What is missional resilience? In a nutshell, it’s grace not grit. We must receive Jesus’ resilience to join him in his mission as we turn toward the triune God, others, and ourselves for loving support.

Geoff Whiteman, Resilient Global Worker Study: Persevering with Joy, March 2021.

In my previous blog post, I talked about the need for resilience in cross-cultural work and particularly now in the pandemic. I mentioned Geoff Whiteman’s research. He surveyed more than 1000 missionaries to find out what contributes to making global workers more resilient. What was his overall conclusion? It can be found in the quote above – resilience in mission work is rooted in God’s grace.

In a workshop at the 2021 Missio Nexus Mission Leaders Conference, Whiteman presented various recommendations for mission organizations to support missional resilience. Based on his research, he talked about the type of training, leadership, and caring that would help global workers become and stay resilient. Whiteman’s research demonstrated that mission organizations have much to learn and many ways in which they can improve. Nevertheless, Whiteman still concludes that resilience is first and foremost a gift of God’s grace.

The witness of Scripture

This echoes the witness of the Scriptures. Repeatedly we find that the Word of God promises the grace of resilience to those who cannot endure in their own strength. Here are a couple of examples.

Strength for the weary

We start with the testimony of Isaiah. In chapter 40, he declared that physical strength does not make one resilient. Only those who hope in Yahweh will find their strength renewed in times of weariness.

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:28-31

Strength for the fearful

Then in chapter 41, Yahweh speaks to the fear of the Jews in exile in Babylon. As an oppressed minority in a nation that was about to be conquered by yet another world power (the Persians under Cyrus), the Jews would have felt very vulnerable and afraid. But through Isaiah, God assures them that they do not need to share the fear of the nations (see Is 41:5). God would be with them. They would be strong and resilient through the upheaval that was about to come.

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Isaiah 41:10

Paul’s prayer

Paul assures the Colossian church that he continually prays for them. He is convinced that their resilience (endurance and patience) can become great as they receive strength from the all-powerful One.

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience,

Colossians 1:9-11

The amount of perseverance or endurance (Greek – hupomone) we have is clearly not simply dependent upon human willpower, courage, or effort. Its ultimate source is God himself. God gives it in bountiful supply according to his “glorious might”. Furthermore, these verses, particularly the ones in Isaiah, suggest that those who admit their weakness are prime candidates for receiving the grace of resilience.

Assessing resilience

If resilience is ultimately a gift of God, then we are bound to be surprised when we try to assess someone else’s or our own resilience. God does not hand out his grace based on how we should think he should distribute it. Remember the parable about the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20? All the workers received enough pay to feed their families for that day, regardless of whether they had not worked for one hour or all day. Kenneth Bailey calls this the parable of the compassionate employer because its focus is the amazing compassion and grace of the owner of the vineyard.1 Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth E. Bailey, p. 596.

Because grace is dependent on the Father’s generosity, we can never fully predict how resilient a person might be in a time of crisis or stress.

Pre-field training

I have been training new missionaries for a dozen years now. But I continue to be amazed at which missionaries do not make it past their first term. Obviously, the amount of resilience or lack of resilience is not the only factor in determining the longevity of a missionary career. Nevertheless, I have not grown confident in my ability to predict which missionaries will be most resilient in the face of adversity. It is clearly not based on how promising they looked in our pre-field training sessions.

Pre-field training is vitally important but it does not instill resilience in our missionaries by itself. At best, it can point our missionary appointees to the source of resilience. Hence, we continue to devote a significant portion of our training to spiritual formation. We want our new missionaries to learn to abide in Jesus. Only as they draw their life from God will their souls remain resilient. Only as they learn to continually hope in the Lord and depend on his grace will they find their strength renewed (see Is 40:31).

Praying for resilience

If resilience is found in God’s grace, then we are fully justified in asking God for strength to persevere. As we noted above, Paul prayed for resilience for the Colossian believers. Eugene Peterson paraphrases his prayer in the following way.

We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy

Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005), Col 1:11.

Many of Paul’s prayers in his letters to the churches are prayers for perseverance or resilience. Here are a few examples.

  • May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had. (Romans 15:5)
  • May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance. (2 Thess. 3:5)
  • I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love. (Eph. 3:16-17)

Here is a prayer that I have recently been praying for myself and my loved ones and friends. It speaks of both God’s grace and our resilience in hard times.

Lord, be gracious to us; we long for you. Be our strength every morning, our salvation in time of distress.

Isaiah 33:2

God with us in the tough times

As Geoff Whiteman concludes from his survey, our missional resilience is grounded in God’s nature, instead of in ourselves.2 Whiteman, G. (2021, March). Resilient Global Worker Study: Persevering with Joy. Presented through ResilientGlobalWorker.org, Online. We must turn toward the God who is gracious and faithful in order to remain resilient. We find strength and are able to endure because we know God and are confident that he is with us in our times of brokenness. Interestingly, those who responded to his survey attributed their resilience more to their sense that God was with them than their conviction of the sovereignty of God or their experience of his deliverance from times of crisis.

Whiteman notes the importance of strengthening our heart connection with this faithful and good God. In times of adversity, we turn toward God in regular rhythms of prayer and praise, solitude and silence, sabbath and rest. We also turn toward God in lament, as the Psalms teach us. We remember God’s faithfulness and goodness in the past and freely express our fears and worries to God, knowing that he hears, understands, and cares.

Receiving God’s grace in community

We also experience God’s grace in empathetic and authentic relationships with others. Our missional resilience is nurtured in our core relationships with family, friends, and mentors. We will talk more about the role of friendships in developing resilience in a future blog post.

Being gracious toward ourselves

Whiteman also notes that our missional resilience is strengthened when we practice self-empathy and treat ourselves with compassion and love. God graciously gives us strength and resilience. So also, we must be gracious toward ourselves.

Being gracious toward oneself does not give us the license to just do whatever we want to do. We are not talking about binging on Netflix for an entire weekend. We need to be aware of what we are feeling, particularly of feelings we often see as negative, such as anger, fear, and sadness. Whiteman talks about befriending these feelings, and recognizing that they are pointing to needs within us. The feelings and the underlying needs are legitimate, although our particular strategy for meeting those needs may not be.3 Geoff Whiteman, Missional Resilience Handouts, p.2

Being gracious toward ourselves also means that we need to recognize that we are human and have human limitations. We grow in our resilience when we relax our internal expectations and accept our limitations and liabilities. We need to become comfortable with the fact that God has not given us all the gifts and strengths that God has given others. Furthermore, our missional resilience develops when we establish realistic boundaries for sustainability and wellbeing and then honour those boundaries. We need to ask for help without shame.

Grace not determination

I agree with Geoff Whiteman. Resilience on the mission field is more about God’s grace than it is about our determination to remain in difficult situations. Dependence, not determination is what is going to allow us to not only survive but thrive in a cross-cultural and stressful environment.