Your Life of Unlikely Courage

I have chosen Mr. Baggins and that ought to be enough for all of you. If I say he is a Burglar, a Burglar he is, or will be when the time comes. There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself. —Gandalf (The Hobbit)

This year, I finally returned with Bilbo to the Lonely Mountain. While many of the paths and perils were familiar, the whole adventure felt noticeably different. When I first read The Hobbit in my twenties, life felt more like the perilous journey — mountains to climb, places to discover, new friends to meet, dragons to face. Since then, I’ve added a wife, a house, and three small children. Now, I can relate more to the security and predictability of the Shire.

That is not to say that life with a wife and small children is all warm biscuits and second breakfasts. As any young family knows, some days at home feel an awful lot like the dark, goblin tunnels beneath the Misty Mountains. But the gravitational force of family life often draws us (by necessity, to some degree) away from risk and toward safer, more familiar rhythms of living. The Shire, notice, isn’t portrayed as a problem — until its comforts might keep a man from stepping out into the right battles.

The Hobbit resonates with us so deeply, all these years later, because the tension in Bilbo is a tension in all of us. We want to live for more than our little comfortable life, and yet we want to preserve the sense of security and control that a little comfortable life affords us. Then Jesus knocks and calls us out of our spiritual shires: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24–25).

Because I know you, like me, need unlikely courage to do whatever Jesus has called you to do, I want to briefly draw you back into Bilbo’s great journey.

More Than a Calling

We’ll begin where all journeys must: at the beginning. Where does this sudden “Tookishness” emerge in the hobbit? The Tooks, an unusually brave and adventurous brood of hobbits, were Bilbo’s ancestors on his mother’s side. And so, throughout the story, Tolkien names Bilbo’s newfound courage after this family line.

When the renowned wizard first darkens the door of Bilbo’s hole in the hill, with his tall pointed blue hat, grey cloak, silver scarf, and long white beard, he doesn’t find the brave hobbit we meet later in the tale. Gandalf announces he’s recruiting for an adventure, and Bilbo melts into a trembling puddle on the floor. The wizard bears with the flustered hobbit and eventually presses his mission:

“For your old grandfather Took’s sake, . . . I will give you what you asked for.”

“I beg your pardon, I haven’t asked for anything!”

“Yes, you have! Twice now. My pardon. I give it you. In fact I will go so far as to send you on this adventure. Very amusing for me, very good for you.” (8–9)

This call, it turns out, was more than an invitation. It began doing something in Bilbo. The fearful hobbit again refuses, but invites Gandalf back the next day. And Gandalf does return, but not before sending thirteen dwarves along first.

Awakening Tookishness

When all the dwarves and Gandalf had arrived, they did what dwarves love to do: they sang. They sang of mountains and caverns, of hoards and wars, of history and legacy, of dragons and of gold. And as they sang, something happened inside of Bilbo, a sudden spring broke over his long, cozy winter:

As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and a jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick. (18)

This isn’t a simple courage. It’s a courage ignited by curiosity and beauty, by evil and need, by love and longing. Isn’t that a lot what it was like when you first began to realize who Jesus is and what life with him might be like? If God is truly calling — by his Spirit, somewhere deep in our hearts — when the invitation comes, we sense the wonder of a whole new world, of mountains unseen and caves unexplored, of dangers to be faced and dragons to be slain, of gold to be uncovered.

Why else would words like these draw us? “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” No one signs up for a cross — unless there’s greater joy and beauty on the other side of that cross than there is on this one. Unless we were made for a fullness of life we’ll only find if we brave the forests and caves before us, the goblins and dragons set against us. Suddenly, the hobbit holes we’ve made for ourselves feel smaller, more cramped. We were made for mountains.

Without Bed and Breakfast

After Gandalf introduces Bilbo as his chosen burglar, the dwarves understandably doubt his judgment (especially after the hobbit faints while hearing about the adventure). Gloin openly questions whether he could handle the dangers of a dragon’s cave. Bilbo overhears him from the other room, and then (Tolkien tells us),

The Took side had won. He suddenly felt he would go without bed and breakfast to be thought fierce. (20)

He emerged from hiding and said to the dwarves, “Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert” (21). Bilbo barely recognized himself in the moment (and in later moments comes to regret this burst of courage), but Gandalf’s call had changed him. “If I say he is a Burglar, a Burglar he is, or will be when the time comes” (21–22).

“Any calling of God carries with it a sufficiency for the calling.”

So it is for those who’ve been called by God. “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). This calling of God carries with it a sufficiency for the calling. When Christ effectively calls you to follow him, there is suddenly a lot more in you than others can see, and a deal more than you have any idea of yourself.

A Very Different Hobbit

Through mountains and forests, goblins and wolves, we do find a lot more in our hobbit than anyone could see at first. He spies on giant trolls (and nearly gets eaten), leaps over a jealous, murderous creature hunting him in the caves, takes on giant spiders in the dark forest of Mirkwood, rescues his friends from the Wood-elves prison, and then, most memorably of all, he braves Smaug’s cave alone.

He crept noiselessly down, down, down into the dark. He was trembling with fear, but his little face was set and grim. Already he was a very different hobbit from the one that had run out without a pocket-handkerchief from Bag-End long ago. He had not had a pocket-handkerchief for ages. He loosened his dagger in its sheath, tightened his belt, and went on.

If Gandalf had shown him at the start where he would end up, Bilbo would have never left his hole. But facing trolls, goblins, and dragons made him a very different hobbit. What has God called you to do that feels too uncomfortable, too costly, too unlike you? Who might you become if you trusted him and took the risk?

As Bilbo creeps down further, the fire begins to burn redder and redder before him and a deafening gurgling sound throbbed in his ears. All his senses confirmed what he wished wasn’t true.

It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.

The bravest thing he ever did was that first, quiet, resolute step. And isn’t it the same in so many of our battles — in conflict and crisis, in correction and confession, in evangelism and ministry, in marriage and family and so many of our relationships? What small, brave first step could you take, even today? You may be surprised what courage you stumble into.

Your Unlikely Courage

What might Jesus be calling you to do that feels too inconvenient or costly, at least right now? Where do you feel yourself too bound to the comforts and security of your routine? What could you step out and do for Jesus, whether large or small, that would take real, unlikely courage?

As I said at the beginning, the mountains and dragons often change from season to season. As a young father, I am learning that raising toddlers, with love and patience and a resolve to teach them Jesus, sometimes requires supernatural strength and courage. As one of my favorite parenting articles says,

There is a war on children, and we are all, in one way or another, playing some role in it. Every time we move forward as faithful parents, . . . we are wrestling demons — because there is little the demons hate more than little children.

“Often, the dragon within us will demand the most courage from us.”

And demons hate whatever good God has called you to do in his name — the difficult marriage that needs repairing and reviving, the workplace that desperately needs the light of Christ, the children who need a Sunday School teacher, the friendship that’s cooled and grown distant, the local food shelf looking for volunteers, the grieving widow who’s learning loneliness. And in and around all those callings, souls are dying, needing rescue before the flames fall. Our neighbors, co-workers, and friends live in the perils below the Lonely Mountain but imagine themselves in the safety of the Shire. Will we tell them?

The fiercest and most intimidating dragons, though, loom even larger and closer to home. Every day we wake up, we face temptations to overcome and sins to confess and kill. Will we leave behind our comforts and insecurities and fight, or will we quietly cuddle up with our secret sins — with lust, with bitterness, with envy, with anger, with pride? Often, the dragon within us will demand the most courage from us.

Every stage of life as a Christian, and every area of the persistently faithful Christian life, requires some unlikely courage. My nearly forty years now has taught me that Jesus will keep stubbornly calling us out of comfortable and familiar, because he loves us — and because we were made for mountains.