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  • Writer's pictureM.B. Christiansen

A Theology of Being Brave

I remember rocking my infant son to sleep in the early stages of his life before his eyes had developed. He had not yet seen any clear shape or form in the world that we live in. He had no way of observing the details of my face or that of his mother’s. Once as I rocked him and watched him sleep, the tranquility of his face was suddenly disturbed and he was visibly upset, as though he was having a bad dream. My first instinct was to sympathize with him because I know all too well what it is to watch helplessly as a bad dream unfolds before your eyes.

But then it occurred to me that he had no frame of reference with which to picture anything. He can’t have been dreaming in images of the world, because his infant brain did not know what anything looked like and would have been unable to picture anything concrete in the real world. At best, when he dreamed he saw indistinguishable grey blobs. And yet he did seem to perceive something in his sleep that caused his face to become visibly upset. The expression on his face was one of fear and alarm. He fussed and turned his head.

Moments later the look passed and his face returned to its original peaceful state, but the memory has stuck with me. Fear is something that in virtually unavoidable in the world in which we live.


Fear as Part of the Human Experience

Fear is one of the most natural (and human) responses to our surrounding environment. In the human psyche, fears can range from something as logical as a healthy respect for heights (with the understanding that if you fell, you could be injured or killed) to obscure phobias which border on the absurd (like arachibutyrophobia: the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth). The fear of the dark is a common source of anxiety for children. Everyone is familiar with the age-old situation in which a child demands that their parents check under the bed or in the closet to ensure there are no untold horrors waiting to “get them” in the night. One might even go so far as to say that, living in a world broken by sin, fear is part of the human experience.

Some fear can be traced back to a healthy survival instinct. Fear in the face of something threatening and dangerous is a good thing. If one is hiking in the woods and comes between a mother grizzly bear and her cubs, fear would be the appropriate response.

But fear can also become distorted and unhealthy. In modernity, the line is blurry at best between healthy fear and other mental health imbalances like anxiety. There seems to be something more to the phenomenon of fear than simply one’s natural instincts helping to preserve one’s life. After the Fall, fear has been distorted from a healthy instinct to something the deprives humanity of peace and joy. It was not until they sinned that Adam and Eve hid from God in the Garden.


What It Means To Be Brave

When my daughter was around four years old she confided in me that she was afraid of some seemingly monumental task which had been set before her. I cannot recall what exactly it was. She was reluctant to do something (go to her first community ed gymnastics class or play a small part in the Christmas program or something of that sort) and she told me that she was scared to do it.

Innocent as the situation was, I understood her struggle more than I would have expected. As an adult diagnosed with social anxiety, I fully understood the crippling fear of trying something new and her fear that if she did something silly she would be laughed at and humiliated. I reassured her that she had nothing to be afraid of, and that I knew how she felt. Then I asked her if she wanted to know my definition of bravery. “Being brave,” I said, “isn’t not being afraid of something. Being brave is doing something even though you’re afraid.”

The presence of fear in one’s life does not mean that one is not brave. In fact, if fear is absent, one can hardly call the action brave. If that were the definition, any inconsequential action like putting on pants would be considered heroic and brave. “Look how fearlessly I did those dishes!”


Where Fear Meets Faith

Unsurprisingly, God’s Word has much to say about fear in the human experience. The most common command given by God throughout Scripture is, by a wide margin, the command not to be afraid. This often surprises people. You would think that God’s biggest priority would be to command humans not to commit sin or to obey him or something like that. But over and over, throughout God’s interactions with us in human history, the command given the most is to not fear.

Given our survival instincts, it seems unlikely that God is prohibiting his people from feeling emotions that, in their rightful place, are good and healthy. When confronted with a grizzly bear, fear is still the right response whether one follows Christ or not. Fear is a very real part of the human experience. It would seem that there is a deeper theological reason for God’s prohibition of fear.

I believe there is a deeper confidence which God inspires that allows one to not live in a fearful state. Far from a loving reminder to not be afraid because there is nothing to fear, throughout Scripture God enables his people to stand strongly and boldly in the face of seemingly impossible odds. It is not that there is nothing which should cause fear, but rather it is that God gives us a greater reason for hope in the face of those fears. The danger is still very real, but God is with us.

God tells us not to fear, not because there’s nothing to be afraid of, but because he tells us instead to trust in his ability to see us through. God promises to protect us and to walk with us and sustain us through trials. The waves are still large and scary, and the threat of drowning is still very real. But Jesus is in the boat with us.

Bravery, in the biblical sense, is not an ignorance of danger, but is trusting that God is greater than the danger and that he is capable of carrying you through the danger unbroken. Being brave is trusting that God will be true to his word, even in the face of what look like impossible odds.


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