By Daniel W. Trathen, D. Min. Ph. D.
During the Revolutionary War, Thomas Paine wrote The Crisis. It was circular designed to stir the reader to become outraged against the oppression of the British and unite in their quest for freedom and independence. It is in this short essay that we find the famous quote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Then, like today, the people of the United States were called to take courage. Whatever we do in life, we need courage. Whatever course we decide on, there is always someone there to tell us we are wrong. There are always difficulties which cause us to believe that our critics are right. It requires courage and determination to map out a course of action and follow it to the end. Facing fierce winds and storms with an undaunted attitude builds courage and strong character. Take for example the stamina of the salmon. After several years in the sea it is determined to head back to the stream where it was hatched. Swimming against strong river currents and jumping waterfalls, the king salmon actually increases its daily speed as it covers the hundreds of miles toward home. Courage in times of crisis takes passion, stamina and determination in the rightness of the cause. However, it takes more than physical courage. It takes mental and moral strength. Mark Twain wrote, “It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.”
Moral courage is the fabric of physical courage. This is the courage of endurance that the Psalmist wrote of in Psalm 27:14. “Wait on the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait on the Lord,” and again, “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord” (Psalm 31:24). As followers of Christ, both moral and physical courage are possible to the extent that we know ourselves to be in the almighty hands and under the beneficent protection of our heavenly Father.
Such determination requires singular focus on a goal or goals for which we are willing to fight and sacrifice. The apostle Paul wrote these “personal requests” to the brethren in the Corinthian church and they stand today as a beacon for us, “Be on your guard, stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love” (I Cor. 16:13). These and other qualities are embodied in the words of Winston Churchill during England’s darkest days of World War II. As he reviewed the dire situation of the country before the House of Commons, he gave them the decision of England’s leaders, “We have talked it over. We will go to the end. We will never surrender.” This resolve has been a central theme of courageousness throughout the ages. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn so accurately observed, “Must one point out that from ancient times a decline in courage has been considered the first symptom of the end?” Great examples of this abound in history, but the martyrdom of Christians for their faith stands out as some of the most lonely, yet steadfast moments. In the letter of the Smyrneans (Apostolic Fathers by J.B. Lightfoot) we read one of the most inspiring examples of courage. The early church father and aged church leader, Polycarp had been arrested by the Roman authorities and brought to the arena for execution in front of a cheering crowd. However, when he was pressured by the magistrate to swear an oath and renounce Christ, he said, “Fourscore and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Truly we can say that Polycarp faced a time that tried his soul. Biblically, courage is a moral choice achieved through the exercise of our will. God, through Moses, and through his direct words, exhorted Joshua to be a strong and a courageous leader of the Israelites. Moses passes on the “mantle” of leadership with these words from Deuteronomy chapter 31,
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them for, the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you or forsake you (v.6)…Be strong and courageous…The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you or forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged (v.7,8). The Lord gave this command to Joshua son of Nun: Be strong and courageous, for you will bring the Israelites into the land I promised them on oath, and I myself will be with you (v.23).
Taking courage over fear and doubt is a choice. Mark Twain wrote, “courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear-not absence of fear…” No matter what the obstacle, if we allow ourselves to be overcome with “what might happen” we increase the chances that “it will happen.” Courageous people experience the same emotions, however, they focus more time and energy on their plan and desired outcome. Napoleon said, “courage is like love, it must have hope for nourishment.”
Taking the long-view in any situation is always the best choice. Positive and negative emotions come and go with circumstances, but confidence and courage embody a worthy cause. That is why it is so important for us to remind ourselves daily of our desired goal, outcome, and solution. Nothing of lasting greatness was ever achieved by being paralyzed by fear and doubt. Be encouraged by overcoming fear with focused determination and hope. Yes, “these are the times that try men’s souls.” These are also the times that will cause us to exercise our faith, determination, and courage as our personal character and national resolve deepens.