If I asked you to rate how good this last year has been on a scale of one to ten, I doubt that many of you would opt for ten out of ten and tell me that it’s been a brilliant year. Most likely a good number of you wouldn’t even rate it a six out of ten. No matter what our life circumstances, Covid-19 has had a significant impact. One good friend in her 30s, who always seemed the cheerful, no-nonsense type, told me in February that the last year had been the worst of her life, and I suspect she’s not alone in thinking that.
Lockdowns have hit a society already experiencing considerable instability from the challenges of Brexit, the threat of climate change and the bewildering cultural changes we see around us. It’s no surprise that rates of mental ill health, especially in young people, are rising; a fragile world makes for fragile hearts. Government led surveys carried out among university students in the United Kingdom show that in mid-2020, rates of ‘mental distress’ within the population were running at 8% higher than in 2018.
The response to such evidence can be divided, both inside and outside the church. Some joke about ‘snowflakes’ and ask where the stiff upper lip of previous generations is. Others argue that we just need more therapy, better medication, and less pressure.
There is another approach, however, which recognises the real difficulties of life, but focuses less on reducing or escaping them and more on perseverance and growth. In the secular world, this is called ‘resilience’; in biblical language, we might call it ‘Christian endurance’.
Character and resilience
In 2019, Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary in the Westminster government, told a Church of England education conference that character and resilience are as important as academic achievement. A national audit describes character and resilience as perseverance, self-confidence and the abilities to delay gratification and bounce back from setbacks. Character, it says, also includes kindness, generosity, a sense of justice, respect, integrity and humility. This isn’t rocket science, but it is evidence of a rising awareness that resilience isn’t just a character trait of a few special people, but something which can be taught and learned. This is also recognised by employers.
How different this all is from much we have heard and seen in culture and education over the last generation! The individualistic message of ‘believe in yourself, be yourself, promote yourself, express yourself’ seems to be losing ground. Does this all indicate that our culture is moving away from the myths of X-Factor-style self-actualisation and Love Island self-indulgence? Maybe not, but it is perhaps part and parcel of our society’s renewed interest in virtue – consider veganism, environmental activism and the recent drop in drug and alcohol use among young people – and an indication of God’s design. We are designed to thrive in a grace-shaped community.
Kirsten Birkett, in her excellent short survey of secular studies of resilience, identifies its emphasis on spirituality. Academic psychologists note that forgiveness, values, religion, singing, volunteering, community and optimism all contribute to fostering resilience; and we find all of these in the church. In contrast to the much-promoted practice of mindfulness, though that may have some temporary benefit, resilience training teaches people to go out from themselves to others and to seek solutions to difficulties.
Christ gives us all we need
Christians have much more to give and teach than virtue and religion, or even spirituality. The educational resource ‘The Resilience Doughnut’ has the mantra ‘I can, I have, I am’, which helps children to recognise their own resources in their family, community and values. Whilst having many benefits, still it is without the ultimate foundation. The gospel, in contrast, teaches us that I can because Christ works powerfully in me; I have all I need in Christ; I am loved and secure in Christ. This is so much better!
These riches of Christ come to us through several different routes. There is the wisdom of God’s Word, the sword of the Spirit, which enables us to see the world as an arena of God’s grace, not a place of chaos and fear. There is the encouragement and example of spiritual brothers and sisters, who bear with us and point us to Jesus. We have the hope of Heaven, a newly remade creation, and we can sing and serve together while we wait. We have the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper to stir us, and the practice of prayer, in which we learn to delight in the Father, depend on him and cry out to him. I could go on to show how the gospel applies to our bodies and minds too, teaching us to value and honour them, but I’ll run out of space!
Isn’t this wonderful? This growing awareness of the importance of resilience in our secular world is just a reminder of how wise our God is. He provides what we need to endure, and this should give us confidence in the great pastoral usefulness of the gospel, and the offer we can make to our broken world. Whilst there is, at times, a place for counselling and specialist psychological or psychiatric intervention, the good news of Jesus’ love, the power of the Spirit and the fellowship of the church are good for us every day. We should be reticent to pathologise the struggles we face, nor should we ‘grin and bear it’; instead, remember to go first to him, to remind ourselves of his promises, to pray, to sing, to serve and to love. The everyday Christian walk is good medicine!
A previous version of this article first appeared in Evangelicals Now.