Let’s pick off an easy one for practice then dig into the more challenging stories.
Our premise is that when God commands us to choose courage over fear, it is because we can. We only can if our brains have been prewired. The question on the table is how our brains get wired for courage before it is needed.
Most brain wiring exercises require incremental practice. You start learning to ski (i.e. build neurological pathways) on the bunny slope, not the double black diamond slope. Our premise is that we can develop the neural pathways for heroic courage to be executed on demand without having grown up in hand to hand combat with death and destruction.
Here is a possible picture of how it works.
We know nothing about Joshua’s childhood other than the fact that it took place in Egypt. Whether he was the somewhat buffered son of a tribal leader among the slaves, or he worked in the brickyard, we don’t know. All that is certain is that a huge amount of the conversation he heard and the life choices he saw modeled were from the grid of a slave’s focus on survival, not conquest.
Enter Moses and the Ten Plagues. We assume Joshua saw as much of the power of God as everyone else did. This would represent a stunning departure from the baseline of powerlessness and the lifestyle of risk abatement he knew up until then.
The Exodus had a full measure of God-drama, equally observed by all. More God moments filled the space between the Exodus and Mount Sinai. Joshua is first mentioned during the battle with the Amalekites when he was put in charge of the make-believe army while Moses went up on the hill with the staff to provide spiritual support for the skirmish.
Then comes Mount Sinai. By then, Joshua had been annexed by Moses as his PA. Moses made various trips up the mountain to the presence of God. Sometimes he was instructed to take the 70 elders plus three others. Once he went with Aaron.
But the time Moses went for the first 40 days, we read the following:
“Then Moses set out with Joshua his aide, and Moses went up on the mountain of God. He said to the elders, ‘Wait here for us until we come back to you. Aaron and Hur are with you, and anyone involved in a dispute can go to them.’ When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the LORD called to Moses from within the cloud. To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.” Exodus 24:13-18 NIV
One would assume Joshua was not right there with Moses, but he surely was close enough to get his worldview and his brain significantly impacted! There are some side benefits to being a PA!
When Moses returned from the first 40 days, carrying the two stone tablets engraved by the finger of God, Joshua was right with him. Together they heard the raucous ruckus in the camp.
Time passed. A routine was established.
“Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the ‘tent of meeting.’ Anyone inquiring of the LORD would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD spoke with Moses. Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance to his tent. The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent.” Exodus 33:7-11 NIV
There is no record of Joshua joining Moses for his second 40 day tour on the mountain top.
Fast forward to the episode with the twelve spies. Joshua was one of them. He saw the same visible images (giants and walled cities) that the others saw, but his spirit and his brain processed them differently.
He valiantly challenged the other men and the people at large to embrace a posture of courage, not cowardice — and utterly failed. Their fear circuits were dominant. They apparently did not have courage circuits that could be called on to override the fear circuits.
On the surface, it is easy to point to Joshua’s position of privilege. On the one hand, hanging out with Moses on the mountain with God is not something the other spies could claim. Also, one wonders about the Employee Policy Manual Joshua was operating under that allowed him to shirk his responsibilities as Moses’ PA and just hang with God.
A cool perk, for sure. I generally have to fight for time to be with my King. He had it made in the shade.
So the simple conclusion is that Joshua’s courage is a function of his having an insanely unfair advantage over the ten cowardly spies. How could you fault them when they didn’t have the opportunities he had?
There is only one massive problem with that bit of logic: Caleb!
Caleb also found a courage pathway in his brain and there is absolutely no record of his having had a single scrap of privilege above what the ten cowards had!
So OF COURSE it is easy to have courage when your brain has been rewired by extended time apart with God, but if you are not the PA of a spiritual giant and if your boss and your kids and the gritty, grungy grind of life utterly preclude hanging with God for hours every day, what are your options?
Your options are to be like Caleb and to leverage the daily God sightings into neurological pathways. After all, all eleven of the spies saw the ten plagues and experienced the Exodus and had sundry other God-sightings to ponder – if they took the time.
In the album called “PTSD,” I taught extensively on how you can proactively, deliberately build neurological pathways in the course of daily life. While the focus of those exercises was to get out of the negative numbers, the same tools of anticipation, experiencing and savoring an event will work here to move you into positive numbers.
My theory says that to the degree we focus on the immensity of God’s interactions with mankind, to that degree we will experience the emotion of awe. To the degree we frequently visit awe, to that degree we will have brain pathways that will support a call to courage, when it is needed.
So let’s try this specific exercise. First, make a list of your ten favorite Big God moments. It doesn’t matter whether these are Bible stories, someone else’s stories, or your own. The focus is on the power of God, not the tenderness or wisdom or love of God.
Then see if you can spend a half hour in a single block of time revisiting the details of those stories, savoring every big and little thing can help bring you to a place of awe.
Dr. Paul Pearsall wrote an interesting (Mercy) book about awe. He was comfortably challenged by the fact that it behaves differently than all the other soul emotions. He never arrived at the conclusion that it is the emotion of the spirit. Even though it is a spirit emotion, it still plays out in the brain.
So deliberately marinating your spirit in the awe of God will grow your brain pathways, so that when the time comes that you have to make the huge choice to choke or step up, your will can direct your soul toward the courage on ramp, instead of defaulting to self-preservation which is built so deeply into us.
Copyright January 2015 by Arthur Burk
At my beloved retreat, in a room where my awe Scriptures have been playing non-stop for six months.