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Resilience

A Concept that Christians Can Use

January 15, 2016

by Sam Thielman, MD

For the last year I held a job which involved being a “subject matter expert” on resilience. I’ve immersed myself in this concept and, as it turns out, some of the most important resilience factors are things I seem to know a lot about because I am a Christian.

Resilience is generally defined as the ability to perform well during times of stress and to bounce back after setbacks. One of the factors that helps people to bounce back is “drawing from religious and spiritual resources.” Actually, Christians do a lot more than “draw from religious and spiritual resources.” For us, God in Christ is “it.” As Paul said, “...in Him we live and move and have our being,”(Acts 17:28a, NIV 2011)  and “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13, NASB).  

Recently, I was in a war-torn sub-Saharan African country doing a resilience training exercise with Africans working in a secular context. In our resilience training model, we were using the 10 resilience factors described by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney in their book on resilience (Resilence: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges). The factors include cognitive flexibility, active problem solving, identifying a resilient mentor, drawing from religious and spiritual resources, following your own inner moral compass, ability to find meaning in adversity and so on.) After a lecture on resilience, our team held small group sessions where we asked participants to tell us about their lives during the last three years and to describe what resilience factors they had found helpful in adapting to the stresses they had faced. Far and away, the most commonly used resilience factor was “religion and spirituality.” In fact, several people pointed out that reliance on God outweighed everything in terms of its importance as a resilience factor. Needless to say, I was moved. These were people who had suffered many personal tragedies. It had been really helpful for us reaffirm the value of their faith in the training we were using in their secular context.

Another resilience factor I have noticed we, as Christians, can use to great advantage is “finding meaning in adversity.” In fact, I might go a little further. The Christian understanding of adversity is quite nuanced. There are entire books of the Bible that, with the Holy Spirit’s help, will guide people through tough times. I’m thinking of Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and, most of all, the Psalms. There’s nothing simple at all about the Christian approach to adversity. Since the ability to find such meaning is something that fosters resilience, Christians would seem to have a resilience advantage.

The Psalms in particular help people give voice to their frustrations and anguish when going through difficult times. Psalm 88 records the feelings of someone in the midst of despair. Psalm 102 describes the person deeply distressed. Many others give voice to the frustrations a godly person experiences when going through adversity, and they point the way to finding meaning, even in seemingly meaningless situations. They reflect an understanding that, in the end, God will make things right. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man's all. For God will bring every work into judgment, Including every secret thing, Whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, NKJV).

There are many other aspects that mesh well with the Christian message. As the Africans pointed out, God and faith in Him are indeed over all. Resilience is a topic under discussion in many places, and I believe it is something that we, as psychiatrists working from a Christian view of the world, can use clinically to the benefit of our patients.

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