No, this is not a political post, although I can see an application in our current political climate. But I’m not going there today. I’ve spent the past few days hanging out in a hospital with one of my closest friends who is fighting a fight that would terrify any of us. So my mind is primarily there, but it is also with many other friends, who are
- dealing with loved ones battling major health issues,
- dealing with the too-soon unexpected death of a spouse,
- facing dramatic career-change and relocations,
- and many others who are rightfully overwhelmed by the unknown future of family members, close friends, and their own inner struggles.
I was reminded of the phrase “be strong and courageous” from the book of Joshua, and I share it with all of you. Joshua was the successor to Moses. If you’ve ever taken a job where the person you are replacing was a legendary figure in the company, you have a little idea what it was like for Joshua. Moses was the greatest leader they had ever known, and he had led the Israelites to do extraordinary things. The book of Joshua begins with God talking to Joshua–passing Moses’ leadership mantle to Joshua. What makes Joshua’s assignment even more daunting is the fact that he’s not merely taking over an organization that is running in a steady state, with the job “not to screw things up.” Joshua is charged by God to take the nation of Israel to the next level–literally to lead them to take the “Promised Land,” the mission for which Moses had been training them for the past 40 years.
It’s easy to sit here in the luxury of nearly 3500 years of hindsight and underestimate Joshua’s situation. Because, of course, God “promised” the Israelites this land, so certainly Joshua was going to be successful, so he should have no doubts, right? Joshua was probably more focused on the fact that Moses was the one God chose to lead the Israelites out of slavery and into the Promised Land, and he died in the desert. If Moses couldn’t do it, how was he supposed to pull it off? Joshua had been a faithful second-in-command, but when you become “the guy,” everything changes. All that to say, Joshua had more than a little reason to be overwhelmed with legitimate fear.
Fear is a messy thing. Our culture has cast it as a weakness, a thing to be ridiculed, a sign of insufficient confidence or inner strength. Religious people point to it as a lack of faith, as if it were some sort of character flaw or shortcoming. Many try to deal with it in a number of unhealthy ways. People suppress fear and deny it, or at the other end of the spectrum, embrace it as part of “who they are” and allow it to suppress them. I don’t want to delve too deeply into the psychology of fear, but instead I want to look at this one teaching on it, and see if there’s something in here to help all of us as we grapple with the emotions generated as we contemplate the unknown (or sometimes that which we do know, and are about to encounter again).
God’s charge to Joshua starts brutally bluntly: “Moses my servant is dead. Now, you get all these people ready to invade the land that your ancestors have been dreaming about.” (Joshua 1:2, GMW version) He then goes on in verses 3-5 to tell Joshua about the success God has in store for them.
Then in verse 6 God changes the topic slightly. In the next 4 verses, God deals with a critical issue: Joshua’s fear. Joshua was a confident, courageous leader who had proven himself strong already on multiple occasions. He is one of the few major biblical characters who has no significant character flaws (the only real negative I can find recorded in Scripture was his failure to consult with God about the Gibeonite treaty–a mistake, to be sure, but primarily because it was so out of character for Joshua). Joshua was no wimp, no weak man. But three times in four verses, God encourages Joshua:
- v6: “Be strong and courageous…”
- v7: “Be strong and very courageous…”
- v9: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous….”
God didn’t dismiss Joshua’s fears. Too many times someone who is dealing with fearful situations is told “don’t be afraid” or worse yet, “Why are you afraid?” Dismissing fear is less than pointless; it’s demeaning. God doesn’t do that to Joshua. He offers something better! He tells him to be strong, to have courage. That’s easy for God to say, he’s not looking at the situation through my eyeballs!
I left out a lot of text from those four verses, where God gives the details of how Joshua can “be strong and courageous” in the midst of his fearful circumstances. More on that in a minute. But first, I want to explore something I hadn’t noticed in that passage before, even though I’ve read it dozens of times. In verse 9, God starts with “Have I not commanded you?” I’ve always read that as something akin to that parental breakdown point, when logic and patience fail simultaneously, and the parent screams, “DO IT BECAUSE I SAID SO!!!” But that’s not what is going on here. Just as in John 13:34, where Jesus tells his disciples, “a new command I give you: love one another”, Jesus is not commanding an emotion. So also God is not commanding Joshua to have an emotion. Emotions can’t be forced.
In our culture, we don’t fully understand Jesus’s command in John 13, because we think “warm fuzzy feels” when we think “love.” But Jesus’s command is to an action, rooted in a choice. In the same way, God commands Joshua, “Be strong and courageous.” He’s not saying “don’t have an emotion (fear).” He’s saying, essentially, “Make a choice: Choose to have strength and courage.” Just as our culture misunderstands love, we also misunderstand courage. What most of us think of as courage is more accurately “bravado,” which Oxford defines as “a bold manner or a show of boldness intended to impress or intimidate.”
God’s command to Joshua is something different. He is commanding an action. And precluding that action is a decision. Joshua gets to decide whether he is going to act on his fears, or on something else. Courage is the act of choosing to persevere despite the conditions that warrant fear. Courage is focusing on your source of strength, and acting. Fear is nothing more than empowered doubt. Courage is choosing to focus on and continuing to work toward the right outcome, despite the risks.
God redirects Joshua’s attention from the obstacles and enormity of the task at hand. Joshua wasn’t acting on blind wishes. He’d seen God’s work and knew His strength. He knew God’s assurances that Joshua would succeed could be trusted, because he knew God.
All of us face fearful circumstances at times in our lives. Some of us are staring at the impossible, the insurmountable–at monsters so big that the only reasonable response is to curl up in the corner and wait for it to devour us. But we have another choice. We can choose to be strong and courageous. We can choose to focus on the sources of strength in our lives, and to recognize that those strengths can help us press on in the midst of our fears. When fearful thoughts start washing over us, we can choose to think a new thought! We can decide to keep going, and not let our fears control us. They won’t always go away, but they don’t have to dominate.
For followers of YHWH, Joshua’s God, our source of strength is the same assurances that Joshua had: God is worthy of being trusted, because he has always proven himself to be true. While verse 9 was not specifically addressed to us, God’s nature is such that we can be assured that we have the same promise:
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”