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Features

Finding resilience

Sheridan Voysey

Psychologists agree that human resilience is crucial to our ability to weather life's challenges - but how do we foster it? Author and broadcaster SHERIDAN VOYSEY finds contemporary answers in a surprisingly traditional place.

 

Resilient. The word describes the ability to spring back after being bent or stretched out of shape. Resilient people weather life's storms. They may get hit but they get up again- maybe even stronger than before.

In recent years, researchers have explored the factors that lead to human resilience. After physical, emotional, or spiritual trauma, what helps someone bounce back rather than collapse? Psychologists like Martin Seligman suggest factors like these are significant: the ability to amplify positive emotions (like peace, gratitude, hope, or love) while managing negative ones (like bitterness, sadness, or anger), having strong relationships, finding a sense of meaning to one's life, and having a feeling of accomplishment about our work and activities.1

After facing some battering storms myself, I began exploring resilience. But instead of discovering it in the psychological literature, I found resilience in a surprising place-Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. After vowing to read the Sermon everyday for a month (an experiment which stretched to two months, then three), I discovered the Sermon's resilience theme unexpectedly. It reveals itself at the end: While rain may come in torrents and floodwaters rise and winds beat against us, if we put Jesus' teaching into practice we will stand, not collapse (Matthew 7:25). We will become resilient.2

Resilience isn't developed by thinking or reading about it alone, but through action. Here are five resilience-building practices I found inherent in Jesus' Sermon.

 

PRACTICE 1: MISSION

Accomplishment. Meaning. According to the research, these two factors consistently appear in the lives of the resilient. Resilient people feel a sense of accomplishment through pursuing a goal, mastering a skill, or doing work that matters to them. And their sense of meaning comes by seeing that their lives connect to a purpose greater than themselves. Accomplishment. Meaning. We could say resilient people are people on a mission.

In his Sermon, Jesus says this to his followers:

"You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world." (Matthew 5:13-14)

By declaring us the "salt of the earth," Jesus says we are people of influence. As salt enhances flavour and stops decay, we too are to enhance what is good in our community and work against what is bad. And by saying we're the "light of the world," Jesus calls us to lead-through words and acts that reflect the luminous God we serve, showing people another way to live. This is our mission, the divine calling behind any role we perform or job we do. In this we can find a deep sense of accomplishment.

And meaning. We do this because we're joining the mission God himself is on. After creating a world teeming with beauty and life (Genesis 1-2), and watching humanity bring evil and disorder to it (Genesis 3), God launched a recovery mission. He called the nation Israel to be his guiding light (Genesis 12:1-3; Isaiah 9:1- 2) and ultimately visited earth himself, dying by our hands and then rising from death to offer forgiveness and new life to all (2 Corinthians 5:17-19). God's mission will end only when this restoration is complete- in a new world of fulfilled longings, healed wounds, radiant beauty, and restored harmony (Revelation 21-22). To follow Jesus means being swept into this grand drama of God reconciling the world to himself. Our lives are part of something bigger.

In practice we take on this mission by affirming goodness, beauty, and truth wherever we find it-in our homes, offices, universities, and in the media- while opposing actions, policies, and products that bring harm to our neighbor, both next door and beyond. It means discovering our gifts, using them to serve, and doing gracious acts of love that reveal the One we follow. And it means intentionally seeing our lives in the context of God's greater story.

Being salt and light in our world carries with it a sense of accomplishment and meaning. And accomplishment and meaning lead to resilience.

 

PRACTICE 2: CONTEMPLATION

Jesus' closing image of two builders-one who builds his house on sand, the other who builds on a firmer foundation-is a parable about action. Hearing Jesus' teaching isn't enough. We have to put it into practice.

But the resilient life isn't only about action. Rest and reflection are important too. God has structured a holiday into every week (Genesis 2:1-3). We see Jesus living to a rhythm of prayer, mission, and rest (Luke 5:16; 9:10). And in the Sermon, Jesus says this:

"Look at the birds. They don't plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. . . . Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. . . . And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?" (Matthew 6:26, 28, 30)

Christian faith has always been contemplative. We're to contemplate God's nature (Psalm 119:55), scripture (Psalm 119:15), and our lives (Galatians 6:3- 4). But Jesus' call to reflection here is rather more organic: we are to contemplate creation. Lookat the birds, he says. Look at the flowers. Stop. Rest. Contemplate. The natural world in all its beauty reflects the nature of God and his care. But you'll never glimpse God's presence while rushing through life, focused only on your goals and problems.

"Our world distracts us in many ways," writes Leighton Ford in The Attentive Life. "Yet attentiveness, as I have come to see, is most critical for us to find the way to clarity of heart, and clarity is the path to seeing God, who is the source and end of all our longing."

In practice, contemplation means diverting our gaze from the laptop screen to the fallen petal on the windowsill. It means removing the earbuds to attend to the rich sounds of rainfall. It means slow walks, afternoons in parks, solitude. It means prayerful engagement with the mundane and everyday, asking God to reveal to us his presence in the present moment.

Why do you have so little faith? Jesus asks. By learning to contemplate God's ways in creation, we grow in faith. And faith always builds resilience.

 

PRACTICE 3: SIMPLICITY

A few years ago a jeans company ran a controversial TV commercial. The ad begins with a woman meeting three men in a dark street at night. She gets into a car and is driven to a secluded river. There she wades into the dark waters, followed by her three friends. The men wear the brand-name jeans; the woman wears a skirt, which she peels off before lowering herself waist-deep into the river. One of the men then wades close, puts his hand on her forehead, and pushes her backward, baptizing her in the water. As the woman comes up, we see a miracle has happened: she now wears the same brand name jeans as the men. The phrase "Born Again" then appears on the screen.

That advertisement makes explicit what is happening in many secular societies. We're seeking salvation at the shopping mall and rebirth through brand names. That makes materialism a religion and money a god. But worship of this god exacts a toll.

In his book The Selfish Capitalist, psychologist Oliver James reveals what happens when money, possessions, and personal appearance become our prime concern: we suffer increased levels of depression, anxiety, aggression, narcissism, substance abuse, and relationship breakdown. A materialistic life leads to sickness of the deepest kind-and that's hardly a recipe for resilience.

Jesus addresses the problem of materialism in his Sermon:

"No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." (Matthew 6:24)

When money and possessions come first in our hearts, our souls are robbed of light and our lives are filled with worry (Matthew 6:22-23, 25-32). Jesus' remedy to materialism is a simple lifestyle. We focus on God and his kingdom, not on material things (6:19-21, 33). We live generously, pray for our daily needs, and make a decision not to worry about what we don't have yet (6:4, 11, 34). In practice this means rediscovering the difference between needs and wants, buying things for their usefulness rather than their status, developing a habit of regular generosity with our money and possessions, and joining the "happy revolt against the modern propaganda machine", to use Richard Foster's beautiful phrase.

 

PRACTICE 4: FORGIVENESS

According to the experts, a major component of resilience is having strong relationships-good marriages, deep friendships, and meaningful connections to our community. Few of us would disagree. But as much as we know we need strong relationships, we also know there are forces that work against them.

In his Sermon, Jesus addresses four forces that destroy our relationships-anger, unfaithfulness, false promises, and retaliation (Matthew 5:21-42). And one of the key strategies he gives for combating them is forgiveness.

"But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven." ". . . forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us." "If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins." (Matthew 5:44-45; 6:12, 14-15)

Complete forgiveness of a great offence is no easy task. With its necessary confrontations, its accompanying feelings of injustice, and its requirement that we refuse to retaliate in kind, forgiveness can be the most difficult practice Jesus calls us to. But its potential to restore relationship, manage negative emotions, and therefore build resilience is well known.

François and Epiphanie sit leaning against the mud brick wall of a Rwandan house, talking to a journalist. "I participated in the killing of the son of this woman," says François, one of thousands of Hutu men who perpetrated crimes against Tutsis during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. With nearly a million deaths and thousands of rapes, the results of the genocide were cataclysmic. They were for Epiphanie. But now she sits casually with her son's killer.

"He killed my child," says Epiphanie, "then he came to ask me pardon." And by granting that pardon, Epiphane transformed a crime of the darkest depths into a miracle. "We share in everything," François says of Epiphanie now. "If she needs some water to drink, I fetch some for her. There is no suspicion between us, whether under sunlight or during the night." As Epiphanie says, "Before, when I had not yet granted him pardon, [François] could not come close to me. I treated him like my enemy. But now, I would rather treat him like my own child."3

Jesus never suggests forgiveness will be easy. It hasn't been in Rwanda, where reconciliation has required time, training, mediation, and much prayer. But if Epiphanie and François can sit together after the horrors of genocide, can't that breathe hope into our own fractured family, church, and workplace relationships? Forgiveness can turn enemies into sons. That's resilience.

 

PRACTICE 5: PRAYER

Researchers of resilience will occasionally mention the word spiritual when discussing their findings. I'm always intrigued by what they mean. For some of them, spirituality means having feelings of peace or optimism. For others, it means belonging to or serving something greater than ourselves-even if that's just a social or political cause. What it rarely means is connecting with God. While semantics may be at play here, those who've walked with God for some time know that any spirituality is empty without God. It's like sitting by a fireplace without a fire.

Jesus puts the fire back into the fireplace. Resilience is built through spiritual health, and this spiritual health is found in an intimate relationship with the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit. Mindfulness courses may help settle our emotions, reconciliation programs may help fix our relationships, wand it's good to find causes to volunteer for. But true resilience is built with divine power, by us surrendering to the caring direction of God. Jesus gives us a prayer that brings this home powerfully:

"Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy. May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us today the food we need, and forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us. And don't let us yield to temptation, but rescue us from the evil one. (For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.)" (Matthew 6:9-13)

I used to host a national radio show in Australia, and one night a lady named Mimi called in to tell me her story. Mimi worked in the sex industry. She started in her early 20s, lured by the offer of easy money to pay off her university debts. But by the time the drugs, pimps and destruction of that world became evident, Mimi was trapped. The big money began funding a lavish lifestyle, and by working nights Mimi lost touch with her friends. Things began spiralling out of control.

Mimi fell pregnant to a client. Knowing she couldn't raise a child in that environment, she left. She married the baby's father, but he couldn't forget her past so they broke up. Mimi went from having lots of money to having little, raising a child alone with her social connections gone. She was broke, isolated, and depressed. "That's when I started thinking about suicide," she told me.

Instead, just six weeks before she called me, Mimi had cried out to Jesus. She asked him to take control of her life, felt an inner calm flood over her, and had her depression lift. But she was still out of work, had a big gap on her resume that was hard to explain to potential employers, and was now feeling tempted to return to her old life. "If the options are raising my child on instant noodles or getting good money working at a brothel," she said, "maybe I'll go back."

Mimi needed help. The storms of life were buffeting her. She needed strength. She needed resilience. I've come to see that the Lord's Prayer is the perfect resilience prayer to pray:

Our Father in heaven...
... thank you for being Mimi's Father. Overwhelm every experience of distorted love Mimi's had with your pure, fatherly love. Help Mimi know she's not a 'former sex worker' but your daughter.

May your name be kept holy...
... holy in Mimi's heart. Holy in her mind, choices, and lifestyle.

May your kingdom come...
... powerfully into Mimi's life by your Holy Spirit, as you call her, gift her, and send her out on your mission.

May your will be done...
... in Mimi's life in the same way your will is done in heaven. Not her will, our will, or the will of others around her. Your will.

Give us today the food we need...
... Mimi can't raise her child on instant noodles, God! Give her work, an understanding employer, child care, a church community.

Forgive us our sins...
... ours and Mimi's-everyone one of them- through Jesus' sacrifice on the cross for us.

As we forgive those who've sinned against us...
... especially the men, the pushers, and the brothel owners in Mimi's life.

Don't let us yield to temptation...
... Don't let Mimi go back to her old life, Lord! Rescue her from the evil one's temptations and lies.

And one more thing, Father...
... show us how we can be an answer to these prayers.

 

A RESILIENT LIFE

Jesus beat the psychologists to their discoveries by a couple of millennia. We could call his Sermon on the Mount a manifesto for a resilient life. But while his famous words have been quoted by presidents, chanted by activists, pondered by theologians, and shouted by rock stars; printed on posters, T-shirts, fridge magnets, and bumper stickers; and depicted in artwork, shared on the net, etched in stone, and tattooed on skin, one thing is required if they're to manifest the resilient life they promise: according to Jesus, they must be lived.

Jesus never said we'd be spared the storms of life. We will creak under their winds, we will be tested and stretched. But in living out Jesus' words we're told we won't break. Ultimately, we will spring back. Just like the One who came bounding back after being stretched beyond all limits: Scarred, but triumphant. And ever resilient.

 

Sheridan Voysey is a writer, speaker and broadcaster, frequently contributing to BBC Radio 2's Pause for Thought. His latest book is Resilient: Your Invitation to a Jesus-Shaped Life (Discovery House). www. sheridanvoysey.com

 

NOTES

1 Seligman, M, Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing and How to Achieve Them (Nicholas Brealey Publishinga)

2 I explore the Sermon in the Mount's resilience theme further in Resilient: Your Invitation to a Jesus-Shaped Life (Discovery House)

3 Francois and Epiphanie's story is told in "Portraits of Reconciliation" by Pieter Hugo and Susan Dominus, The New York Times Magazine, April 6, 2014, found at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/06/magazine/06-pieter-hugo-rwanda-portraits.html