Bilbo’s Bravery and Christian Courage

In my sermon from two weeks ago, I reminded our church of the critical role courage plays in the Christian life. We currently live in a culture of “safetyism” that promotes safety as the highest good, and risk/danger as an unequivocal evil. 

I was reminded of the wonderful character transformation of Bilbo Baggins from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Bilbo is a typical hobbit: a quiet creature of comfort, warm hearths, and full kitchen tables. All of that is ruined one day when the tall, grey wizard, Gandalf, comes along and sweeps Bilbo up in an adventure with twelve dwarves. Together they travel across Middle-Earth, through goblin-infested tunnels and spider-haunted woods, till they arrive at the lonely mountain where the awful dragon, Smaug, has taken over the dwarven kingdom of Erebor.

Bilbo, for the most part, is a miserable companion. He complains often, hates adventure, and repeatedly imagines he is back in his cozy home, sitting in his warm chair in front of his fireplace. The battle-hardened dwarves doubt what utility Bilbo offers and scoff at the very beginning of their adventure when Bilbo panics that he left his handkerchief behind. It is only Gandalf who sees a seed of courage lying dormant in Bilbo. Later, in The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien explains:

“There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow.”

Bilbo, against his will, is repeatedly thrust into desperately dangerous situations, and he finds that it hardens something inside of him in the very moment. His courage starts small (deeply hidden, as Tolkien would say), but in time it grows to the point that the entire dwarven company is saved by Bilbo’s heroic deeds. By the end of the book, the dwarves look to Bilbo for direction and even for deliverance.

Once they reach the lonely mountain, the company again looks to Bilbo. He must enter the cavern where Smaug, the dragon, resides. All of the other dwarves are to afraid to even come close. In pitch black, Bilbo slowly begins down the tunnel, yet hesitates:

“It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.” – The Hobbit, “Insider Information”

As hard as it is to believe, Bilbo does go on to do more tremendously brave things than approaching a dragon alone. In the end, he must confront the leader of the dwarves for his own greed and selfishness, and nearly loses his life for it. Yet, it was the battle he faced in the tunnel to keep moving that was the great temptation–the place where turning around was still an option. Bilbo made a difficult choice there: he would do what was right, even when it was unbelievably difficult, scary, and overwhelming. 

Our battle with fear, our desire for courage, is a battle we must face before the actual battle of danger. As we stand in the tunnel on our way to the dragon, we must make a decision ahead of time that no matter what, we will continue to do what is right. God is with us, He has promised good for us, and there is a world in need. What else can we do but go forward into risk?

Perhaps you feel like a timid hobbit. Perhaps the scary obedience in front of you makes you waffle; just imagining what the conversation will be like, what the confrontation will turn into, what the refusal will entail makes you reconsider whether or not you really need to obey. Maybe we should play it safe?

If we can fight the battle before the battle, it will make the battle itself less daunting. When Paul is told that if he goes on to Jerusalem, he will be imprisoned, he responds: “For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus,” (Acts 21:13). He fought the battle before the battle.

So, as you look at what lay before you, as you stand in a dark tunnel with danger ahead, remember the promises of God. He is with you, He is for you, you are not alone. Push yourself under the power of the Spirit to risk, to do hard things, to lean into costly obedience. There may very well be dragons slain as a result of your obedience.

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