For several months now, I have been thinking about this topic of resilience in cross-cultural workers. I admit that I have been somewhat troubled by what the Scriptures tell me about God’s method of using suffering to develop resilience. As I have said in previous posts on this topic, the Scriptures do not use the word “resilience”. But the word “perseverance”1 in the Greek, “hupomone” is found repeatedly in Holy Writ. It seems to capture the idea of resilience.
So what do I find troubling in Scripture? In my thinking, the logical way to strengthen a missionary’s resilience is to:
- provide them with good training to prepare them for hard times
- ensure that they have excellent member care when they go through hard times.
From a human perspective, I struggle to see how suffering in any way contributes to the development of resilience. Isn’t our goal here to minimize the suffering?
Resilience comes from suffering
But what do the Scriptures say about how God produces perseverance in the believer? Look at what Paul says in Romans chapter 5.
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.Romans 5:3–4
James repeats this same idea in the opening verses of his letter.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.James 1:2–4
Now to be clear, I don’t believe that God is in any way opposed to thorough training and compassionate member care. In fact, I firmly believe that God is pleased when we seek to do them well. But the Bible makes it clear that the recipe for resilience also has another important ingredient.
According to the Bible, suffering or testing produces perseverance. If we grow in perseverance (resilience), we become mature or people of character. What does that mean for us as we seek to develop our own resiliency and that of our colleagues in cross-cultural work?
Preparing us for the world to come
First, let’s not limit our understanding of the suffering or trials mentioned in the verses above just to persecution or opposition to our faith. All pain and evil in this world are evidence that we are not yet experiencing the kingdom of God in its fullness. Satan and sin are still causing havoc.
The attacks of sin and Satan on the human race and the rest of God’s creation cause suffering. They induce fear, discouragement, and frustration and lead to weariness and disillusionment and eventually to death. But for those who are children of God, these same attacks can strengthen them and make them more resistant to future attacks.
Furthermore, Paul and James are telling us that these very clear demonstrations of what is wrong with this world can be used by God to prepare us for the world to come. The character that God is forming in us through suffering and trials is the character that he wants to see in his heavenly bride (Eph 5:25-27). This Christ-like character being molded in us is what will make our eternal communion with our Lord and with his church truly a “heavenly experience.”
Resilience is not the automatic result
A cursory reading of these passages might suggest that suffering automatically produces resilience in a person. As much as we would like that to be true, we know it isn’t. Not all who have suffered are stronger, not even on a spiritual or an emotional level. Ongoing stress does lead to burn-out, depression, and sometimes even tragically to suicide.
But a deeper look reveals that both Paul and James are encouraging their readers to adopt a faith-inspired joyful attitude in response to these sufferings. As Paul says in Romans 5:2-3, “we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory. We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials …”2 (New Living Translation)
As Douglas Moo says in his commentary on Romans,
All suffering betrays the presence of the enemy and involves attacks on our relationship to Christ. If met with doubt in God’s goodness and promise, or bitterness toward others, or despair and even resignation, these sufferings can bring spiritual defeat to the believer. But if met with the attitude of “confidence and rejoicing” that Paul encourages here, these sufferings will produce those valuable spiritual qualities that Paul lists in vv. 3b–4.Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT, p. 303.
One of those valuable spiritual qualities we can see being developed in us is perseverance or resilience.
Tempering the steel
Tod Bolsinger talks about this process of God developing resilience within us in Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change. In this highly recommended book, Bolsinger talks about how leaders can avoid both a “failure of nerve” and a “failure of heart”. A failure of nerve3 Bolsinger is taking this concept from Edwin Friedman’s book with this title. is losing the courage to carry through on change initiatives because of the resistance one encounters. A failure of heart happens when the leader pushes through with change but loses his or her compassion and empathy for those who struggle with these changes.
Bolsinger uses the analogy of the blacksmith’s shop to describe how leaders become resilient against these two types of failure. Leaders must be tempered in God’s forge to withstand the temptation to lose one’s nerve or lose one’s heart.
Tempered steel is steel that has become impact-resistant and flexible (not brittle). A blacksmith must temper a tool in order for it to be strong and flexible at the same time.
“Tempered steel is perfectly balanced at the midpoint between too soft to be useful as a tool and so brittle that the tool will break through hard use.”Bolsinger, Tempered Resilience, p. 11.
Blacksmiths temper steel by heating it to a very high temperature, hammering it, and then immersing it in water. Then they do this over and over again. In Bolsinger’s analogy, the hammering represents the stress and suffering that makes us into resilient leaders or in our case, resilient cross-cultural workers.
Intentional in learning resilience?
So, if suffering and stress produce resilience, does God expect us to look for stress and suffering so as to “speed up” the process of acquiring resilience? Is there any role for intentional learning in God’s school of resilience? Or do we just leave it all up to God to decide when and where suffering and stress might come into our lives? After all, eventually, it does. As Longfellow said in his 1842 poem, “The Rainy Day,” “Into each life some rain must fall.”
However, I do not believe that we need to be entirely passive in this process. It seems to me that practicing certain disciplines can serve as intentional stressors in our lives that can help to develop resilience within us. My experience in training to run a half marathon taught me this.4 See my post on “Stress: too much and too little.” We only expand our capacity to run further and faster by intentionally pushing ourselves to the limit of our endurance on a regular basis. We call this “the training effect.”
In Gordon MacDonald’s book, “A Resilient Life,” the author also talks about the importance of discipline in the quest for resilience. His analogy also comes from the world of running, albeit under the tutelage of his high school track coach. He actually calls the self-discipline required “intentional suffering.”
My simplest explanation of discipline is to refer to it as intentional suffering. It is the act of insisting that the body, the mind, and the spirit engage in challenges that build up capacity and stamina.
This intentional suffering is rarely considered fun. It is not associated with leisure. In the process of disciplining oneself, there is often humiliation and defeat. Gratification and achievement are often postponed for a long time. And the disciplined person does not pursue ways that are likely to make him or her popular. It is only after the season of discipline is over and the payoff comes that the world, standing amazed, offers applause and admiration.MacDonald, Gordon. A Resilient Life: You Can Move Ahead No Matter What (Kindle Locations 2676-2681).
Bolsinger also talks about disciplines we must practice in order to submit ourselves to the “hammering.” Again, hammering is referring to the stress that develops resilience within us. The four disciplines he specifically mentions are:
- Adopting a humble, teachable mindset – the discipline of learning.
- Tuning our hearts to God and our people – the discipline of listening.
- Pausing and observing before developing solutions – the discipline of looking.
- Leaning into loss and facing the pain – the discipline of lamenting.
Although not all of these disciplines may sound like “suffering,” Tod Bolsinger shows how difficult each of these is for experienced and confident leaders. But when we intentionally practice these disciplines, we see the results. We become both stronger and more flexible, or in other words, more resilient.
Learning resilience on the way
Interestingly, Bolsinger insists that we learn these disciplines in the midst of the stresses of leadership and ministry. We don’t develop resilience by taking special classes in seminary, prior to taking on any ministry challenges. We don’t learn resilience on vacation, or even on sabbatical, as important as those times of rest and refreshment are to our souls. No, resilience is learned while on the journey, in the middle of suffering and stress.
Yes, we need God’s grace to learn resilience.5 See my blog post on the source of resilience. “A’s do not come easily in the school of resilience. But it can be learned. Furthermore, our learning can be intentional, as we practice these disciplines and the regular disciplines of prayer, reading the Word, meditation, Sabbath, and many other similar spiritual disciplines.
So, in conclusion, God’s method for developing resilience involves suffering. This suffering includes the stresses of cross-cultural ministry, the pain and difficulties of living in a fallen world, and even the self-imposed disciplines we embrace in our walk with the Lord and in our ministry journey. Yes, hardship, stress, and suffering can lead to weariness. But in God’s hands, they can also lead to resilience.
Resilience and the pandemic
Is it possible that the pandemic may be God’s way of developing resilience in us? If so, how would that realization help us to face this “school of resilience” with greater confidence and hope?
Can we already see how this time of suffering and disruption is developing resilience and Christ-like character in us? Are we growing in our reliance on God? Are we more committed to prayer? Have we gained a deeper appreciation for the fellowship of the saints? Are we becoming more flexible, holding our plans more loosely? I think most of us would be able to recognize these areas of growth in our lives in the last couple of years. It should not surprise us that God’s method of developing resilience actually works!