Be strong and courageous!” God says these words three times to the Israelites as they finally stand on the border of their Promised Land. The message seems fitting since Israel’s last visit to Canaan, 40 years earlier, ended in fear and flight. In addition, Canaan’s current occupants—including the people of walled Jericho—won’t surrender their land peaceably. But God doesn’t merely encourage soldiers for the front. In fact, His second “be strong and very courageous” applies to the nation’s pursuit of goodness or virtue in the daily work of knowing and doing God’s law. This suggests that practicing virtue will be a battle, too, and one that will require as much courage as facing Jericho’s walls would.
The Christian writer C. S. Lewis apparently had these words of God’s in mind when he wrote, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” He recognized that we will be tested when we seek goodness (which is the meaning of the word virtue). Enduring this, and then seeing real goodness take shape in our lives, will require us to be courageous.
Why should we need courage? After all, the gospel makes clear that we ourselves do not win salvation or gain fulfillment of God’s promises. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Our actions can never be good enough to earn God’s mercy; by His grace, God acted in Jesus Christ to redeem us from sin, and we can receive that grace only through faith. To understand why we need courage, we must read on. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Paul encourages us to do the same work God gave the Israelites: to know the Father’s goodness, and spend effort not to earn grace but to see what He has made of each of us. The English word “man” comes from the Latin word vir, which is also the root of the word “virtue.” Hence, we may take that to mean that we are most like ourselves—that is, we most resemble the image of God that we bear—when we pursue and practice virtue.
We need courage because goodness requires some effort. Each day, we confront choices between good and evil, and these are fraught with real, if not always physical, danger. In the face of such danger, our first choice is to stand or yield. We are choosing, as C. S. Lewis says, between courage and conditions. “A chastity or honesty or mercy which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions,” he writes. “Pilate was merciful till it became risky.” In his case, choosing the good meant displeasing the crowd, who wanted Barabbas rather than Jesus, but Pilate lacked the courage to do that.
We are most like ourselves—that is, we most resemble the image of God that we bear—when we pursue and practice virtue.
We tend to think of mercy as this kind of grand gesture, like the benevolent (or not) act of a judge when someone is guilty. But virtuous living isn’t usually so momentous for us. In fact, we most need courage to practice virtue, not when the task is so big but when it seems so small. Our daily opportunities to practice virtue appear unworthy of our time or effort. Yet because virtue is the raw material of God’s gracious workmanship, no mercy is small—or without value—if we view it with eyes healed by grace.
And opportunities to show mercy pop up frequently in everyday life—so much so that we might ignore them. A friend forgets an appointment for coffee. Your spouse says something careless. Your child ruins something of great value. You discover a coworker has told you a lie. In these situations, we might be tempted to withhold mercy, to nurture a grudge, and then it requires courage to take the risk to forgive and leave any necessary reckoning to God.
Acts of great virtue—when we see a victim’s family forgive a murderer, for example—do not come from nothing. They involve braving the risk, which is best practiced when the stakes are low. If we have trained our hearts along merciful lines, we will find the way to mercy well-worn when the stakes are high.
Illustration by Paul Blow