Courage Without

In the Newberry-award winning children’s book, Call it Courage, a small boy from the South Sea islands named Mafatu goes on a journey to find courage within himself. Terrified of the sea since the day it took the life of his mother, Mafatu was taunted as “The Boy Who Was Afraid.” Finally, Mafatu decides to take the fateful step: he will launch out into the sea in a canoe and face his fears head-on. Nearly killed by hurricane winds, Mafatu finds the key to survival within himself, killing a wild boar, an octopus, and a hammerhead shark in hand-to-hand combat and finally fleeing for his life in a daring escape from head-hunting natives. The climax of the story, though, comes when Mafatu is paddling back to his home island, facing again the ferocity of the sea that almost killed him. In a final act of courage, he stands up to his fear:

“Moana, you Sea God!” he shouted violently. “You! You destroyed my mother. Always you have tried to destroy me. Fear of you has haunted my sleep. Fear of you turned my people against me. But now” — he choked; his hand gripped his throat to stop its hot burning— “now I no longer fear you, Sea!” His voice rose to a wild note. He sprang to his feet, flung back his head, spread wide his arms in defiance. “Do you hear me, Moana? I am not afraid of you! Destroy me—but I laugh at you. Do you hear? I laugh![1]

There’s something about the tale of an ordinary human facing fear to become a hero that draws us in. It’s an element ubiquitous across literature and story-telling. Maybe it’s because deep within us, we too long to conquer fear and live free from it, once for all. And somehow, we want to believe the answer lies within, that we are all ‘heroes in the making.’

The challenge is, our fears are much more disguised, confusing, hard-to-face than enemy soldiers, violent seas, or treacherous journeys. Instead, they become intertwined into life, encircling their icy fingers into our soul and slowly squeezing to death energy, hope, life itself. Fear of broken relationships. Fear of ruined reputation. Fear of hurt from others. Fear of failure. Fear of dark days and broken hearts.

The message of stories, movies, and inspirational talks cries “you are the master of your fate, the captain of your soul!” “Face your fears, look within to find strength.” This is the cry of the Positive Thinking movement, of prosperity preachers, of too much of what passes for “Christian” advice.

David’s solution could not be more opposite.

At the start of Psalm 18, David is acting much more like a child than a man. He’s wanting to hide, running for shelter in the face of taunting enemies and oppressive circumstances. But he’s not ashamed of such running—in fact, the whole point of the psalm is to understate his own heroism in the victory and stress God’s salvation. “The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer.”

David had found the secret of facing fear, and it was not to look within himself. Instead, he was more like a child resting in the arms of his father. I love the way Susan Hunt describes it, “I feel like a tired, dependent, glad, and grateful little girl being carried in the arms of her Father, calling to her friends, “Look how good and strong my daddy is!”[2] David conquered fear, not because he knew he was bigger than the enemy but because he knew he was so small only God could save him.

David then describes how God stepped in to save him. It’s almost like a little boy describing to a friend in glowing terms how his dad warded off a robber or dug the family out of a snowstorm.

“Smoke went up from his nostrils,

    and devouring fire from his mouth;

    glowing coals flamed forth from him.

He bowed the heavens and came down;

    thick darkness was under his feet.

He rode on a cherub and flew;

    he came swiftly on the wings of the wind.

He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him,

    thick clouds dark with water.

Out of the brightness before him

    hailstones and coals of fire broke through his clouds” (Ps. 18:8-12).

The irony is, seeing God deliver him from his fears gives David courage to do seemingly impossible things. Courage not from within, but from without.

“For it is you who light my lamp;

    the Lord my God lightens my darkness.

For by you I can run against a troop,

    and by my God I can leap over a wall …

He made my feet like the feet of a deer

    and set me secure on the heights.

He trains my hands for war,

    so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.

You have given me the shield of your salvation,

    and your right hand supported me,

    and your gentleness made me great” (Ps. 18:28-29,33-35).

Are we facing fear? Run to Christ. See him work a mighty salvation. Then, and only then–will we have the courage to face the onslaught of circumstances. Our courage comes not from within, but from without. We have Christ on our side.

[1] Armstrong Sperry, Call it Courage (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1940), 92-93.

[2] Susan Hunt. Aging with Grace, 176-177.

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