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Working Toward a Theology of Resilience

I love this picture. It hangs in my office at Compass Ministries. It was painted by a local artist here in St. Petersburg, FL. It beautifully illustrates resilience, a quality that missionaries need in order to be effective in cross-cultural ministry. Everyone who is involved in cross-cultural ministry acknowledges that taking the gospel across cultural boundaries requires suffering. As I debrief missionaries about their experiences, I feel privileged to enter into that sacred space with them as they describe the suffering they have endured for love of their Savior. I have noticed that those who rebound quickly from suffering tend to be those who have an accurate Theology of Suffering. They realize that suffering is part of living in a fallen world, that sometimes we suffer because of our own sinful choices, or even more distressingly, because of someone else’s sinful choices. Sometimes God specifically allows suffering so that his name will be glorified by our faithfulness. We also may suffer in the will of God so that others can receive a blessing, such as receiving the message of salvation. This kind of suffering is what we are called to as servants of God. It makes up “what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” (Col 1:24)

The current research into what makes people highly resilient has identified that expectations play a role. Those who expect to suffer are not as traumatized when suffering comes, as are those who did not expect suffering. That is why it is important to explore a missionary’s Theology of Suffering, when providing pastoral care. Sometimes we hold a tacit belief, a belief of which we are not consciously aware, that if we serve God, he will protect us from all harm. When a missionary holds such a belief, their entire worldview is shaken when a trauma or suffering befalls their family. But when a person has an adequate Theology of Suffering, which leads them to expect and prepare for suffering, they are able to rebound more quickly.

Recently, I was challenged at a workshop on Resilience, led by Geoff Whiteman (of Asbury Seminary) at the Mental Health and Missions Conference (MHM), that we must move beyond a Theology of Suffering to develop a Theology of Resilience. Much of the psychological research into resilience focuses on qualities inherent in the individual. For example, resilient people tend to be flexible, have a strong sense of humor, are organized with a strong sense of life purpose, a leader, extroverted, self-confident, agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable with good self-awareness. The focus in the literature is how we as counselors can build up these qualities in individuals. But perhaps our Theology of Resilience has a big impact on our ability to bear up under suffering, much like our Theology of Suffering impacts our expectations and can build up or undermine our resilience.

Geoff Whiteman at MHM asserted that the resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate example of resilience, and is the basis for a Theology of Resilience. It is the power of God through the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. It is also this same power that will raise you and I from the dead. (Rom 8:11) Defeating death is the ultimate in resilience, and it is accomplished not by any individual’s inherent qualities, but by the power of God working in our life and body.

This icon illustrates this truth beautifully. Adam and Eve, representing all of humanity, are resurrected from the dead by the glorified Christ. They are passive in the experience. Jesus grasps them by the wrists, as they are even unable to even clasp his hand. Their resurrection is all God, and not at all because of their own strength or abilities.

How many of us, who are serving Jesus by crossing cultural boundaries, are relying upon our own abilities to do the work? How many of us are guilty of worshiping the idol of self-reliance? Do we have an accurate Theology of Resilience?

Whiteman, who cares for missionaries sent by the Orthodox Church, draws from his own faith traditions to give another example. In the Eucharist (Communion for Protestants), God gives us wheat and yeast and grapes. We take God’s gifts and make bread and wine. We then, in worship, offer up these products of our own efforts to God, and he in return gives us Himself! In exchange for the products of our own efforts, he gives us the Holy Spirit. The truths embedded in the doctrines of the Resurrection and the Eucharist have dominated my thoughts as I struggle to rise to the challenge to develop a Theology of Resilience. I suspect it will take years to develop an adequate theology on this topic. But for now, the basic truth of resilience for the believer remains, that it is not our own qualities that give us the strength to bear up under suffering, it is the power of God, his Holy Spirit given by His grace.

The tree in this painting is not resilient in that harsh environment by its own strength. No, it is drawing nutrients and finding shelter in the rock. All of us need to fully embrace the reality of Jesus’ words - “without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) Jesus is our Rock. We need to give our efforts to him as a humble, loving offering, and receive from him the power to do our ministry, and to bear up under suffering. If we are resilient, it is not because of any quality inherent in ourselves. Resilience comes from our Rock, Jesus.

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