On a few occasions recently (through Lent) I’ve been reflecting on fear and courage.
At some superficial level, these are opposites. Either you are afraid, or you overcome fear by having courage. The Bible verse most likely to be cited in support of this is Joshua 1:9 ‘I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.’
However, it can sometimes be acknowledged that if you do not have any fear, then you hardly need be courageous, since there is no inhibiting factor to overcome. So it may well be that fear and courage are more intimately intertwined than they are opposites. The typical way of expressing this line of thought is something like: ‘Courage is facing what you fear, and doing it anyway.’ I have heard sermons on this basis, and the idea has a degree of popularity.
I have always liked the realism of ‘Courage is facing what you fear and doing it anyway.’ I have fears, and I cannot simply turn them off. Some fears seem ‘natural’ and fairly common to all: the fear of being physically hurt, the fear of losing everything, ultimately the fear of death. It is good to know that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with having such fears. Other fears seem to have more complex factors behind them, which is apparent because they are shared by some people but not all: the fear of humiliation, the fear of isolation, the fear of criticism, the fear of weakness. Again, it is helpful to have the en-courage-ment that such fears can be faced: that they may not be definitive or debilitating.
But what do we do when fears or anxieties are debilitating? I am hearing increasingly of people for whom ‘Courage is facing what you fear, and doing it anyway’ is effectively a condemnation. They can’t ‘do it anyway’. And it is not for lack of desire or effort. Anxiety is a mental health condition for some people, that cannot simply be ‘overcome’ by courage, any more than someone with a debilitating physical condition can behave as if they did not. Ironically, those who live with such severe anxiety tend to be incredibly courageous, simply because that is what is required to get through each day.
Patrick Regan (founder of XLP) picked up on this theme when he spoke at the New Wine Leaders’ Conference earlier this month. He shared two wonderful quotations that I found really helpful. The first is from Mary Anne Radmacher: ‘Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes it’s the quiet voice that says, “I will try again tomorrow”.’ The image here is of the person who can’t quite make it, who is overcome in some respect and cannot ‘do it anyway’, and yet who does not give up. It reminded me of the old-fashioned saying ‘Discretion is the better part of valour.’ Sometimes courage is not ‘facing your fears and doing it anyway’ but is actually ‘acknowledging your fears and accepting your limitations but not giving up’. And in fact, being able to opt out may well go hand-in-hand with being willing to ask for help.
Which brings me to Patrick’s second quotation (which he did not attribute; maybe it’s his own): ‘Depression, anxiety and panic attacks are not signs of weakness, they are signs of trying to remain
strong for too long’. There is good clinical evidence that trying to ignore mental health problems, to overcome them through an effort of your own will, can actually result in worse problems. The same factors that enable some people to be very responsible, diligent and reliable, can also push them into depression. (For more explanation, see this video and especially the comments that users have left about it.) From this point of view, for some people, the ‘do it anyway’ advocacy of courage could actually be quite damaging. What is needed instead is well-informed support to explore the reasons for the sense of fear or anxiety.
Having had all this rattling round my head for a few weeks, I’ve come to Good Friday pondering where the courage and the fear were for Jesus facing his death, and whether that offers any insight. Having re-read the passion narratives, I am struck that there is virtually no mention of either fear or courage as far as Jesus is concerned. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus is ‘agitated’, ‘distressed’ and ‘grieved’ when he prays in the garden of Gethsemane. This seems quite natural in view of impending severe physical suffering. But the over-riding sense to me in the narrative is of Jesus subjecting himself to what happened in a somewhat passive manner. He neither invites nor avoids the events of his arrest, trial and crucifixion. Whatever fears he might have had are very much in the background; whatever courage he exercised was in a laying down of his capacity to resist.
Where fear and courage do feature prominently is in Jesus’ address to his disciples in John’s Gospel. Throughout the farewell discourse (John 13-17), Jesus offers comfort, reassurance and hope. This is in the context of the realistic warnings of the trouble and suffering that the disciples are likely to suffer through their association with Jesus. As he prepares them for their imminent loss, he says ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.’ (14:27) Note that this is said in the context of the promise of the Holy Spirit and the gift of peace (vv.25-26). So in other words, it is God’s gifts that make it possible to remain at ‘peace’, and the disciples’ task is simply to co-operate. There is no condemnation here for anyone whose fear or anxiety is ‘beyond them’, nor any injunction that uncontrollable fears must be faced regardless.
A similar theme recurs in 16:25-33, concluding with the exhortation ‘Take courage; I have conquered the world!’ At risk of reading into this a little too imaginatively, I wonder whether ‘the world’ here can include all that is broken, all that is beyond us, all that overwhelms us, all that condemns us without cause. The world stands as anything and everything that stands in the way of God’s intended perfect intimacy with God’s people, including well-intentioned but harmful sermon soundbites!
To all who are anxious or afraid this Good Friday, Jesus says ‘Take courage; I have conquered the world!’