Merriam Webster offers the following option, in contrast to the pop-culture reference to a thick, meat-laden sandwich: “A person admired for achievements and noble qualities. One who shows great courage.” We can all be heroes when we act courageously when opportunities present themselves for kind and unselfish behavior. The virtue of unselfishness is a self-forgetful expression of love for others that has the paradoxical effect of enriching the life of the giver. We idolize those men and women who have been extraordinary in these ways in defending our lives and liberties even beyond that of our great servicemen and women in the military, police, fire and other rescue departments. Satan creates false heroes which, if emulated, will lead us to the depths of sin, as so many today idolize athletes, musicians, business icons, and actors predominantly living lives of immorality rather than those men and women of honor and valor. Read the stories of some true heroes below this article.
Difference Between Courage and Bravery
Courage and bravery – just another pair of English words that can be found side by side in a thesaurus entry. To most, these two words are mere synonyms that express fearlessness, dauntlessness, intrepidity, boldness; the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty and danger. However, to those who are more philosophically inclined, courage and bravery are two notably distinct nouns.
Bravery is the ability to confront pain, danger, or attempts of intimidation without any feeling of fear. It is strength in character that allows a person to always be seemingly bigger than the crisis, whether he is indeed more powerful or lesser than what he is facing. Courage, on the other hand, is the ability to undertake an overwhelming difficulty or pain despite the eminent and unavoidable presence of fear. More than a quality, it is a state of mind driven by a cause that makes the struggle worth it. Unlike in the case of bravery, a person fueled by courage may feel inevitably small in the face of peril, pain, or problems. The essence of courage is not the feeling of being capable of overcoming obstacles, but rather the willful choice to fight regardless of the consequences and limitations.
Bravery is a quality that is, in and of itself, a means and an end all at once. Courage is merely a means; its end would be the cause that drives it. For instance, in the well-known biblical story of David and Goliath, the former battled with the latter and managed to outdo him. Despite the giant’s advantage in size, David was not afraid – thus, he was brave. In this case, David’s bravery becomes the essence of the story.
Conversely, in the unconventional cartoon series “Courage, the Cowardly Dog,” the protagonist pet dog named Courage speaks well for his name. He quivers at the sight of ghosts and aliens, but fear never stops him from fighting the monsters to save his precious yet ever so oblivious master, Muriel. In this context, courage alone does not become the essence of the act; instead, it is Courage’s love for and concern towards his master. With that in mind, we can say that one of the distinguishing factors between courage and bravery is the presence of a cause or motivation. While bravery can maintain its very essence without a cause, courage is always gripped by it – whether it is in the form of love, concern, compassion, devotion, or passion.
Another unique element that sets the two virtues apart is the presence or absence of mindfulness. Acts of bravery don’t necessarily require critical judgment. Most of the time, the quality becomes inherent due to family and societal values, and therefore effortlessly manifests itself as second nature. A brave person can eat a worm when told to, without putting much thought into reasons and consequences of their action. In contrast, courage is a result of a deep understanding of the matter; a courageous person truly understands what they’re getting themselves into and who or what they’re doing it for. For instance, a courageous man knows he might die if he enters a burning building to save his son. He shivers at the thought of burning to death, but proceeds anyway – because of the love he has for his child. (Source)
In modern times, we have killed moral compasses by killing the hero, little by little, as he has gradually been robbed of his virtues. Superheroes are not like medieval Crusaders, who often cited God as their inspiration for defending the West from Muslim expansionism; Washington, who spoke of God as indispensable; or More, who accepted martyrdom in obedience to God. They’re powerful, but their power is either inherent to them as an accident of nature or evolution, or is born of man’s technology. Of course, they long exhibited many of the virtues, yet they also reflected the spirit of the age.
At the CiRCE Institute, a “provider of inspiration, information, and insight to classical educators,” Christian writer Joshua Sturgill examines this in his article “Superman or Abraham?: On Modern Conceptions of Heroism.” He writes that since “heroes are the personification of culture and help define its prevailing morality, we should be able to tell quite a lot about modem America by examining a few of our perennial heroes.” Beginning with Superman, Sturgill points out that the character “is perhaps our closest connection to the heroes of the ancient world,” who “were god-bred men” (e.g., Achilles), as he’s “from a superior race of beings.” Superman is also “virtuous, handsome, powerful and benevolent…. Superman is raised in the heartland of America and exemplifies innocence [meaning, absence of sin], industry and courage,” Sturgill tells us. This good-without-God theme continues with Batman, who, as the writer puts it, “is the union of the martial art of the Far East and the economic art of the Far West. He represents the hope of a new man emerging from pluralism, and therefore justifies pluralism –uniting in himself the materialisms of the Orient and of Western Europe. He is the technological monk, the peaceful assassin, the ascetic playboy. He makes the disparate appear compatible.”
Transitioning from the ignoring of God to a more aggressively secular message, there were the X-Men, created in 1963. As Sturgill informs:
The X-Men are a collection of heroes made so by Evolution (even Darwinian Evolution)…. The X-Men stories assume a God-less universe driven by blind natural laws that produce involuntarily the “next step” of biological progress…. The X-Men assure us that we need not worry about having no religion. Biology is progress…. Added to this (especially in the films) is the related and underlying premise that moral judgment is baseless and universally destructive.
Now, this last notion is itself an attack upon virtue, as “judgment” is necessary to define it as such. After all, virtue refers to a set of “good moral habits” and has a corollary: that there is also a set of bad moral habits –vice. And how could we distinguish between good and bad habits without rendering (proper) judgment? Of course, the non-judgmentalism approach is also contradictory, as implicit in it is a negative judgment of judgmentalism (not to mention that a common X-Men theme is the “wrongness” of prejudice and “racism”). Yet whether the hero is Batman, Beast, or James Bond, the larger point is this: Once sufficiently disconnected from virtue’s author –God–it was only a matter of time before virtue itself was under assault.
This became quite obvious in the 1960s, when almost-ideal fictional heroes such as Lucas McCain and idealized historical ones such as Washington (“I cannot tell a lie”) were replaced by the next degeneration. We saw, for instance, Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk. He was certainly courageous, just, generally honest, and exhibited varying degrees of most of the other virtues, but faith was completely absent. And chastity? Kirk was the embodiment of “Hugh Hefner Blasts Off.”
The ’60s also saw the rise of the antihero, an individual whose supposed appeal is that he lacks some of the heroic virtues. A prime example was Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti-western character; known as the “Man With No Name,” he was also the man with little virtue. He certainly displayed courage, fortitude, and diligence, but the other virtues were either sorely lacking or absent. Of course, being a crack shot and quintessentially “cool,” he certainly could influence the young emotionally.
And the problem today is twofold: We not only don’t understand virtue very well, but we also mock it. As American Thinker’s Barry Rubin put it while commenting on contemporary entertainment in his 2008 piece “Detecting Real Heroes,” “Someone who appears moral is, of course, instantly identifiable as corrupt. In a television show, film, or whatever, if a sincere religious believer (except for a Muslim) or a clergyman appears, you know he is stealing from the poor box. That stereotype holds and you can tell from the start who the villains are.” In keeping with this, virtue is cast as vice. If someone appears chaste, he just must have a sexual problem. Honesty is devalued, with our “heroes” being masters of Machiavellian deceit. Kindness has given way to coolness, selflessness to selfishness, and forgiveness to a fearsome vindictiveness. Understand, though, that this occurs not because of any intellectual understanding that what was once called virtue actually isn’t so, but because vice feels right. As ancient Chinese sage Confucius put it (I’m paraphrasing), “I never knew anyone who loved virtue as much as sex.”
This brings us to the crux of the problem: A majority of modems cannot even believe in virtue, properly understood. Virtues are expressions of Truth, by definition absolute and transcendent. But awash in moral relativism, most Westerners today–and virtually everyone in the arts–believe that what we call “right and wrong” is merely an expression of the collective preference of the moment. And among people divorced from Truth, “the most common basis for moral decision-making [is] doing whatever feels right,” as the Barna Group research company put it in 2002. In this relativistic universe, there are no virtues, and hence no “good guys” and “bad guys” in any real sense, only competing feelings and fancies.
And in this evolving and devolving universe, the hero’s virtues were gradually whittled away as he went from hero to antihero to moral zero. What are we left with? As Rubin put it, “A pirate fighting demons; a nicer gangster battling a less charming one, that’s enough to give you something to cheer for in this type of [relativistic] drama. After all, in our times we are told by the professional tellers that there are no heroes, [sic] everyone is dirty, corrupt and vile. After all, isn’t society that way?” Of course, we may see a character pay homage to the feelings-fired fashions of the day and take up the cudgels for an obligatory ism or one of its standard bearers. Thus did the FX anthology American Horror Story–a series wholly devoid of goodness–engender sympathy for a sociopathic witch (third season, Coven, 2013-2014) by contrasting her with a vile slave-owner and having her proclaim at one point that she voted for Barack Obama “twice.” Message: She may be a reprobate, “But, kids, she’s our reprobate. Hope and change, yay!”
Or just compare the original film Cape Fear (1962) with its remake (1991). Both involve a lawyer named Sam Bowden being targeted by a criminal, Max Cady, whom he helped send to prison. In the original, whether or not Bowden (Gregory Peck) is a “hero,” he certainly is a virtuous man who ultimately acts heroically; in contrast, while Cady is well played by Robert Mitchum, he is still no one to look up to. The lines between good and evil are clearly drawn. Fast-forward three decades, however, and we have Bowden (Nick Nolte) in the remake remade as a thoroughly sleazy character. Not only is he guilty of legal misconduct, he’s cheating on his wife, has a tumultuous, unappealing family life, and is generally a weak man, the father every boy neither respects nor wants. Of course, Cady (Robert De Niro) is more than shady, but he is also larger than life: He’s clever, smart, self-educated to the point of erudition, and exhibits superhuman mental strength, not even blinking at excruciating pain. So the movie portrays no hero. And presented with a pathetic weak man and a powerful, cool super-villain, whom would youth be more likely to emulate? Hey, remember, you can’t really be “good,” anyway, because “good” is a social construct, just a “point of view.” But “power”? That’s certainly real–and alluring.
So we’re managing a neat trick: undoing millennia of moral striving as we dial civilization back to something approximating pre-Christian, pagan morality. Our zero faux heroes possess all the things the animal organism desires, such as strength, cleverness, courage, and power. In this they’re little different from Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, or Attila the Hun, all of whom were admired merely for winning one for “the team.” But where are the theological, cardinal, and heavenly virtues?
A couple of years ago, I had a discussion about cultural influences with a man given to philosophical musing. He mentioned that he was watching the mid-’80s-born series MacGyver with his young nephew, and the boy remarked, apparently with some cynicism and incredulity, that the main character, secret agent Angus MacGyver, “always does the right thing.” It speaks volumes: Where youth once took for granted that heroes would be white knights, such exhibited virtue can now be shocking to them.
And this should alarm us. For as Founding Father John Adams warned, “The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People in a greater Measure than they have it now, they may change their rulers and the forms of government, but they will not obtain a lasting liberty.” A nation that allows virtue to become extinct will soon follow it into the abyss.
True Courage / Heroes
Robert Lewis Dabney (April 5, 1820- January 3, 1898) greatly admired Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, seeing him as the ideal Christian warrior. Jackson was a devout Presbyterian who was said to “live in the New Testament but fought in the Old.” A military genius, Jackson lead his troops to victory at the First Battle of Manassas and throughout the Shenandoah Valley campaign before being shot by his own men at the Battle of Chancellorsville. In the darkness and confusion, the North Carolina regiment believed he was the enemy. During his recovery, the general developed pneumonia and died on May 10, 1863, at 3:15 PM. Dabney delivered his memorial sermon in 1863, “True Courage”, where he lays out his understanding of how faith produces courage, using the life and practices of the recently departed Jackson as examples of this ethic.
At its most basic level, “courage is the opposite of fear” writes Dabney. At least in the common perception. This popular definition has truth and merit, but for Dabney, such a simplistic description is sorely lacking because it misunderstands the relationship of these two as emotions. To understand courage then, we need a proper view of fear. In light of this connection, Dabney makes a distinction between fear as an emotion and fear as an action: “Fear may be described either as a feeling and appreciation of existing danger, or an undue yielding to that feeling.” The presence of fear does not demand the absence of courage. In fact, for Dabney true courage implies “the existence of fear” and “a feeling of danger”, for courage “is but the overcoming of that feeling by a worthier motive.” This relationship between leads him to consider three types of courage and they each respond to the emotion of fear. While they may intertwine and each possess some measure of rightness, they are nonetheless three different categories and flow from fundamentally different sources.
The first of these is what Dabney calls “animal courage.” This form of courage, says Dabney, “is but the ferment of animal passions and blind sympathies, combined with an irrational thoughtlessness.” Animal courage is the raw, natural passion we associate with creatures such as the lion (“the lion-hearted”), essentially a pagan ethic. But this courage is based on ignorance. For Dabney continues, “the man is courageous only because he refuses to reflect” and “bold because he is blind.” Animal courage may at first glance appear the most genuine, but the source is flawed. Once the danger is actually comprehended, there is no other foundation to support this courage. Hence, animal courage is not true courage.
The second type of courage that Dabney lists is what he calls the “spirit of personal honor.” This form of courage rests on human pride and sense of duty. Unlike animal courage, there is “a consciousness of risk, but it is manfully controlled by the sentiment of pride, the keener fear of reproach, and the desire for applause.” But the motive is “personal and selfish…therefore the sentiment does not rise to the level of virtue.” This form of courage is self-centered and self-glorifying. A man is courageous because he fears the societal shaming he will endure should he not be courageous. Ironically, it is fear that drives him to bravery. But this fear is unstable and subject to change. And, as Dabney says, the motive does not demand the name of virtue.
True courage then is the moral courage of him “who fears God, and, for that reason, fears nothing else.” In this form of bravery, there is both “an intelligent apprehension of danger” and “the natural instinct of self-love desiring to preserve its own well-being”. However, these emotions are “curbed and governed by the sense of duty, and desire for the approbation of God.” Unlike animal courage, fear is acknowledged and experienced. Unlike self-glorifying courage, the foundation is not the approval of man but the approval of God. “This alone is true courage,” continues Dabney, “ [and] true virtue; for it is rational, and its motive is moral and unselfish.”
Dabney acknowledges that both animal courage and honor-driven bravery exhibit traits of true courage and may be “mixed in many breasts. However, neither is complete and ultimately derive their unstable foundations from ignorance, arrogance, and idolatry. Thus concludes Dabney, “he is the bravest man, who is the best Christian. It is he who truly fears God, who is entitled to fear nothing else.
So then, true courage flows from a right fear of God. But how can we recognize this courage and seek to cultivate it in ourselves? Dabney continues his sermon by detailing the three essential marks of true courage. All three characteristics rest on our fear of and faith in God. He also remembers the exhibitions of these traits in the life of Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, but for the sake of flow I will simply highlight the marks themselves and skip over the mini-biographical sketches of Jackson except where his presentation of Jackson’s character contributes to his overall thesis.
The first mark of true courage is ones conduct is governed by the fear of God. The man whose life is guided by a fear of God exhibits bravery because “the powers of his soul are in harmony.” He is not unnerved by internal conflict between conscience and “evil desire”, for they are one and the same. Of course, we are sinners and we do not perfectly follow the commands of God, yet if our desire is to obey the Lord and both our conscience and desires are united in the single goal of honoring our Creator, then we have the courage of conviction. Dabney, pointing to the example of his friend Jackson, says that “every power of his soul was brought to move in sweet accord under the guidance of an enlightened and honest conscience” so “how could such a soul fail to be courageous for the right?”
I can think of other examples, Biblical and historical, that demonstrate the relationship between conviction and courage. In fact, it is a Sunday school cliche to see men of the Bible such as Noah, Caleb, Joshua, Daniel or Paul as templates of standing for truth and godliness in the face of opposition but they rightly deserve that commendation. The apostle Peter, when confronted by the Jewish leaders declared, “We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29, ESV).” Athanasius fought a lonely battle against the heresy of Arianism for the majority of his life. Martin Luther’s bold refusal to recant includes an appeal to his conscience. William Tyndale gave his life to bring the Word of God to English speaking people. All of these examples demonstrate for us that Christian courage begins with a firm conviction to follow the word of God, come what may.
The second mark of true courage is absolute trust in the sovereignty and providence of God. Given that Dabney’s sermon is delivered in a memorial for Gen. Thomas Jackson, the best summation of this trust is found in the general’s own words spoken to Capt. J.D. Imboden in the aftermath of the First Battle of Manassas:
Captain, my religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me. Captain, that is the way all men should live, and then all men would be equally brave. [John Selby, “Stonewall Jackson as Military Commander” (New York: Barnes & Noble Publishing, 1968), 25-26. ]
This faith and trust in the will of God is not a fatalistic acquiescence, but rather a recognition of God’s providence. Dabney cites Luke 12:6-7, where Jesus tells his disciples, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God…fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
The Christian has full trust in God’s sovereignty. Dabney beautifully situates this trust in the context of the war which ravaged his day, declaring that God’s control extends even to the trajectory of a single bullet in the chaos of battle:
Even when the thousand missiles of death, invisible to mortal sight, and sent forth aimlessly by those who launched them, shoot in inexplicable confusion over the battlefield, His eye gives them each one aim and a purpose, according to the plan of his wisdom.
Even though we may not know the special will of God for us and our endeavors, we rest assured that His plan is “wise, and right, and good.” The time and the place are in his hands and this assurance gives us boldness.
The third and final mark of true Christian courage resembles in many aspects the first. But there are distinctions. “Fear of God” in this context is less about obedience and conscience and more about having a proper perspective of the eternal and immortal. The believer has no need to fear man because he is “united by faith to Christ, adopted into the favour of God, and an heir of the inheritance in the skies which is as secure as the throne of God.” Scripture constantly points beyond the now to what lies ahead. While we do not discount the importance of the present world, our hope is in the world to come. The Christian does not fear death because we serve the One who conquered death. Again speaking to the darkness of his day, Dabney encourages his listeners with the reminder that should the believer’s body “be smitten into the grave” he knows that “the resurrection day will repair all the ravages of the sword, and restore the poor tenement to his occupancy, ‘fashioned like unto Christ glorious body.’”
Jesus himself assures us that we need not fear what man can do to us, for he can only harm the body (Matthew 10:28). The Christian from whose soul the stain of sin has been washed in the Redeemer’s blood is the “invulnerable man.” This is not denying his natural desires to avoid bodily pain and death but these emotions are counteracted by the faith he possesses. “The clearer the faith of the Christian,” says Dabney, “the more complete is this victory over the natural fears”, for his faith gives his soul a “substantial, inward sense of heavenly life” that more satisfying and real than the carnal. Dabney again holds up Jackson as an example: “His soul, I believe, dwelt habitually in the full assurance that God was his God and portion forever.” This relationship between our faith in the life to come and courage is at the heart of Dabney’s theology of courage. It is not a courage which comes from us, but from God and assurance in his promises.
These three marks all relate to the same principle, that our relationship to God determines our attitude toward life, which together forms the foundation for courage. The first is ethical, the second theological and the last eschatological. We can summarize all three points by saying that if we seek to obey God’s commands, trust His providence and believe His promises we have the true, biblical foundation for courage.
Even though generally we are not threatened with physical danger in our day and age, we still need to stand for truth. Dabney’s threefold template is beneficial in that regard. We live in an era when the concept of heroism is unpopular, and this old Southern Presbyterian provides a helpful antidote to our apathy for courage. Scripture is full of heroes but they all reflect the true Hero, Christ, who came to Earth to secure the salvation of his people. And, as Dabney himself points out:
Jesus Christ is the Divine Pattern and Fountain of heroism. Earth’s true heroes are they who derive their courage from him.
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