The lesson on “Moral Courage” from the 1961 adult Sunday School class is a nice complement to this year’s lesson, the purpose statement of which is “To encourage class members to follow Paul’s example and be faithful witnesses of Jesus Christ even in the midst of trials and tribulation.” Both lessons draw from the courage of Paul to be a disciple of Christ. The current lesson is a collection of fairly concrete illustrations of Paul’s courage; the older lesson fills in some of the theoretical background for such a lesson, explaining what it means to be courageous and what courage means in the context of discipleship. The lesson is from Lowell L. Bennion, Teachings of the New Testament, Sunday School Course 27. Salt Lake City: Deseret Sunday School Union, 1953.
The Lord is my helper, and I shall not fear what man can do unto me. (Heb. 13:16)
The Meaning of Courage
Courage is a quality of mind and heart, which prompts an individual to face danger or to run a risk voluntarily. Courage always involves risk. When one acts courageously he realizes that he may lose, get hurt, or fail. The courageous person forsakes security and sacrifices comfort to attain a goal which he thinks is of greater worth than these things. The courageous act is voluntary. With one’s back to the wall, with no choice but to fight or die, one may show courage. This, however, may be only desperation. Courage is more certainly felt and displayed if there are two or more choices present. The boy who volunteers for the Marines is likely showing more courage than he who waits to be drafted.
Moral courage has much in common with other forms of courage. It too is voluntary and involves risk and danger. Moral courage is distinctive in that it is shown in situations which involve good and evil, right and wrong. It is born of moral conviction, of a moral purpose. Feats of courage involved in sports, adventure, and physical fighting bring the plaudits of men. A courageous boxer or fighter, or a soldier on the battlefront is a hero even if he loses the battle. The same result does not follow moral courage. The risk here is social disapproval and disgrace and perhaps death as well. The great moral heroes of the race for the most part have not had public acclaim in their lifetime. Amos and Jeremiah, Jesus and Paul, Luther and John Huss, Lincoln and Joseph Smith received more hate than applause. Their recognition increased after death.
The New Testament is a record of persons with moral courage. Jesus, Peter, Paul, John, James, Stephen manifested great courage and taught it.
Moral Courage in the Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ
Jesus had the courage to disagree. It takes little moral courage to disagree with the minority or with those under one in authority and influence. But Jesus disagreed in his religious interpretations with those in authority and in the vast majority. He called Pharisees of a certain stripe “hypocrites and whited sepulchres full of dead men’s bones.” He criticized not only their thinking but their behavior as well, and this before men. (These clashes need not detain us here since we have discussed them in several previous lessons.) The driving of money changers from the temple was an unusual display of moral courage in Jesus’ life int hat it also included physical daring. the Savior’s entire life was an expression of great moral courage. Resolutely he pursued his purpose of doing the Father’s will, anticipating the cross. Betrayal by one of the Twelve, denied by another, and deserted in the eleventh hour by a band of disciples who were afraid, he went before the high priests, Pilate, and the howling mob with dignity and equanimity, in the faith that he was doing the will of God.
He was constant in his devotion to principle. His courage enabled him to deal impartially with high and low, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor. His focal point was not his own safety, but the will of God, truth and righteousness. He said to Pilate:
To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness of the truth. (John 18:37)
The truth is often painful to hear. It disturbs people int heir pride, comfort, security, and position in life. So there will always be those who hate the truth and seek to destroy, in one way or another, him who speaks the truth. Jesus paid the price of teaching the truth.
Courage in His Disciples
When the Savior went forth his disciples he did not promise them the happiest years of their lives. On the contrary, he predicted for them the same kind of treatment he had received. And they were not disappointed.
Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles. … And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved. (Matt. 10:16-18, 22)
The apostles, fortified by their knowledge of the resurrection and the witness of the Comforter, displayed the same quality of courage they had known in the life of their leader. The book of acts is a story of moral courage from chapter two to the end.
The healing of the lame man at the Gate Beautiful of the temple at Jerusalem by Peter and John, in the time of Christ, aroused the ire of the high priest and his associates. Peter and John were now classified with the crucified Christ and were told to speak and act no more in his name. Peter and John, with vivid recollection of what had happened to their Lord, said:
… Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.(Acts 4:19, 20)
Shortly thereafter they reported the events of the day to fellow disciples. Together they marvelled at the continued opposition to the cause of Jesus Christ, but there was no cowardice, no reference to personal safety, only a prayer for courage.
And now, Lord, behold their threatenings: and grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word, By stretching forth thine hand to heal; and that signs and wonders may be done by the name of thy holy child Jesus. And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:29-31)
Among the disciples of Christ, we believe, none has displayed more courage than Paul. He, it would seem, anticipated with delight risk and death for Christ’s sake. Perhaps he courted danger more than necessary. Who is not moved by his farewell to the Ephesians?
For Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, because he would not spend the time in Asia: for he hasted, if it were possible for him, to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost. And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. And when they were come to him, he said unto them, Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons, serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews: And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have showed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house, testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward god, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there: Save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me. But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel in the grace of God. (Acts 20:16-24)
The Disciples Teach Courage
It was not easy to be a Christian in apostolic times. Paul’s converts in the cities of the Roman Empire had to show great moral courage to withstand the temptations of a pagan culture. Paul’s epistles bear frequent witness of their struggle. Severe persecution developed in the first century. particularly I Peter and Hebrews encourage the saints to hold fast to the faith and to be willing to suffer for it even as the Savior did. This called for the highest expression of Christian courage. (Note especially I Peter 3 and 4:12-19.)
Resources of Courage
Courage that expresses itself in sports, war, business, and adventure generally is an attribute of youth. It seems to be a natural outgrowth of the vitality and creativity that is in life. With age and experience, men and women usually become more cautious and conservative, less carefree and rash. This too is natural. It may be good or bad. As the fruit of wisdom, it is good; as the fruit of fear, of sacrificing all things to comfort and security, it is weakness and is bad.
Jesus was young. His ministry took place from about his thirtieth to his thirty-third year. The age of his apostles is not known. Of this we are sure, as far as the New Testament reveals, they maintained their courage and daring to the end. This is particularly evident in the life of Paul. What was the basis of the moral courage of Jesus, Peter, and Paul? It was conviction. There were things they loved more than their own comfort, safety, and reputation. Their courage was born of faith in God, in ideals, in principles, and in purposes. It was a “faith which worketh by love.”
Moral courage is the fruit of idealism. Without lofty ideals and a steadfast purpose, moral courage will show its head but cautiously, like a groundhog in the desert. If there is nothing men love more than themselves, they will not sacrifice or risk much for truth and righteousness.
Moral courage is also given support by the spirit of Deity. A person who courageously labors to defend or establish a true principle has the Spirit of God with him to encourage, comfort, and strengthen him. When we do his will he is bound to be with us. This is illustrated in the exchange of letters between General Moroni and Chief Judge Pahoran in the Book of Mormon. Moroni and Pahoran were struggling to preserve the Nephite people from bondage to the Lamanites. Pahoran wrote these words to Moroni:
Therefore, come unto me speedily with a few of your men, and leave the remainder in charge of Lehi and Teancum; give unto them power to conduct the war in that part of the land, according to the spirit of God, which is also the spirit of freedom which is in them. (Alma 61:15)
Opportunities to Express Moral Courage Today
When we think of moral courage, our minds turn to the past and to the great. In the unheralded everyday life of common people moral courage may show itself frequently. Let us consider some opportunities each of us has to be of courage.
1. It takes courage to show strength in adversity. I worked for a man once who had been an economic giant, king of the plains and herds, but who was ruined financially by his own daring and by postwar inflation. Still, at the age of fifty-five and suffering from a serious physical handicap, he began working on shares for another man. He was determined to meet his obligations, rear his large family, and again become independent. He died in the attempt and in the harness. His own tenacity and perseverance paled even the dreams of his youthful employees.
In private life there are men and women who do not give up in trouble, but who quietly bear their own and another’s burdens without fanfare and without complaint. These too are among the moral heroes of the race. And they are legion, especially among wives and mothers.
2. It takes courage to admit mistakes, failure, and sin. It is our observation that true repentance is rather a rare thing. Most of us spend our mental energy covering up or rationalizing our weaknesses to ourselves as well as to others. Rarely do we confess a wrong to those whom we have offended.
In the Doctrine and Covenants we are told to “remember that on this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord.” (D. & C. 59:12) Confession of sins in public should be voluntary and should be done with discretion. Granted these conditions, there is value in such a confession, born of a broken heart and a contrite spirit. We recall only once, in some forty years of attendance at fast meeting, hearing a man confess his sins in specific and concrete terms. This brother said words something like these (about thirty years ago):
“Brothers and sisters, I am not worthy to be numbered among you. I have been away from you both in body and in spirit. When our bishop was in the state legislature voting the state dry, I was down in —– trying to drink it dry … I hope you will forgive me …”
No sooner had he sat down than one neighbor after another arose to the occasion and told of this brother’s visits to the sick, his charity for the widow, his kindness to the aged, and his love for children. the man’s courage cleared his conscience, brought him moral and spiritual support; and it humbled and blessed the entire assembly.
It takes moral courage to confess one’s sins. It takes courage to remain where one is, following moral failure, and to redeem oneself among those who know of that failure. The story is told of a man in the Near East, in olden times, who was caught stealing. As part of his punishment a large “S” was branded on his forehead. He repented and lived a life of great virtue in his own community. Years later a stranger came that way and seeing the man inquired for what the “S” stood. Someone said, “I don’t remember, but judging by his life, I believe it must stand for “Saint.”
3. It requires moral courage to choose integrity above economic advantage that is legally legitimate. This subject will be treated at length in a chapter to follow (This World’s Goods).
4. It takes courage to disagree, to think for oneself. We live in a democracy, most of us, with freedom of speech. too few of us have the courage to express sincere disagreement with a friend, neighbor, teacher, employer, leader in church or state. It is easier to keep silent in public and talk privately with like-minded people behind the backs of those with whom we disagree.”
Granted tact, tolerance, consideration for others, humility, sincerity, and good will, there is a great need in our society for everyone to think and to express honestly his views on appropriate occasions. This is the essence of democracy. this is the need in a lay church of free agents. But this calls for effort and courage because w fear that we may be wrong or that we may offend others. Too often we love personal comfort more than we love the truth and the right.
5. It takes courage to work for a good cause in the face of organized selfish opposition. A group of church and civic leaders in a Utah community have banded together to investigate the problems of youth and to conceive and execute a program for their welfare. If the job is honestly and thoroughly done, they may discover that certain commercial interests are leeches, weakening the moral fiber of youth in their thirst for profit. It will take courage to make this known and to offset this influence with a constructive program for youth.
We need today the courage of Amos. his condemnation of evil in his day was not in vague generalities, but in concrete and specific terms which people understood:
Forasmuch therefore as your treading is upon the poor, and ye take from him burdens of wheat: ye have built houses of hewn stone, but ye shall not dwell in them; ye have planted pleasant vineyards, but ye shall not drink wine of them. For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right. (Amos 5:11, 12)
Woe unto them that are at ease in Zion … that lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat the lambs out of the flock, and the calves out of the midst of the stall; that chant to the sound of the viol, and invent to themselves instruments of music, like David: that drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the chief ointments; but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph. (Amos 6:1, 4-6)
Hear this, O ye that swallow up the needy, even to make the poor of the land to fail, Saying, When will the new moon be done, that we may sell corn? and the sabbath, that we may set forth wheat, making the ephah small, and the shekel great, and falsifying the balances by deceit That we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes, yea, and sell the refuse of the wheat? The Lord hath sworn by the excellence of Jacob, Surely I will never forget any of their works. (Amos 8:4-7)
6. It takes courage to defend the faith. Latter-day Saints are still despised and are the object of disdain in many quarters. It takes moral courage to confess and represent an unpopular movement. The opportunity is still abundantly present to be a courageous proponent of one’s own moral and religious convictions.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchantman, seeking goodly pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it. (Matt. 13:44-46)
God and his Son ask for nothing short of our first and complete loyalty. Life in our day and age is not measured in these terms. Only moral courage born of great faith and love will orient one’s life to the “kingdom of God and his righteousness.” it is easier to vacillate between God and mammon, serving each in turn, as it is convenient and profitable. But Jesus said:
No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God. (Luke 9;62)
Only those who can share Paul’s faith will likely have the courage to build the kingdom. “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31)