What I learned about Faith and Courage from Nelson Mandela


On December 15th, 2013, we lost one of the giants of our faith. Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95, and left behind one of the greatest modern day legacies of reconciliation. His autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom” is one of my favorite all time books, and it had a real shaping effect on me when I was in my early twenties.

His story reads like a movie (as an aside, I am really looking forward to the biopic on his life, played by Idris Elba… it has gotten great reviews so far). There are a lot of chapters to the story of his ascent as a revolutionary, but here is the short version. Mandela became an anti-apartheid activist and the leader of the armed wing of the African National Congress before being sentenced to life in prison.  He served 27 years in prison, most of which were on Robben Island.  Following his release from prison in 1990, Mandela was instrumental in the formation of a multi-racial democracy that gave priority to reconciliation and poverty alleviation.  Desmond Tutu, his fellow South African Nobel Peace Prize laureate, called Mandela “God’s gift to South Africa” and South Africa’s “gift to the world.”

One of the things that jumped out to me in his autobiography was when Mandela said that he could never have survived the 27 years in prison without his faith rooted in Jesus Christ.  It is amazing to me that he was able to maintain that connection to God, and not just because of the suffering he endured.  The dominant Christian group of South Africa during Mandela’s time was the Dutch Reformed Church, and their ideologies led them to be one of the main supporters of the apartheid in South Africa. Their belief was that God’s chosen people were the Afrikaners, or white Africans, and that the black were an inferior species to them.

Faith and Courage were intertwined for Mandela, as I believe they must be for any person who wants to become a truly courageous person. His most famous quote about courage was this:

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

I have done a couple of posts already on courage and fear, and what Mandela points to here is one of the priceless principles for becoming a courageous person: Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.

Dr. John Perkins, another hero of the faith, says the same thing in almost identical terms: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but moving forward despite your fears.”

We need to remember this, because it necessarily corrects one of the most common misconceptions about fear. When we hear commands from the Bible to “fear not,” we get confused about what God is telling us to do and not do. Many of us mistakenly assume that the presence of fear is what God wants removed from our lives, so we pretend that we are not afraid of anything.

Nelson Mandela, the former South AfricaBut this is to completely miss the point. We are finite beings who are 100% dependent on God. To think anything else leads to destructive forms of self sufficiency . God is not trying to turn us into fearless beings – to do so would be to ignore the cascade of threats to the full vitality that God has designed us for.

But if God is not intending us to be fearless beings, then why is courage so paramount? And if God expects us to become keenly aware of our fear, then why the constant reminder to “fear not?”

The answer could not come in a more precise way than Nelson Mandela’s poetic description. Let the profound nature of this quote sink in. It’s 100% in line with the wisdom of Scripture:

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

Courage is not the absence of fear.

Courage is the triumph over fear.

The brave one is not the person who does not feel afraid.

The brave one is the person who conquers that fear.

2 responses to “What I learned about Faith and Courage from Nelson Mandela”

  1. […] courage is by studying the lives of men and women who have bravely stood up to fear. In the last post I explored the life of Nelson Mandela, and his is just one of a hundred stories that we could enter […]

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