Because courage is a virtue, a proper understanding of it involves some understanding of virtue in general. Virtues are basically “strengths” or “potencies.” As such they enable human beings to do something well. This is not the same as saying that they enable one to do something good, although in fact they are thus enabling. As strengths or capabilities virtues are primarily means; they have instrumental value. Having this value, they may be said to be in some sense good. But virtues existing separately or merely in the aggregate, and not adjusted to each other within an overarching unity, do not as such constitute a man good. Separate virtues, such as thrift or loyalty, can be made serviceable to evil ends as well as good, and the same holds true of courage. Admirable because it is a necessary ingredient of the good life (but also of the bad; one cannot do great harm without some courage), courage, or any other “strength,” is a virtue in the deepest and truest sense only as it is expressive of a good will and as it is incorporated in a life integrated through attachment to authentic values.
Like all settled virtues, courage is a quality of being, a trait of selfhood, an ingredient of character. It arises out of and is a quality of what Plato called the “spirited” part of the human organism (cf. רוּחַ, H8120, spirit,
What calls forth courage, and sometimes also evokes its opposite, cowardice, are the physical, social, and spiritual threats, dangers, and pains which are a constant feature of the broken and hostile world we live in. In this present age man is beset on every hand by evil forces let loose in the world by sin. The question is: how shall a man, how shall a Christian, relate himself to these? Will he be deterred by them, will he flee them, will he without taking thought flail out at them, or will he stand up to them by the exercise of a will made firm through the power of a compelling and governing ideal? That is, will he be fearfully immobilized by the dangers of existence, will he flee from them in terror, will he with an almost animal instinct rush headlong against them, or will he face and meet them with steeled endurance and with resolute action? If he does the latter he will be acting courageously. The courageous man reacts to pain and danger not with indecision, cowardice, or rashness, but with spirit, strength, and firmness. Courage may, accordingly, be defined as strength of purpose and steadfastness of will in the presence of life’s threats and tribulations.
More important than physical courage, although it may involve this, is moral courage. The courage of endurance, akin to patience, is the will to bear manfully the pains and frustrations of life, and is frequently enjoined in the Bible (
For the Christian, courage of every sort is possible in the measure that he knows himself to be in the almighty hands and under the beneficent protection of his heavenly Father.