The Rare Courage of Real Friends

Why Love Will Sometimes Wound

If I had to do what Bilbo Baggins did that day, I have wondered if I’d have had the strength and courage to do it. And I’m not talking about the fire-breathing dragon, or the gigantic, bloodthirsty spiders, or the caves filled with goblins. The demise of Smaug, it turns out, wasn’t the end (or even the peak) of Bilbo’s courage. No, the greatest challenge set before him would not make him confront an enemy, but a friend.

As Bilbo and his company of dwarves recover the lost and buried treasure from the fallen dragon, their leader, Thorin, will not rest until he finds one jewel in particular, the King’s jewel, the Arkenstone. As the hunt stretches over days, the mountain gives birth to the second, more dangerous threat.

Bilbo did not reckon with the power that gold has upon which a dragon has long brooded, nor with dwarfish hearts. Long hours in the past days Thorin had spent in the treasury, and the lust of it was heavy on him. Though he had hunted chiefly for the Arkenstone, yet he had an eye for many another wonderful thing that was lying there. (The Hobbit, 265)

This lust hardened Thorin’s heart and began to poison his mind. He soon refuses to deal with the elves and men (his potential allies) at his doorstep and foolishly lays the kindling for a great war. The hobbit senses the fierceness and perilousness of this greed, and so he takes a quietly brave step. He risks his friendship (and his life) to deliver the object of Thorin’s lust (which Bilbo had found and concealed) to the allies the dwarf was now treating as enemies. He sneaks from the camp and goes to the elves and men as they ready for war.

“This is the Arkenstone of Thrain,” said Bilbo, “the Heart of the Mountain; and it is also the heart of Thorin. He values it above a river of gold. I give it to you. It will aid you in your bargaining.” Then Bilbo, not without a shudder, not without a glance of longing, handed the marvelous stone to Bard. (273)

Bilbo’s most courageous act wasn’t creeping down into the dragon’s lair, but walking off alone to incense (and perhaps save) a friend who had gone astray. It wasn’t the big, scary enemy he had prepared for over miles and miles, but the sudden need that emerged in his own camp.

Benevolent Betrayal

Bilbo’s quiet midnight deed of bravery didn’t avert war altogether — goblins and wolves descended on the mountain shortly after, uniting dwarf, elf, man, and wizard. Nor did his actions go over smoothly with Thorin, who unraveled in rage and cast him out of the camp, warning him with violence to never show his face again.

As the Battle of the Five Armies comes to an end, though, and the eagles withdraw (evil having been soundly defeated again), Thorin lies seriously, fatally wounded. Before he dies, he calls for the hobbit.

There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. (290)

Bilbo had largely missed the great war, quickly vanishing behind his ring and then being knocked unconscious by a random, falling rock. With his parting words, Thorin wasn’t talking about fighting goblins and wolves; he was talking about a stone — about a benevolent betrayal. At the doorstep of death, he could now see just how free the hobbit was from the dwarf’s blinding lusts, and that he wisely prized what he could enjoy with others over anything he could have alone. After slaying his share of goblins and wolves, Thorin saw the wisdom and courage in a friend’s correction.

Yes, there may have been “more” at stake for Bilbo — dwarves and goblins and the fate of Middle Earth — but the lesson holds. Often the biggest, most dangerous dragons are the ones closer to home. The more unlikely courage is the courage to lovingly confront sin in those we love.

Wounds That Heal

Where do we see this kind of courageous confrontation in Scripture? We have striking examples of bold and loving correction — the apostle Paul confronting Peter, Nathan confronting King David, Jesus confronting his disciples. As I watched Bilbo hand over Thorin’s heart to the other side, though, my mind wandered to the apostle Paul’s second letter to a church whom he loved.

Despite his complicated and painful history with Corinth, we know Paul loved the believers there intensely. He says of them, “I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:2). As he watched some fall away from Christ, though, that intense love provoked an acute concern. Next verse: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” This fear led him to write a more severe letter of rebuke and warning (that we do not have). This was their Arkenstone moment. Later he says of that lost letter,

Even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it — though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. (2 Corinthians 7:8–9)

“Whom do you love enough to confront when necessary, even if it pains them?”

The letter clearly hurt to read. Almost all correction does, at least at first. Paul’s willingness to wound them, however, was not from a desire to harm them, but from a desire to heal them. “I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Corinthians 2:4). Who loves you like that? Whom do you love enough to confront when necessary, even if it pains them?

Food and Cheer and Song

While some were grieved into repenting by Paul’s letter, the last four chapters of 2 Corinthians are a hard word for those who continued to reject and rebel against his message and ministry. He has unusually harsh words for those who won’t repent of their quarreling, jealousy, anger, and gossip:

I warned those who sinned before and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again I will not spare them. (2 Corinthians 12:20; 13:2)

Those who won’t turn from their sin will face discipline. A few verses later, he issues an even stronger warning:

I write these things while I am away from you, that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down. (2 Corinthians 13:10)

I don’t want to be severe, he says, but I will if I must. Because I love you, and want what’s best for you, I won’t tolerate sin in you. I’ll risk relational friction, and even separation, to rescue you from the fierce bonds of sin. What struck me recently, though, (and what echoes some of Thorin’s last words) are the very next verses:

Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. (2 Corinthians 13:11–13)

In other words, the purpose of all this severity is the felicity of fellowship — joy, restoration, comfort, unity, peace. Or in the kingly dwarf’s words, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” Food and cheer and song represent countless things in life we enjoy together. The rewards of courageous confrontation, then, are the table of faith-filled fellowship, the laughter of serious joy, the glory of Christ-exalting worship.

The Greater Commendation

Now we can appreciate why Bilbo’s greatest courage was in carrying that rock and confronting a friend. Tolkien certainly seemed to think so, anyway. As Bilbo left the Arkenstone and began the long midnight walk back, not knowing yet whether he would lose his head for what he’d just done, “an old man, wrapped in a dark cloak” rose from his tent and stopped the hobbit.

“Well done! Mr. Baggins!” he said, clapping Bilbo on the back. “There is always more about you than anyone expects!” It was Gandalf. (274)

It’s at this point of the story — before the stubborn lust of Thorin, and not before the devastating fires of Smaug — where the hobbit receives his commendation.

Maybe God will call you to brave mountains and defy dragons in your lifetime. But he’ll almost certainly call you to give away an Arkenstone or two along the way — to boldly confront someone you love, to be willing to have hard, painful conversations behind the scenes, to call a wandering friend back into the joys of food and cheer and song again.

So, my fellow hobbit, is there a Thorin in your life right now who’s in grave need of your courage?