This year, as I have thought about planning my growth and development, I have decided that I want to read more biographies. In his great book, Resilient Life, Gordon MacDonald says “deliberating exposing oneself to people who are better and smarter” than we are is part of the process of disciplining our minds and learning resilience. Definitely, we can find amazing and inspiring examples of perseverance and resilience in biographies such as Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and The Imam’s Daughter by Hannah Shah. But the greatest example of perseverance and resilience is found in the Gospels. If we are looking for heroes to emulate in the character quality of resilience, we start with Jesus.
Inspiring them to persevere
In a previous post, I talked about the discouragement and fatigue of the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews. These believers were growing weary under the strain of the ongoing opposition and rejection that they faced as followers of Jesus. This was tempting them to lose heart and to give up. So the author of Hebrews encourages them to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Perseverance is another word for resilience. How does he inspire them to persevere? By pointing to Jesus.
Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!Hebrews 12:2-3 from “the Message” paraphrase
The writer to the Hebrews asks his readers to consider Jesus as a paragon of resilience from three different perspectives. We need to look back at Jesus’ example of resilience. Then we need to look up to him for his help and grace. Thirdly, we need to look forward with him to his coming reward.
Look back at his stellar example
Jesus is called the pioneer of faith (Heb 12:2). He is the one that has gone before, the leader, the trailblazer. As our example, he has shown us what resilience looks like. He demonstrated that a man can persevere even when rejected and subjected to cruelty, even when one is perfectly innocent and righteous. Jesus endured not only the torture of scourging and crucifixion but also the shame of being ridiculed by the very people he had come to save.
But the “opposition from sinners” was not limited to the last week of his life. He was repeatedly opposed by the religious leaders of his day throughout his ministry. The people he had known since childhood rejected him and sought to throw him off the cliff when he showed them from Scriptures that God also cares for the Gentiles (see Luke 4:28-29). Jesus persevered in his calling, even when a large number of his “disciples” abandoned him in reaction to his “hard teaching” (John 6:66).
Jesus did not give us this example of resilience simply to impress us. He wants us to follow in his footsteps, to become attracted to this model. Paul prays for the Thessalonians:
May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance.2 Thessalonians 3:5
But Jesus’ example of resilience by itself can be intimidating. We can easily conclude that we are not made of that kind of stuff. We could suppose that we could never follow his example. That would be a mistake.
So we need to look at Jesus from another perspective as well.
Look up to his ever-present grace
Jesus is not only the pioneer of faith. He also bears the name of “perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:2). First, he was perfected through his suffering (Heb 2:10). Now he is perfecting us.
But the important thing I want to consider here is that he is our companion as we face the challenges and difficulties of life and cross-cultural ministry. He has gone ahead as the trailblazer or pace-setter, but he is also running right beside us in this race set before us, cheering us on.
The writer to the Hebrews referred to Jesus as our great high priest. In the OT sacrificial system, the priest worked with the worshippers to make sure that their sacrifices were acceptable to God. Because the priests were overseeing the temple rituals, the believers were never alone in coming before God. They always had someone to show them how to ask for and receive forgiveness for their sins and transgressions of the covenant. Similarly, Jesus is with us as we approach the Father. Because Jesus is our advocate, we can confidently ask God for grace in our time of need.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.Hebrews 4:15-16
Praying with confidence
In my last blog post, I talked about how resilience is found in God’s grace. As Geoff Whiteman says,
Resilience in missions is about grace, not grit. We must receive Jesus’ resilience to join his mission in the world.Geoff Whiteman
Therefore, if resilience is a gift of God, it stands to reason that we can and should ask God for grace to persevere. In focusing on Jesus as our high priest, we grow in our assurance that God will answer this prayer. He will never criticize or humiliate us for not having the inner strength and resilience within ourselves. In fact, we need to recognize that Jesus’ resilience was due to his utter dependence on the Father’s strength. And the Father took great delight in his Son’s dependence.
But there is one more view of Jesus that helps us persevere. This is a look forward.
Look forward to his glorious reward
The writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus persevered because he kept his focus on “the joy set before him” (Heb 12:2). Jesus was resilient because he knew the suffering would all be worth it in the end. He had set his mind on the reward that awaited him and this gave him the strength to finish well.
For Jesus, his “hour” was ultimately not about suffering and death. Rather it was the doorway to his return to his beloved Father.
It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father.John 13:1
In praying for himself, Jesus had no hesitation in asking for his Father to restore his pre-incarnate glory.
And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.John 17:5
That prayer was answered. Because Jesus persevered, because he was resilient and faithful, he “sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2).
Like Jesus, we can look forward to our heavenly reward. We can follow Jesus’ gaze and look to what we cannot see but is most certainly awaiting us just over the horizon. Like the heroes of faith, we “welcome from a distance” the things that God has promised us.
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.Hebrews 11:13
Anticipating a better life
I think of the sacrifices made by my ancestors when they moved to Canada from Russia (present-day Ukraine) about 150 years ago. They left their relatives and the relatively comfortable life in Russia. They accepted the challenge, hardship, and back-breaking labor of moving to a wild and largely unpopulated new country. These Mennonite immigrants built homes and broke up land where no one had ever settled before. They made those sacrifices because they looked forward to future rewards. Someday they wanted to own their own land and enjoy its fruit in the context of the religious freedom and independence that Canada promised them. Many of the promises of a better life were only realized by subsequent generations.
But sometimes, particularly in winter, that exchange of life in Ukraine for life in Canada does not look like a particularly good one! This past week, Saskatchewan residents have endured temperatures down to -45 with the wind chill. Meanwhile, here in Kyiv, we have enjoyed relatively balmy weather well above zero! I am sure that my ancestors never imagined that one day one of their great-great-grandchildren would return to Ukraine and enjoy living in the country they fled.
In contrast to the rewards my ancestors envisioned, the glorious reward that we anticipate will never lose its splendor. We will never regret the sacrifices we made. We will never wish we had been less resilient. Why am I so confident that our reward will make it all worthwhile? Because Jesus was confident. He knew what he was returning to and it filled him with joy. We look forward with Jesus to join in the reward and glory that Jesus has prepared for us and is already enjoying (John 14:2-3).
The greatest threat to resilience
A few weeks ago, it occurred to me that the greatest threat to our resilience as cross-cultural workers is not the pandemic. It is not the disunity that we see in our churches surrounding the debate about vaccines, masks, and social distancing. The greatest threat is not even our own weariness as this pandemic now enters its third year.
Our greatest threat to our resilience is our own self-reliance. Taking our eyes off Jesus and focusing on our own resources – or lack of them – is what is going to do us in. It is thinking that we need to look within ourselves for the strength to survive and serve others in this frustrating situation.
But if we keep looking to Jesus, we will regain the right perspective on resilience. His example of faithfulness, his high-priestly work alongside us, and his anticipation of future joy is going to feed our resilience. We will keep relying on God’s resources. We will be able to not only survive but thrive in the cross-cultural challenges that are marked out for us.