As a part of my New Years Resolution, I’m reading The Bible this year. And, each Sunday, I’m reflecting on what I’ve read, which often coincides — funny how The Bible works like that — with something happening in my life. This isn’t meant to proselytize or to thump The Bible. Writing just helps me understand what I’ve read, so that’s what I’m doing.
It’s 1985, and an 18-year-old nobody had ever heard of is taking the boxing world by storm. Nineteen times he fights. All of them he wins by knockout. Twelve come in the first round. By 1987, he is the only heavyweight in history to hold the WBA, WBC and IBF titles. Then he does it again.
You’d have thought Mike Tyson, the man known as Iron Mike, was fearless in the ring for the way he fought. It was, in fact, quite the opposite.
“I come out. I have supreme confidence but I’m scared to death,” he said during his unprecedented run. “I’m totally afraid. I’m afraid of everything. I’m afraid of losing. I’m afraid of being humiliated. But I was totally confident.”
This week, I read through the Book of Joshua, where the concept of fear is a regular motif. It comes up over and over and over again. As does courage. It’s a funny duality, too. God repeatedly tells Joshua not to be afraid, but also to be courageous, though I don’t really believe the latter cannot exist without the former.
How can one act courageously if there is no fear to surmount? If there was no reason for one to be fearful, there would be no reason to label the hero, or Joshua, in this case, as courageous. He would simply be going about his day, doing normal things that didn’t require courage at all.
It’s a redefining of fear that I took away from Joshua.
Joshua 1:9 – “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” – had long been one of my favorite verses, though for transparency’s sake, I had never once opened the Book of Joshua and read the context of that verse. I just saw someone post it on social media and really liked it.
And for a long time, I read that to mean, “Don’t feel any fear, ever.” I think that interpretation of the verse – as it goes with any interpretation without context, a simple plucking of a nice quote – is a bit twisted.
I think Joshua felt fear, for Joshua was human, and humans get scared. Fear is a necessary tool to our existence. It’s how we survive. So it’s not the feeling of fear, I think, that God was telling Joshua to suppress; he was commanding him to harness it, to use it for good, as Tyson did in the ring.
It reminds me of a quote from Tyson’s trainer, Cus D’Amato: “The hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs. It’s the same thing, fear, but it’s what you do with it that matters.”
Tyson is now sort of famous for how terrified he was before big fights. He used that fear, manipulating it, turning it into a tool to end fights faster than any other fighter in history.
Joshua was like the original Mike Tyson, God’ message to him similar to what D’Amato told Tyson: Don’t let the fear control you, but use it for good.
Joshua had every reason to be fearful. His first task as the leader of the Israelites, after having no known experience as a leader of any kind, was simply, oh, “cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give them – to the Israelites. I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates – all the Hittite country – to the Great Sea on the west.”
I’d imagine, on a fear scale of 1-10, Joshua was somewhere around “Oh, f***.” He had never led a military expedition. He had never conquered a land, stood charge over 10 people, much less an entire nation of Israelites, who had been led by Moses, one of the finest leaders in the history of mankind.
Big shoes to fill. An unprecedented task at hand.
And yet the Lord tells Joshua, in Chapter 1, Verse 6, “Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. 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.”
And when you look at what Joshua was able to do – crossing the Jordan, taking over one nation after the next, not allowing adversity to quell him, becoming one of the most successful generals (if you can call him that) of his era – using that fear worked. The list of defeated kings in Chapter 12 is 31 names long, all conquered by Joshua, the son of an aid, who had, to the best of my knowledge, no prior military experience.
“Fear,” D’Amato has said, “is a friend of exceptional people.”
God never told Joshua to not feel fear; he said “do not be afraid.” They’re different concepts: one is a natural emotion, the other is an action. We control one, not the other.
God, in my mind, was telling Joshua: When you step in that ring, let that fear turn into confidence.
It’s easier said than done, of course. Joshua overcame this fear, used it for good – to be courageous, as God commanded him – with a depth of faith I don’t think many of us can really understand.
You and I don’t need to conquer 31 kings and cross the Jordan River. God even acknowledges, in Deuteronomy, that not all of us will have to do carry out such absurdly large tasks.
“Now what I am commanding you is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach,” he says in Chapter 30, Verse 11. “It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven or get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.”
I love that message for a number of reasons, the foremost being that we don’t all need the Joshua type of courage in everyday life. God isn’t asking all of us to do what he asked of Joshua. The second being: We don’t need anyone else to tell us how to be courageous. We’ve had it all along, “in your heart.”
It calls to mind a quote I initially read in The Alchemist, which, upon further inspection, actually comes from the New Testament, in Matthew 6:21: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
There will be your courage.