Early one morning in April 2003, Aron Ralston, an experienced climber from Aspen Colorado, headed off to do some solo climbing in a remote corner of Utah's Canyonland National Park. But while dropping down into Bluejohn Canyon, he accidently dislodged a huge rock which pinned his right hand against the canyon wall. Alone and far off the beaten track, Ralston tried everything he could think of to free himself. Finally on the morning of the 5th day, severely dehydrated and growing weaker by the hour, he knew what he had to do. Using the last of his strength, he managed to break the bones in his arm. Then using his small pocket knife he cut through the remaining flesh of his arm and set himself free, leaving his severed hand underneath the boulder. Incredibly, he was then able to rappel himself down to the canyon floor and walk out far enough to be found, almost dead, by the search and rescue team.
Certainly, by at least one definition, courage is the ability to make yourself do what you ought to do, when you ought to do it.
A lack of courage can hurt us in many ways: it prevents us from standing where we need to stand, speaking when we ought to speak, going where we should be going, and being who we wish we were. It requires a certain amount of courage to take responsibility for our own lives, stand up for what we believe in, and pursue our own path in life. It's tempting to just keep your head down, go with the flow, not make waves, and blend into the crowd. But in so doing we run the risk of surviving - yes, but only to live a life of shallow, insipid mediocrity. As framed by William Wallace in Braveheart when facing his own death: "All men die. Not all men truly live."
And to be clear, I am not suggesting that we only need courage when facing matters of life or death. It may even be easier to make hard choices then. Rather, it's in the small everyday choices that we really need to have the courage of our convictions. It was just another bus ride home from work on just another workday when Rosa Parks decided NOT to give up her seat to a white passenger and launched a cultural revolution. Living courageously means living what you believe in, every day.
Where do we find such courage?
- Courage comes with a cause. When David set out to face Goliath, his brothers protested that it was pure suicide. David replied, "Is there not a cause?" In David's mind, the cause of defending Israel far outweighed any personal risks involved. Courage will always be hard to come by if our purpose is vague and undefined. If you're not going anywhere, then any road, preferably the easiest one, will take you there. People who live courageously are people of purpose, people with a cause that's worth risking, working, and sacrificing for. If you can't find a reason for living courageously on your own, then turn to God. He has big plans for you that He has just been waiting for a chance to show you.
- Courage accompanies commitment. Commitments always entail risks. That's why some people avoid them. But commitment is what keeps you strong even when the situation changes - "for better or for worse." A fireman is commited to saving lives all the time, but to fulfill that commitment when the house is actually on fire takes courage. A mother of young children will face the most ferocious threat to their safety because her commitment to motherhood gives her no other choice. To commit yourself is to decide in advance that you are willing to face whatever risks are involved.
- Courage requires a choice. In the end courage has to be action. It's not enough to just feel courageous, but then do nothing about it. Like Aron Ralston, courage is doing what you have to do regardless of how you feel about it. It's a case of, "Feel the fear and do it anyway." And that means making choices. Choosing between convenience and conviction; between popularity and principle; between right but difficult or easy but wrong. Choose to do the right thing regardless of the consequences and you are living courageously.
As a final thought, courage is also a gift. When facing terrifying persecusion in Acts 4, the disciples prayed for courage saying, "Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word..." So don't be afraid to pray for courage when you need it!