Where does courage come from in tough times?
These are trying times. Whether it is wars and rumours of wars, or global pandemics and questionable government responses, or floods, or droughts, or terrorism, or much more personal matters such as family breakups, or battles with cancer, these are very difficult days indeed.
During these tough times the strength of men may easily fail. Fear and uncertainty may be our main responses instead of strength and courage. Yet for one Old Testament character – Joshua – there was a pressing need to demonstrate exactly those latter traits.
The days of Moses were nearing their end. His was a remarkable journey. A Hebrew raised in the courts of Pharaoh, only to flee for some decades, and then return and confront Pharaoh about letting God’s people go. The mighty exodus took place under his leadership, and forty years wandering in the wilderness occurred as well.
Now it was time for Moses to meet his Maker. Joshua his successor now had to lead this large group of rebellious and disobedient people into the Promised Land. What a massive task. What a frightening challenge. Joshua would need all the strength and courage he could get.
No wonder then that seven times in two chapters we read this: “be strong and courageous”. We find this command three times in Deuteronomy 31 (verses 6, 7, 23), and four times in Joshua 1 (verses 6, 7, 9, 18). In the first instance Moses spoke these words to the people. The second time Moses spoke them to Joshua. The next four times the Lord spoke them to Joshua. And the last time it was the people urging Joshua on with this phrase.
A big job with big responsibilities requires a lot of strength and courage. So seven times Joshua and/or the people were given these words. The application for us today should be obvious. We may not be commissioned to go in and possess Canaan. But we all are often given important tasks from the Lord, or are facing major enemies or crises. We too need strength and courage.
The question is, how do we get this? Do we just muster this up ourselves? Or is it a divine gift? Or a combination of each? Let me draw upon some helpful commentators here to help answer these questions. And they all emphasise the main points found in these two chapters: the divine presence is our source of strength, but our obedience to his word is the key to our success. Both are needed.
Concerning Yahweh’s presence, we find in Joshua 1:5 these words: “Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you”. Indeed, when God first commissioned Moses for his immense task, he had used the exact same words: “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12).
As Dale Ralph Davis puts it:
It is because of this assurance that Yahweh can exhort Joshua to ‘be strong and bold’ (vv. 6, 7, 9). Joshua is not told to grit his teeth and screw up his courage on his own; he is to be strong only because Yahweh is with him (v. 9) and not because Yahweh prefers leaders who are positive thinkers. Note how this assurance keeps reappearing throughout the book (2:24; 3:7, 10; 4:14; 6:27; 10:14, 42; 13:6; 14:12; 21:44; 23:3, 10).
David Jackman comments:
Clearly Joshua is no omnicompetent superhero … now, on the verge of Jordan, it would not be at all surprising if his knees were knocking and if the people were aware of it. There is no Moses now to fall back on. There is a good and glorious prize ahead—a land flowing with milk and honey—but the prospect of actually fighting the Canaanites with an almost untried army was terrifying. Moreover, Joshua knew only too well the weaknesses and fickleness of his people. Even God had spoken about giving them up! So we may certainly not claim any superiority over Joshua in these verses, as though he ought not to have needed the repeated exhortations. What we often tend to regard as natural courage is perhaps, in the last analysis, a self-discipline that resolves to overcome our all too natural fear in order to achieve a greater good. “You shall cause this people to inherit the land” (v. 6) is the promise, which generates the courage to obey.
But while the will is certainly involved, the courage that Joshua is called to exercise is of divine origin, generated by the divine word. In God’s economy there are no imperatives without indicatives, no commands without teaching as to how those commands can be obeyed and what it means actively to trust God’s promises. Here is no exception. Verse 7 tells us that strength and courage are directly dependent on careful, detailed obedience to the written word of Yahweh, in the Law given to Moses. Joshua is to be under the authority of God, mediated by his written word, as is every believer who has become the recipient of direct revelation through the Bible writers. In this sense Joshua stands with us and for us as we face the spiritual battles and challenges of our time in history.
And lastly these words from Lissa M. Wray Beal:
The exhortation to strength and courage can suggest that we simply need to try harder and screw courage to the sticking point. This is a “pull yourself up by the bootstrap” message. . . . It is true that Joshua and Israel needed to do things—to respond and act—if they were to be faithful, strong, and courageous. But the requisite strength does not simply come because they drum it out of their own depths. Rather, it comes from God: his promises, his presence, his instruction, his enabling. God is the key and the source of the courage and strength to which Joshua is called.
She speaks of how Hebrews 3-4 looks at Joshua as a type of Christ. Whereas Joshua brought Israel into the land of rest, because of disobedience they never really entered into that rest. Jesus is the true Joshua who is fully obedient and faithful, making a way for his people to fully enter into his rest. She continues:
That becomes good news for God’s people who would walk with courage and strength today. We are now identified with Christ, baptized into him, and have been given his own Spirit. Our lives and efforts are now taken up into his, and it is his faithfulness, strength, and courage from which we live. When we are called to undertake those things that are new, difficult, or challenging, we do not simply need to drum up strength and courage from our own meager resources. We have been brought into rest in Christ and any work we now do is in his power and by his Spirit.
The action might be ours, but the strength is not. It comes from the one able to fully command it and us: Jesus as Joshua, the one who leads his people, and resources them beyond their ability to the fulfillment of great things. It is precisely in our weakness that he is strong and courageous, able to bring us into promised “new lands”.
Well that is good news. I sure feel weak and lacking in courage right now – on so many fronts. But what Christ commands, Christ gives. So if we concentrate on reading, studying and obeying his Word, he will do his bit to share his strength with us and to be with us. Sounds like a really good deal to me.