Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord! Psalm 31:24
We often hear and use the expression, “take courage” or “take heart”. But when we tell someone to “take courage”, where do we expect them to take that courage from? Where is courage sourced?
Today’s reading in Prayasyougo details Paul’s defence before the High Priest Ananias and the Sadducees and Pharisees (Acts 23:1-11). It ends with Paul back in the barracks and the Lord standing by him with a word of encouragement: “Take courage, for as you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness to me in Rome”.
Paul was to take courage from the near presence of the Lord. He was to take heart from his prior experience of carrying the good news to Jerusalem. This courage was to be his mainstay and the source of boldness as he moved forward, with divine necessity, towards Rome.
Courage at Darlington Hall
I was reminded of the failure of courage when recently re-watching the film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. The life of the protagonist Mr Stevens is in many ways a cautionary tale about the failure of moral courage. The film version of the story focusses on Stevens’ failure to show his feelings—he fails to comfort Ms Kenyon and to return her signs of affection towards him. The book focusses much more on Stevens’ failure of moral courage. Stevens attempts to live vicariously through the greatness of Darlington Hall and its Lord. If Stevens betrays any feelings in the book, it is surely the feeling of overwhelming trust and loyalty to Lord Darlington. Yet Stevens comes to see that the courage he takes from—and the trust he puts in—his Lord fails him. He has sourced his courage in the wrong places. Lord Darlington has, after all, been involved in the political cause of appeasement towards the Germans.
Today marks the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Hers is a life of moral courage in the face of innumerable adversities and challenges. The Queen speaks of the confidence and courage she draws from a variety of sources. High on this list is her family, and in particular her father, King George. Thrust into the role of war time King following the abdication of his brother, and later battling a fatal illness, the King inspired courage in his daughter. There’s a lot packed into the word “inspire”. The Queen reflects on this word in the recent BBC documentary The Unseen Queen. The film shows footage of the ill King saying goodbye, for the last time, to his daughter and her husband as they fly off on tour. As the plane takes off, the King visibly inhales, and we hear the Queen say these words: “When people face a challenge, they sometimes talk about taking a deep breath, to find courage or strength. In fact, the word inspire means to breathe in”.
The Queen is getting at the fact that courage involves something external to ourselves. We take courage like we take breath. It involves action on our part, just as the inhalation of breath involves the action of our lungs. But the inspiration, the courage, just like the air, comes from somewhere else. From Someone Else.
Courage and Trust
We take courage from things and persons beyond ourselves. In other words, courage is linked inextricably to trust. To take heart or take courage from someone or something, is to put one’s confidence in that person or thing (we see this, incidentally, in the expression “Dutch Courage”; what else is Dutch Courage but the placing of trust in alcohol to get one through?).
The question is whether that person or thing is worthy of, or can bear the weight of, our trust. There is a thin but discernible line, after all, between over-confidence (or hubris) and courage. Hubris has us put our confidence in the wrong places and with an intensity and loyalty that is not warranted. That was Stevens’ error. Courage stems from trust that has a true and unwavering basis. Unwavering trustworthiness calls forth unwavering courage. When we are inspired by the courage of others, is it not because we see that they draw that strength of spirit from something greater than themselves?
The things we put our trust in—or take heart from—give us boldness. The courage of other mortal men and women, fallible as they are, point us to the Trustworthy One who can bear our trust and give us the boldness we each need.
Photo: by author