Chesterton defines courage as “a strong desire to live, taking the form of a readiness to die.” And so in courage, you’ve got, at a basic level, a sort of double vision. There’s the thing that you want, and then there’s the thing in the way. There’s a reward—there’s a good thing that you want—and then there’s the obstacle that might keep you from getting it. You’ve got the reward, you’ve got the obstacle.
And then that produces two different emotions or affections that might be in tension with one another: the desire for the good thing, and then fear of the obstacle. Courage is when the desire for the good thing overcomes fear of the obstacle. It’s an overcoming.
Mastering Fear for Greater Good
I define courage as a habitual self-possession that masters the passion of fear, especially by the power of a deeper desire for a greater good. And that’s true of all kinds of courage.
You think about a parent running into a burning building to save a child. There’s the good thing, and there’s the fire. The desire for the child overcomes the fear of the fire. And courage is there, and it’s a beautiful thing. Everybody loves courage everywhere.
What makes courage Christian is what animates it. What’s the greater good? What’s the deeper desire?
When we look in the New Testament and we see Paul in prison in Philippi, he’s confident. His eager expectation and hope is that he won’t be ashamed. But now, with full courage, he will honor Christ, whether by life or by death.
We, as Christians, want to be animated by the greatest good.
Now, what makes it courage? Well, because living is Christ and dying is gain. So he looks at the thing that he’s going to get: “I’m going to get more of Jesus. Jesus is better. And that enables me to face the danger, the hardship, and the fear of death that’s in front of me, because Christ is gain.”
And that’s what makes it Christian courage. The animating principle matters. It’s not enough to simply be animated by a good. We, as Christians, want to be animated by the greatest good.
Joe Rigney is the author of Courage: How the Gospel Creates Christian Fortitude.
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