James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo

Explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo

Courage, the Heart of a Man

by Waitsel Smith

Let me know what you think or .

The Second Knightly Virtue

This one was really hard for me, and I'm not sure why. I could have started off talking about standing on the edge of a cliff, looking down, terrified. That happened to me - quite often in fact - growing up. Not literally, as with James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's movie Vertigo... But I'd have to say I was about like him. I hated heights, snakes, meeting new people, and pretty much everything that pulled me out of my comfort zone. When we're confronted with our fears, we either cower in the corner, or we stand up and walk into them. And that, remarkably, determines who we are. Which is why courage is perhaps the most important, and most difficult, of all virtues.

We equate it with manhood itself. Before going onto the playground, boys wonder, "Do I have what it takes?" meaning, "Will I stand up to the bully, or will I turn tail and run?" Soldiers wonder the same thing about the enemy before going into battle. Everything depends on their quitting themselves like men; and if they don't, it can be disastrous for the other men. All men wonder about themselves: which is why, when you know the answer, and the answer is that you're a coward, you have nowhere else to turn but God.

People used to think that women were the weaker sex. Of course, that's not true except physically. Psychologically, they are actually the stronger of the two. We men are far more fragile in our psyches, which is why we're more prone to nervous breakdowns and suicide. We can't stand thinking of ourselves as less than the Rock of Gibraltar, but we are. We're weak, comparatively speaking, and God meant for us to be that way so we would depend on Him. He's the Rock on which we stand, our Rock of Ages.

So, back to James Stewart in Vertigo. There he is, a police detective, hanging from a rooftop by his fingernails, while the bad guy is getting away. He looks down and loses it - he drops. The next thing we know, he's been released from the police force with everybody sympathizing with him, but he knows he's a coward. Clinically he has vertigo.; but in his heart, he knows he's a gutless wonder, and it shapes his life from that point on. What's really great is that, later in the film, his vertigo keeps him from acting to save his beautiful mistress, Kim Novak, who throws herself from a church bell tower. When he gets into the hearing for the inquiry into her death, the judge sticks a knife into his cowardice and twists it in a most sardonic, Hitchcockian way. It is truly delightful watching Stewart squirm.

Stewart played a lot of would-be cowards in his career. He was the man most likely not to shoot the notorious criminal in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. And in It's A Wonderful Life, he certainly wasn't playing the hero when he was ready to throw himself from the bridge. I guess it was just his vulnerability that made him such a likely candidate to turn and run the other way. But he never did. In the end, he always acquitted himself like a man. Would that we could all do as much. Left to our own devices, though, I'm afraid most of us would fail. But with Christ, we cannot fail, and there's the rub: we have to trust Him for our courage.

Profiles in Couarage by John F. Kennedy

Profiles In Courage by Senator John F. Kennedy

Gifford on Couarage by Frank Gifford

Gifford On Courage by Frank Gifford

John F. Kennedy wrote a very famous book called Profiles In Courage, in which he recounted favorite real-life acts of courage. Frank Gifford wrote a similar book called Gifford On Courage. Great men have always acknowledged and contemplated the importance of courage. Yet, how many would walk into a den of lions, or a colosseum of lions for that matter, if they could forego it simply by denying their faith? Only a Christian would do that. It's easy to strap a bomb to your chest and die, thinking you have one thousand virgins waiting for you in heaven; it's quite another to walk into a death trap and live, knowing that if you fail you lose everyone and everything you care about.

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Stonewall Jackson on horseback by the artist David Bendann

The immovable Stonewall Jackson by David Bendann

One of the truisms of having courage is that it doesn't mean you're not afraid. Courageous men are often afraid, but their fear doesn't paralyze them. They overcome it by acting - usually by walking right into the lion's den. Major General Stonewall Jackson got his name because, in the midst of battle, with bullets flying and cannon balls blazing, he would maintain stalwart dignity, unmoved and unmovable. That's because he believed in predestination and God's sovereignty. Stonewall was convinced that, until God called him home, no one could take his life. That is what gave him his courage.

In my article on "Faith," I mentioned that faith and courage are companion virtues, that you really can't have one without the other. That's because it takes courage to have faith. Other names for courage are heart, strength, fortitude, valor, bravery, endurance, perseverance and patience. All these words are used pretty much interchangeably in the Bible.

David with head of Goliath by Gustave Dore

David with the Head of Goliath by Gustave Dore

Since courage is required to have faith, the Bible is full of examples of people with this quality. The most famous, I guess, is David the shepherd boy, who stood up to the giant Goliath and cut off his head. But Job was just as courageous for enduring extreme hardship without blaming God. As a matter of fact, for most of us today, it's easier to identify with Job unless you see David's giant allegorically. No one had more endurance than Christ, of course, during both His temptation in the desert and His passion. Peter was a babbling coward before the Day of Pentecost; but after he received the Holy Spirit, he was as bold as a lion.

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Richard the Lionheart by NC Wyeth

Richard the Lionheart by NC Wyeth

I'm mentioning lions a lot, but they seem to go with the territory. Who can forget the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz? He lacked what most lions are known for; but it's interesting that those who stand up to lions are known for the same thing - such as David, Daniel and Androcles. Richard the Lionheart, the most famous knight-king, other than King Arthur, had three walking (passant) lions on the shield of his coat of arms, indicating his bravery. Another brave knight was Sir Gawain, probably the most courageous of all the Knights of the Round Table, as well as the most ideal. You can read about him in Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, which also comes in a version by JRR Tolkien. (Avoid the filmed version with Sean Connery, called Sword Of The Valiant. Except for Connery, it is horrible.)

Sergeant York by Mark Hodgkins

Sergeant York by Mark Hodgkins

There are many examples of modern-day courage. I love people like Helen Keller, who overcame the challenges of being born both blind and deaf to go on to become a great teacher and believer; and Nick Vujicic, a paraplegic evangelist, who does just about anything he wants, including playing golf! There are countless examples in the military, not the least of which are Sergeant York, a conscientious objector who gave up his status to become one of the great heroes of WWI; and Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of WWII. There are movies about both men. Sergeant York (1941) stars Gary Cooper and is top-notch. To Hell And Back (1955) stars Audie Murphy playing himself, and is based upon his book by the same name.

The Four Feathers (1939) and The Mighty (1998)

The Four Feathers (1939) and The Mighty (1998)

One of the greatest movies on courage is The Four Feathers. I'm not talking about the relatively recent remake, but the original 1939 classic by the Korda brothers, which stars John Clements, Ralph Richardson, C. Aubrey Smith and June Duprez. It's the story of an English boy, Harry Faversham, who is born into a military family, and is impressed upon by his father that there is nothing in the world worse than a coward. As a young man, he enters military service and falls in love with the daughter of one of his father's best friends. When Harry's regiment is called into action, he decides to resign his post in order to focus on saving his family's estate. But his three best friends in the regiment interpret his resignation as cowardice, and send him three white feathers indicating as much. His fiance adds the fourth feather.

Harry is humiliated; but he believes his friends and fiance were just in their assessment, because he, too, believes himself to be a coward. But there is enough honor in him to decide to prove them wrong. He does so by secretly traveling to Egypt, where his regiment is helping Field Marshall Kitchener take back the Sudan from the Dervishes and Fuzzy Wuzzies; and, one by one, he saves the lives of his three friends. This is a powerful story and very well made, with top-notch acting and action, as well as authentic, location footage showing how Egypt and the Sudan looked before WWII.

For something a little lighter, try The Mighty (1998), starring Sharon Stone, and based on a novel by Rodman Philbrick. It's the story of a handicapped boy, Kevin (Kieran Culkin), who is a genius, and his over-sized friend, Maxwell (Elden Henson), who is a slow-learner. Kevin teaches Maxwell to read using the book King Arthur And His Knights Of The Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green. Taking the stories to heart, the two boys team up to become modern-day knights, fighting bullies and hoodlums in the inner city, and rescuing unlikely damsels in distress. Sharon Stone plays Kevin's mom. It's a delightful story with real dangers and a real twist at the end.

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Shackleton and The Endurance documentary - both extraordinary

Shackleton and The Endurance documentary - both extraordinary

The most powerful movie about courage, by far, is the documentary, The Endurance - Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition. I would encourage everyone to see this extraordinary film about an extraordinary man, explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. The newspaper ad he ran in 1900 to recruit volunteers for his expedition speaks volumes: "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success." They were lined up for blocks!

The journey ended in disaster, as far as reaching the South Pole. But once he realized he wasn't going to make his goal, Shackleton made up his mind to bring every man home alive. When you watch the documentary, you will see just how impossible that was. Yet he did it! Two things stand out in Shackleton the man: his leadership and his courage. Neither have ever been matched, in my opinion. Read my review and then watch the film. It could be a life-changing experience for you.

Once we get into the Armor of God, I will show you how the first piece of armor, the Belt of Truth, is designed to protect a man's courage. But for now, let me say that prayer and obedience to God's Word are the real keys. As with King Saul, wherever we are disobedient to God, we will lack courage. At the same time, prayer and obedience can build it.

As I said before, there are many examples of courage in the Bible. In all cases, those who showed fortitude attributed their strength to God, calling Him their strong tower, their fortress, their Rock, the One who fought for them, their Warrior, etc. The Psalms are full of such appellations; but my favorite verses about courage are in Joshua, Chapter 1. Joshua became God's warrior-leader following Moses' death. He had the daunting task of leading the Children of Israel into the Promised Land; not to vacation, but to fight against all the war-like nations occupying the land. He needed courage. So God encouraged him with these words:

"No man will be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I have been with Moses, I will be with you; I will not fail you nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous, for you shall give this people possession of the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous; be careful to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, so that you may have success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go." (Joshua 1:5-9)

What couldn't you do after hearing words like that from God?! He is the Great Encourager, and we are to be the same with each other.

There was another Joshua who lived about 1,500 years later, but we know him today as Jesus. He had an even more daunting task before him. Here's what the Apostle Paul said about Jesus and His courage in Hebrews 12, the chapter that follows his dissertation on faith, and his exhortation to us:

"Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart." (Hebrews 12:1-3)

It takes courage to have faith.

Rise up, O men (and women) of God!
Have done with lesser things;
Give heart and soul and mind and strength
To serve the King of Kings.

Rise up, O men of God!
His kingdom tarries long;
Bring in the day of brotherhood (and knighthood)
And end the night of wrong.

Rise up, O men of God!
The Church for you doth wait;
Her strength unequal to her task (but God's is more than adequate);
Rise up and make her great!

Lift high the cross of Christ!
Tread where his feet have trod;
As brothers of the Son of Man,
Rise up, O men of God!


Waitsel Smith, June 29, 2009

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[Send me yours and I'll include them on this page. Let me know what you think.]

"Loving your commentary on Courage. Where would we go to rent or purchase copies of the movies you refer to in the message?" - Erin, Atlanta

Most, if not all of these, can be rented from Netflix.

You can also buy all of them, I think, on Amazon. The Four Feathers (1939) is available in an excellent quality release from Criterion Collection. You can also find it on TCM (Turner Classic Movies), who show it quite often. You just need to look for it in their schedule.

The original release of The Endurance - Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition (2000) has all but sold out, and what's left is quite pricey. There is a more recent release out; but it seems to be selling out as well. So I would pick this one up by hook or by crook.


The Mighty (1998) is reasonable and worth the buy.

Here's Vertigo's listing on Amazon, which is reasonable. I would buy the first, which is a little more and sold out, but still available.


Sergeant York - good price for two discs, but the box set, which includes four additional movies, is a better buy.


To Hell And Back - reasonable.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - if you're interested, you can get it as a double feature with Shane, another classic about courage; or you can buy it separately.


Hope that helps. - Waitsel

"Thank you!!!" - Erin, Atlanta

"This is similar to John Eldridge's Wild At Heart. Good stuff." - John, Texas

John copied me. I told him not to, but he did it anyway. He was just too wild to listen. :) - Waitsel

"Great word, Waits!" - Bill, Atlanta

"Excellent!" - Kris, Atlanta

"Bring it on!" - Andrew

Thanks for all your great comments!

Text and artwork © 2009 Waitsel Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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