About four years ago, a woman named Brittany Maynard became a public figure. This happened because she tragically had terminal cancer and she made public her decision to eventually end her own life on her own terms. There was a lot of controversy surrounding this decision, and there were arguments about the morality of it.
What was striking to me, though, was the large number of people who talked about how brave she was. While I could understand the debate about whether or not she should have the right to end her own life, I struggled to understand why her decision should be considered courageous.
The more I considered this case, though, the more I realized that this vision of courage was right in line with a new vision of courage that is being celebrated in our culture. It is brave to choose suicide over physical suffering. It is brave to leave your marriage if you aren’t happy. It is brave to embrace your sexual instincts and desires instead of fighting them. This is the new vision of courage in the United States. The people who do these things are considered brave.
Without even getting into the morality of these decisions, I simply want to challenge the idea that these are brave actions. You may believe that Brittany Maynard made a moral decision, but it is hard to argue that choosing death in order to escape suffering is brave. It is actually the opposite. Courage has traditionally meant that we are willing to enter into discomfort.
The new vision of courage tells us that courageous people are those who abandon the fight. They are those who say, “I’m tired of fighting for a better marriage; I’m out!” and “I’m tried of fighting sexual temptation; I’m just going to embrace it!” These actions do not reflect the brave soldier who—despite his fear—chooses to run toward the battle. These actions reflect the soldier who chooses to walk away from the fight.
I write this not simply as a cultural critique, but because we all must decide how we will engage with the battles we face. We all will be tempted to surrender to sin, to temptation, to despair, to bursts of anger, and to cowardice. As Christians, we will be called to deny ourselves, to lean into areas of growth, and to resist the devil. If our grid for courage is that it is braver to abandon the battle and “be true to ourselves” than to fight on, then we will cave to pressure every time.
This courage-by-abandonment vision is a far cry from God’s words to Joshua in Joshua 1:6-9. Three times in this short passage, he calls Joshua to be “strong and courageous” as he strives to lead the people of Israel. The implication is that Joshua will face many dangers and many doubts. He will be afraid and overwhelmed.
But his calling is to fight on. Similarly, Jesus himself faced fear and stress to the point of his sweat being like drops of blood (Luke 22:44). Yet he courageously continued on to the cross, instead of abandoning it in order to protect himself from harm.
For Christians, God’s calling requires that we be courageous. And this courage calls us not to “be true to ourselves,” but to deny ourselves. It calls us not to give in to fear, but to acknowledge our fears and carry on. This is the courage to fight against discouragement and resentment as we keep our wedding vows. This is the courage to fight temptation toward sexual immorality and anger as we pursue holiness. This is the courage to fight despair and fear as we endure suffering.
Courage is not shown when we abandon the fight, but when we continue on in it. The gift of the Holy Spirit empowers us to continue on in boldness and power, instead of shrinking back and giving in to fear.
So, what battles are you facing? And what vision of courage are your embracing? You will not win every battle, but your calling is to stay in the fight. As Winston Churchill once said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”