Take heart, take courage… by Revd Steve Proudlove
In November we think a lot about courage and remembrance. The month begins straight after All Saints and All Souls where we remember the Saints who have gone before us and thank God for the souls of the departed. We shift quickly on to Guy Fawkes night where we celebrate with a bang our collective memory of the foiled gunpowder plot. Then we move more solemnly to Remembrance Day and we remember those who have given their lives in war and conflict on the behalf of others.
In much of our remembering we celebrate courage; the courage of individuals battling the elements, the courage of groups and battalions, willing to sacrifice themselves for their comrades or families back home, and even the courage of those who fight private battles against illness or circumstances. In our remembering, we celebrate the courageous examples who went before us.
Courage, however, can be a slippery concept. Aristotle and Plato thought it was a great virtue, and it is … our films and stories celebrate the Bruce Willis stereotype who stands up against the massed enemy and prevails, mainly because he is the only one to have enough courage to do it. However, Aristotle and Plato (and Hollywood) really consider courage to be a virtue only when it is directed towards the common good, and as such, all of a sudden courage becomes subjective – what is the common good and who decides? Courage itself, suddenly floats free of its bindings and remains a virtue only if we decide it is directed well and therefore we tether it to another action or object.
The courage of war heroes is remembered because of their sacrifice and willingness to put themselves in the firing line to save others. The courage of mountaineers, such as in the new film, based on a true story, ‘Everest’, is celebrated because it represents humanity obstinately battling nature. The courage of the individuals we know who battle mental or physical illness is admired and cherished, even long after they are gone, because of the inspiration they are to us and because of the commitment to life they demonstrate.
All this is good. Courage is good. The danger, however, in celebrating the virtue isolated from the context is that it can float into celebrating the courage of the person who breaks into the house and steals or even worse. We can all think of examples where courage might not be a good thing… which makes it really interesting when the Bible talks about courage.
A quick Google search is easy – the Bible talks about being courageous, about courage (taking heart), discouragement, and encouragement – and in my really brief search, biblical courage doesn’t seem to float free from its moorings as a concept. Its meaning is never left to chance. It doesn’t take on a Platonic, Aristotelian or Hollywood ideal but is firmly grounded. It is grounded in God.
In the Old Testament, Joshua is urged to have courage because God is with him wherever he goes and because he is somehow bound up to God’s law (Joshua 1:6-7). In the Psalms, people are urged to ‘be strong and take heart’ and wait for the Lord (Psalm 27) ‘all you who hope in the Lord’ (Psalm 31). In the New Testament, courage and faith in God are also linked (e.g. Acts 27:25). So courage is not a meaningless conceptual virtue, but is rooted firmly in God and his will.
At the end of November we move into Advent, when we are again in a time of remembering. In Advent we wait for Christmas, the coming of God’s own Son into the world for us, and we remember the great story of salvation which precedes and pre-figures this coming. We remember all the events listed in another Psalm (136) in which God proved himself throughout Israel’s history. It is against this backdrop that Israel as a nation were inspired to trust God and take courage. They had been saved, rescued and redeemed by God’s miraculous and mighty acts and therefore they could take courage. But courage isn’t just based on remembrance of the past; it is founded in the character of God here and now (e.g. Psalm 31). We can be courageous because our hope is in the God who holds our lives in his hands, and who is a rock and fortress and who preserves us. Courage is also founded in faith in the goodness of God in the future (e.g. Psalm 27). We can take heart and be strong and wait for the Lord, confident that we will see God’s goodness.
Biblical courage is not a free floating ideal for us to live up to, but is a response of trust in a God who has revealed himself in the past, where our remembrances teach us of his goodness. It is a response to a God who has revealed his ongoing character in the present, so we can trust him to hold us even in fearful times. Furthermore, courage is a response to acknowledging that our Good God holds the future and we can wait upon him. Our ‘en-couragement’ comes from our remembering as we tie the events of the past to our knowledge of God in the present in an act of imaginative and faithful remembrance which enables us to pray to him for the future.
Take heart, take courage, all you who hope in the Lord!
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