We are not a courageous creation. We don’t possess courage as a natural commodity, like genetic height or persistent cheerfulness. Instead, we summon it. We ask on demand. Courage is beyond our confined humanity, purposefully so, because courage is present only in God.
Conventional logic holds that courage is always birthed from fear. Facing a frightening situation, a person with courage will push through to triumph in an act of bravery. A frightened soldier charges the enemy; a young woman, filled with adrenaline, fights off a rapist; a man of color stands up to prejudice despite the threat of losing a job. Conventional logic says that courage is like charcoal. We activate it when challenged.
Let’s allow for a moment some unconventional logic: courage often is birthed by complaints. At least, you and I call them complaints. Jeremiah, a prophet who labored dutifully but dismayed for years, more eloquently called them laments, a word that rolls off the tongue in a faltering, lost-hearted way.
Michael Card, in his book A Sacred Sorrow, Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament, describes the unbroken presence of God as hesed, an untranslatable Hebrew word often rendered as loving-kindness. The New Living Translation Bible uses the phrase “unfailing love.” With hesed as the foundation of our security in God, we summon his loving-kindness to face threats. Yet despite God’s hesed, his unbreakable presence, all of us still complain about things both big and small every day. Is complaining wrong? How is it a connection to courage?
The Bridge to Courage
Jeremiah, the author of both the book that bears his name as well as the book of Lamentations, wrote many passages that scream with complaints. David wrote them too in what are known as the psalms of lament. These great men of God spent much of their conversations with him in angry and frustrated complaining. As Card describes, most of their outcries follow a standard pattern. First, they describe a setback or painful circumstance in a plaintive plea or complaint—a lament. Then, they shift unexpectedly in an abrupt transition, usually punctuated by a conjunction, to offer almost irrational exuberance to God. It is as if the lamenter, emotionally bankrupt, exhausts himself in complaining and finds that the only thing left after all is God.
My favorite example of this pattern occurs in Lamentations 3:19‒23, where Jeremiah, obviously in a downward spiral, turns from defiant complaints to hope.
The thought of my suffering and homelessness
is bitter beyond words.
I will never forget this awful time,
as I grieve over my loss.
Yet I still dare to hope
when I remember this:
The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness;
his mercies begin afresh each morning.
Note the dramatic turn at the word “yet.” Jeremiah is spent. He is bitter, tired, and grieving, and his prayer is essentially a blowback to God. Completely out of anything left to say, Jeremiah remembers hesed, the everlasting lovingkindness of his God. He turns. We can almost sense him looking to the sky as the memory washes over him and reinvigorates his tired heart. “Yet, I still dare to hope, when I remember this: the faithful love of the Lord never ends!” Birthed in a complaint, Jeremiah’s lament turns in dramatic fashion to hope, and he is able to summon the courage he needs to continue what he feels is almost a hopeless task, yet one to which he is called.
Michael Card deconstructs biblical laments by describing the use of the Hebrew character vav, the sixth letter in the Hebrew alphabet, often referred to as the vav adversative. Vav looks like this in Hebrew: ך
Card describes it as resembling a flag that appears to indicate the wind is blowing from the east. Card says the letter vav indicates an abrupt change, indicating that a line has been crossed to carry the focus of the complaint from the complainer to God. The letter vav often is the first Hebrew character in the transition of a lament. The line becomes a connection by which the complaint transitions into courageous hope. Often, Card says, after this line is crossed, the complainer addresses God as “you.” When we are spent from our complaints, with nothing left from our focus on ourselves, we turn, as Card says, from “the self of me to the otherness of you.”
Look at David’s lament in Psalm 13:1–6, with verse 5 translated in Hebrew. You can see the vav letter enlarged and marked at the beginning, the flag triumphantly planted in David’s transition to seeing God in the sudden otherness of, “But you—in you I will trust.”
O LORD, how long will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
with sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
Turn and answer me, O LORD my God!
Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.
Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!”
Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall.
But I trust in your unfailing love. ואני ׀ בחסדך בטחתי יגל לבי בישועתך
I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
I will sing to the LORD
because he is good to me.
The flag symbolized by vav is a dramatic literal and figurative stake in the ground. Lament is the crossing of the line from complaint to hesed, from bitterness to recognition of God’s unfailing love. From this wellspring we summon courage, as our complaints give way to recognition of the overwhelming power and strength of God. Lament is where we reach the end of our human limits and plant our flag, our transition, on the unfailing love and presence of God. Lamenting and complaining are the connection to courage.
The Lord, the Wellspring of Courage
When we are at our most vulnerable we see God as the only source of power. In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown defined vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure—all factors that mix into fear and preface courage. Brown describes vulnerability as the catalyst for courage—that to live with courage, purpose, and connection we must first be vulnerable. To take this back to Jeremiah and David, we must exhaust ourselves of our frustrations. Complaining—lamenting—then becomes the biblical way to become vulnerable, spent, flattened almost, so that we have nothing left to do but turn to God and summon our courage from the giver of strength. We get it all out so we take him back in.
When David gave the charge of building the Lord’s temple to his son Solomon, he told him to be strong and courageous and tied that courage directly to the Lord’s constant presence. He wanted Solomon to grasp hesed, the unfailing lovingkindness of God, to understand that courage comes only from God’s presence.
“Every part of this plan,” David told Solomon, “was given to me in writing from the hand of the LORD.” Then David continued, “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Don’t be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. He will see to it that all the work related to the Temple of the LORD is finished correctly” (1 Chronicles 28:19–20 NLT).
When Moses was ready to hand over leadership, he told Joshua and the people of Israel to be strong and courageous, tying their courage to the Lord’s everlasting and unfailing presence.
Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the LORD swore to their ancestors to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance. The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged” (Deuteronomy 31:6–8 NLT, emphasis mine).
Jesus knew when he gave the Great Commission to his disciples that they would need courage. He charged them to go, declaring that the he would be with them wherever they went.
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18–20 NLT
Courage is the Lord and the Lord is courage. Complaining can be a connection to both, because God hears the fear and fatigue in our laments.
In Brené Brown’s Netflix Special, The Call to Courage, she says: “You can choose courage or you can choose comfort. You cannot choose both.” Michael Card concurs, positioning lament as the necessary and human precursor to seeing God for who he is, the defender and protector of all. We can choose to complain and lament in our discomfort, knowing God hears. The Bible’s consistent recording of this angry, frustrated, bitter petitioning to God makes it an acceptable way to pray.
Our prayers often subconsciously adhere to formulas we learned as a child: first thank him, then confess our sins, ask for forgiveness, pray for others, and finally pray for ourselves. We do not learn that it is okay to complain to God. Doing so almost seems like a rejection of his goodness, a selfish use of God’s time given the richness of life all around us. Yet it is biblical and necessary to complain to the point where we walk beyond the focus on ourselves and see the otherness of God. Signaled by the letter vav, we plant our flag and cross the line. We must empty ourselves of all our frustration to gain the courage we need to live.
On the cross, Jesus spoke perhaps the greatest cry of frustration and hopelessness recorded in God’s word. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” By that complaint, he emptied himself of his own pain and the crushing weight of humanity’s sin. Jesus gave up his spirit in one last lament and summoned the courage of his father to die and then to live again.
In depression, hopelessness, frustration, and fear, give yourself permission to erupt in complaint to God. There, bolstered by his everlasting presence, empty yourself of the frustration until there is nothing of you left. Then look up in wonder. Turn. Let the memory of his presence wash over and invigorate you. Plant your flag in him and receive the courage to move forward again.
Let his hesed be the mighty fortress of courage that is your God.