It is striking that John’s list of vices in Revelation 21:8 begins with the cowardly. Along with the murderers, sorcerers, and liars, the coward’s final portion will be the lake of fire. If cowardice belongs to unbelievers, the implication is that one mark of a true Christian is courage. But if we’re honest, many of us would likely admit that courage is not the virtue we think of or aspire to most often. We picture Perpetua being fed to lions or consider the dangers faced by leaders of the underground church and wonder if courage is relevant to an ordinary office job or a stay-at-home mom’s daily grind.
We would do well to increasingly understand and cultivate this virtue, and thankfully Scripture gives us a wealth of examples to glean from. While there are too many to mention them all, several will help flesh out a basic definition: Courage is a Godward strength of soul manifested in doing what is right and necessary despite difficulty or danger.
The word “Godward” is important, because while believers and unbelievers alike may boldly confront danger, courage as a Christian virtue is distinct in that it is rooted in the fear of the Lord. In the fear of the Lord, the Hebrew midwives courageously disobeyed Pharaoh’s murderous command and Obadiah hid one hundred prophets from the wicked Jezebel (Ex. 1:17; 1 Kings 18:3–4). God was in their thoughts, and they lived before His face. Perhaps Nehemiah said it most simply when Israel’s enemies gathered to oppose their work of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem: “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight . . . ” (Neh. 4:14).
A God-fearing life remembers God. Rather than being an afterthought, the reality of God is already in the equation. Before the daring decision is made and the courageous act accomplished, a strong and steady root was growing in the soul; an inward courage was being cultivated as it recalled God’s presence, power, and promises.
We repeatedly see instances in Scripture wherein God prepares fearful men with the promise, “I will be with you.” God’s presence prepared Moses to approach Pharaoh, Joshua to conquer Canaan, and Jeremiah to boldly prophesy. For these men, courage was nurtured by the knowledge that their audacious feats would not be a one-man show; they dared not go forward alone, and they didn’t have to.
Courage is also cultivated as the God-fearer recalls God’s power. Why did David have the courage to stand before Goliath with only a handful of stones? He knew his God was all-powerful, that “the Lord saves not with sword or spear,” and was able to steer one little stone to knock the giant dead (1 Sam. 17:47). Likewise, when the huge Syrian army surrounded them, Elisha spoke to his servant, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16; see also King Hezekiah’s courageous response to Sennacherib’s invasion in 2 Chron. 32:1–8). God’s power to save in dire circumstances was not an urgent matter of question, but a certainty to calmly acknowledge.
Finally, courage comes to life when one is increasingly familiar with God’s promises and is convinced that He keeps them. When the prophet Azariah reminded King Asa of God’s promise to bless those who seek Him but to forsake those who turn from Him, Asa “took courage and put away the detestable idols from all the land of Judah and Benjamin” (2 Chron. 15:8). When the Moabites and Ammonites rallied against Judah, Jehoshaphat pleaded with the Lord to rescue them according to His promises, believing that as He promised Solomon, God would hear and save His people when they humbly cried out from His temple (see 2 Chron. 20:1–12).
Courageous Christians live a daily life of fearing and remembering God—His presence, power, and promises. They are acutely aware that whatever circumstance they find themselves in, the disposition of their mind and heart toward the God of the universe will determine whether they act with courage or cowardice.
But here’s the crux: thinking rightly about God will not inspire courage unless those thoughts can be followed with the bold declaration of the psalmist: “The Lord is on my side as my helper” (Ps. 118:7). Unless God is on my side as my helper, unless He is for me and not against me, the uncertainty of occasions that call for courage will be terrifying. Why? Because acting with courage does not guarantee earthly comfort or success. Not every courageous act is rewarded with an immediate rescue of safety and ease. Sometimes God allows His children to do what is right and then suffer for it.
How do we reckon with that reality? How can we muster the strength to say along with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, “But if not,” or to say with Paul “whether by life or by death” (Dan. 3:18; Phil. 1:20)? Our courage must be founded in the fear of God Almighty, our Father, who is wisely working all things—all outcomes—for the eternal good of His children. And even if He sees fit for the courageous act to result in small or great suffering, we can be confident that the day is coming when He will gather His faithful children and bring them to eternal safety in His presence.
This article is part of the Virtues and Vices collection.