Courage: God’s Great Expedition for the Restless Christian.
Haugen writes about having the courage to experience “the power of God on the more jagged edges of faith” by taking up the challenge to do good and to seek real justice in the world.