Courage. Some consider it the most admirable of human virtues. Earnest Hemingway describes it as grace under pressure. Merriam Webster defines it as mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty. My favorite is Theodore Roosevelt's explanation. In his 1910 speech "Citizenship in a Republic," he declares:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly....
Roosevelt's words, for me, embody the journey of faith, the adventure of faith, the joy of faith and the gut-wrenching challenge of faith. Because for so many of us, to accept the unconditional love of God and to work towards embodying God's love day in and day out is a supreme act of courage.
At its heart, I believe that Psalm 139 paints a glorious picture of courageous faith. It paints the picture of what it means to dare greatly, to let God love us and to strive to love God, to step into the arena of faith and to wear the dust and sweat and blood that make for faithful Christian living.
O LORD, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways...For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
These are words of courage. I imagine the writer of this Psalm was facing a challenge and perhaps feeling nervous or unsure. Before making any decisions or taking any action, he stops for a moment to pray and remember what was most important. God, you know me and you know my story. God, you created me and you gave me gifts. God, I am yours, I am sacred, and I am enough. Just as I am.
The foundation for all courage is God's unconditional love. We could think that courage is all about what we do, but true courage comes from God. True courage begins when we realize that we can believe in ourselves because God believes in us first. True courage is the strength to declare, "God is God and I am not." God is with me and I am never alone.
Do you feel courageous? I don't know about you, but on my average day, courage can feel hard to find. My head knows that God is in charge and that God is with me, but the challenges of everyday life press in from every direction. God may be powerful, but certain things have to get done and I'm the one that has to do them. Decisions have to be made and problems have to be solved. And when push comes to shove, we feel a lot more lonely and nervous than we do courageous.
Courage might be possible for everyone else, but your situation sure can feel different. Maybe you've been searching for a job for ages, or maybe you have a job, but you dread going to work every day. Or it seems like everyone you know is pregnant with their second or third child and you have been trying to have a baby for years. All those other families seem so happy and normal and perfect, but your marriage is a mess, or your child is getting into trouble. While most of your friends are enjoying life, you're overwhelmed with a terrifying medical diagnosis and have no idea what the future holds. It's easy to have courage when everything is going well, but courage seems like a luxury when you're just trying to survive.
And survival mode is where most of us find ourselves. Things cruise along smoothly every once in a while, but then something happens and everything goes up in the air. At these moments, we find ourselves searching for answers and signs of hope. We yearn for courage, but we're not sure where to find it.
One of my favorite shows is Call the Midwife from the BBC. On a recent episode, one of the characters made a courageous decision to change her life and embark on a new journey.
As she was leaving, the narrator spoke these profound words: "There is a greater gift than the trust of others. And that is the trust in oneself. Some might call it confidence, others name it faith, but if it makes us brave, the label doesn't matter, for it's the thing that frees us to embrace life itself."
True courage begins when we realize that we can believe in ourselves because God believes in us first. God created you and God knows your story. God is active in your daily life, often in ways you don't even notice. Because God's breath fills you and guides you, you need to learn to trust yourself. God doesn't often speak loudly or in obvious ways. But all the time, God is speaking to us through quiet nudges and feelings in the pit of our stomach. As our Psalmist says, "God, you hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me." If we can find a way to settle down and listen, we'll soon see God's fingerprints all around us.
It happens often, and the more I react, the more often it seems to occur. I'm going about the business of my day and a friend's name crosses my mind. I smile at the thought and continue with whatever I'm doing. But then a couple hours later, she's on my mind again. I have no idea why, but I keep thinking about her. We haven't chatted in awhile, but so much is going on. Usually, I pick up my phone and send a quick text. Thinking of you. How are you? Can we chat soon? Whenever it is that we finally connect, I often hear from that friend that she was having a bad day or that things weren't going well when she heard from me. She says that hearing from a friend made her feel loved and was a much needed pick me up.
When I send my text or pick up the phone or act on a vague instinct to check on someone or something, I don't feel like I'm doing anything courageous. I'm just following my gut and reaching out. But I've learned it's so much more than that. By trusting myself, by trusting my own, innate wisdom, by having faith that my body knows, that my heart knows, that my instincts and my gut and my intuition are trustworthy, I am making a courageous declaration of faith. I am recognizing that God is God and I am letting God speak to me. I am acknowledging that God is with me always and that I can listen to even the quietest whisper of God's voice.
And if I open myself up to God's voice about the small things, then I can also open myself up to God's nudges and guidance and wisdom about the bigger things, too. If I trust myself to make decisions when things are calm and smooth, then I can trust myself to make decisions when survival mode sets in. Because while the details of my situation may change, the Truth never changes. While the pendulum of my life may swing widely from calm to chaos, God remains steadfast and strong and trustworthy. While I may lose confidence in myself, God never loses faith in me.
When faced with a challenge, rather than asking yourself, "Do I feel courageous?" I think a better question is "Can I let God in?" We are never going to understand why things happen and we won't ever have all the answers. But God promises to stand with us and nudge us in the right direction. Ask God to guide you. Listen for the nudges and look for the quiet clues. Be attentive, trust yourself, and follow your heart to make the right decision.
"How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them--they are more than the sand; I come to the end--I am still with you."
No matter what the particular details of your current struggle are, you will survive. The strength and faith that has sustained you up to this point will continue to sustain you now. Let God be God and trust that God is working out God's plan. You don't have to wait for everything to be clear before you make a move. We live our lives one day and one decision at a time. Listen to your heart and follow your gut.
And when you need an extra bit of strength or are searching for the courage to press forward, remember our Psalmist's declaration of faith. "I come to the end, I am still with you." Take a deep breath and say it out loud. "I come to the end, I am still with you." No matter what, God remains with us. When we struggle, God pursues us into the void and accompanies us along our path. God will never let us go. God stands at our side during the dark moments of despair, and God rejoices with us when the soft glow of daylight returns.
The author Mary Anne Radmacher says it beautifully: "Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day, saying, 'I will try again tomorrow.'" Keep trying. Everyday life can feel like a battlefield. Even the strong stumble and every good deed could be done better. But as Roosevelt reminds us, the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly and dares greatly, even in the face of trial.
Be courageous. Step into the arena and take a chance. True courage is knowing that because God created you, you are loved, you are sacred, and you are enough. Just as you are. Remember that God is God and you are not. But God is with you and you are never alone.
Let us pray: Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. God, grant us the courage to be faithful. Help us to trust ourselves and to trust that you love us. Remind us that you are God and that you are with us and let this give us the strength to live each day. Amen.