Where Real Courage Comes From

Where does courage come from? And how do you get it when you need it, when some fear towers over you and threatens you, and you feel like cowering and fleeing into some cave of protection?

For an answer, let’s look at one of the most famous stories of all time in 1 Samuel 17 — and one of the most misunderstood stories in the Bible.

David and Goliath

Three thousand years ago, in the Valley of Elah, a massive man named Goliath of Gath stepped out of the Philistine ranks to defy and taunt the army of Israel and its God. For forty days, he harangued the Israelite warriors, heaping shame on them, since none dared to accept his fight-to-the-death, winner-takes-all challenge. Every morning when he stepped forward, the men of God shrank back.

Then a teenage Hebrew shepherd boy named David showed up in the camp with some bread and cheese for his soldier big brothers and heard the giant pour out his scorn on the impotent host of his Lord. David was indignant. So he took his shepherd’s sling, grabbed a few stones, knocked Goliath on the block, and chopped off his head.

What David and Goliath Is Not About

Many think David’s defeat of Goliath is a story of personal courage in the face of overwhelming odds. They see David as the archetypal underdog, an Old Testament Rocky Balboa, standing up to an arrogant, powerful blowhard. They see him as a self-confident, independent young man who was brave enough to fight for what was right and rely on his own strength and skills, rather than conform to conventional tactics.

The popular moral of the story is this: Get out there and face down your giant because the heroically courageous come out on top.

But that is not at all what this story is about. It’s true that David was courageous, and courage is an essential, glorious virtue. But when he faced Goliath, David’s courage was a derivative virtue. It was being empowered by something else.

The Source of David’s Courage

Before looking at where David’s courage came from, we need to ask why Saul and his soldiers lacked it, at least at this moment. On the surface, the answer seems manifestly obvious. The Philistine champion was about nine-feet tall and incredibly strong (1 Samuel 17:4–7). He was a highly trained, experienced massacre machine who had sent many opponents to meet their Maker (1 Samuel 17:33). Physically, every man in the Hebrew camp was outclassed. Fighting Goliath looked like suicide, plain and simple.

But it is not so plain and simple. First of all, because fighting Goliath didn’t look like suicide to David, who was as physically outclassed as anyone else. But also, because these men believed in God and knew Israel’s history. They knew the stories, how God had overcome one giant adversary after another. Many of them had personally seen God do amazing things, such as Jonathan’s defeat of a Philistine garrison in 1 Samuel 14.

No, the men lacked courage to face Goliath because at this moment the men lacked faith. At this moment, for whatever reason, despite all the stories and past experiences, Goliath looked bigger than God. Each man believed that if he went out against this humungous human, he would be on his own and end up as bird food (1 Samuel 17:44).

David’s Deep Confidence in God

So what made David different? It was not because he had the self-generated, raw, cool courage of the American action-movie hero. What fueled David’s courage was his confidence in God’s promises and God’s power to fulfill them.

In the preceding chapter, Samuel the prophet had informed David that God had chosen him to be the next king of Israel and anointed him with his brothers around him (1 Samuel 16:13). David knew this information when he arrived in the camp and heard Goliath’s sneering rants. And he drew additional confidence by remembering how God had helped him in the past (1 Samuel 17:34–36).

This reality was David’s courage wellspring. He was not self-confident; he was God-confident.

David believed that God would never break his promise, and if Goliath made himself an obstacle to God’s promise, God could flick him out of the way with a pebble. David saw God as bigger and stronger than the fearful Philistine. So he went out to fight knowing that God would give him victory over Goliath — and when he did, the victory would demonstrate God’s power and faithfulness, not David’s courage (1 Samuel 17:46–47).

What’s the Source of Your Courage?

Courage is not an autonomous, self-generated virtue. Courage is always produced by faith, whether our faith is in God or something else. Courage is a derivative virtue.

For the Christian, a lack of courage, what the writer of Hebrews calls “shrinking back” (Hebrews 10:37–38), is always evidence of a lack faith in a promise of God. Some “Goliath” is looming larger than God in our sight and taunting us into humiliation. All we see is how weak and pathetic we are, and how inadequate we are to face him. Fighting him seems impossible, and the thought immobilizes us.

All of us experience this fear. So did David. David is such a helpful example for us, not only because he fueled his confidence and courage to face Goliath from God’s promises, but also because he so frequently felt fearful and needed to encourage his soul again by remembering God’s promises. A quick read through the first 25 psalms shows how often David battled fear and unbelief.

Get Angry at Fear

But faith made David more than courageous. When he heard the Philistine defy the living God and his army, it made David angry. Goliath’s taunts and accusations scorned God’s glory. And when no one stepped up to defend God’s name, it made God look weak. David would not tolerate that.

And such should also be our response to every fear and “lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Our fears are not primarily about us, even though they feel that way. Our fears are primarily about God. They impugn God’s character and call him weak, or non-existent. They defy God and his church.

That is an outrage, and our call is to stop cowering and stand up to our fears, not allowing them to intimidate us into unbelief.

Gospel Giant-Slaying

In the new covenant, we are not to battle flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12), but to love our human enemies (Luke 6:27). However, we are to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Our “Goliaths” are our indwelling sin and the “spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). And we are to wield warfare weapons against them (2 Corinthians 10:4), including the shield of faith and the sword of God’s word (Ephesians 6:16–17). We are to aim to kill.

These giants, who are bigger than we are and very intimidating to our flesh, will be slain just like David’s was — by faith. And our courage to face them will not come from our self-confidence. It will only come from confidence in God’s powerful promises.