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“Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield it’s valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.” (James. 5:7-8)
Resignation seems to be the word that best sums up the present moment (according to sociologists). After a period of struggle and resistance has come a period of weariness and resignation. People feel disoriented, frightened, and anxious about the future.
Why? What is going wrong? Resistance (resilience) alone is not enough. It must be accompanied by patience and hope. The three form an inseparable whole. This (divine) triangle shows us not only how to hope, but also what to expect in the hour of trial.
This Christian worldview of patience is admirably described in Romans 5:3-5:
“…we also glory in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character, and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame…”
We need to learn to develop patience in trial and hope in (the times of) waiting. Then we will discover that God can transform our adversities into opportunities.
Three words in our title: resilience, patience and hope. They form an inseparable whole. We also add a fourth element: contentment:
- Resilience: natural adaptation
- Patience: bridge to acceptance
- Contentment: supernatural acceptance
- Hope: nourishment of patience
1 RESILIENCE: NATURAL ADAPTATION
Walking along the beach in a nature reserve on the Spanish island of Menorca, I observed how the vegetation, both bushes and trees, was strongly sloped in one direction. The strong north wind, very typical of this part of the island, has shaped a curious and highly symbolic landscape. It was spectacular to contemplate the thick trunks of the pines bent as if they were a rubber toy. Why are there trees that split when the hurricane blows and others, on the contrary, adapt to the force of the wind by bending? The answer is important because therein lies their ability to survive. The key word is flexibility. The more rigid a tree is – just like an object – the more likely it is to break under the effect of pressure or a strong impact. Conversely, the more flexible it is, the more it will adapt to intense pressure without breaking.
When faced with an ordeal, people are like trees: we have an adaptive capacity that allows us to resist and reorganize our lives after the impact of a traumatic experience. This “elastic” capacity is known today as resilience: the ability to recover after a trauma. A “resilient” person is like the trees of Menorca: in the face of the wind, he or she adapts.
Here we are today: there has been adaptation to the onslaught of the pandemic. This is the current momentum. But resilience alone is not enough in human beings. If it is not accompanied by something else, it can end in resignation, stoicism at best, or fatalism, bitterness, and nihilism at worst.
Resilience is necessary, but not sufficient. It is based on a materialistic, evolutionary concept of the human being. In fact, the original word comes from metallurgy and physics. It was only later that it was applied to human behaviour (Boris Cyrulnik). It is no coincidence that today this concept has become fashionable without critical discrimination: it fits well with the way of thinking, the worldview of the world that is based on a materialistic anthropology. People need more than resilience because we are more than trees or metals.
2 PATIENCE: BRIDGE TO ACCEPTANCE
Beyond resilience we must develop patience. Patience is the emotional and spiritual ingredient that distinguishes us from animals and objects when facing a trauma. If resilience is an instinctive reaction, patience is the distinctive reaction of humans in the ordeal. It is also the bridge to acceptance.
We need to understand the concept well because people associate patience with resignation (the stoic concept is not the Christian one). The idea of patience in the Bible is so rich that it requires two complementary words.
- Perseverance: to persist
- Strength of mind: to resist
“May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance.” (2 Thess. 3:5). If love defines the essence of God, patience defines the character of Christ.
Patience is strength of mind: Resist
The word used in the original makrothumia is active and positive, a far cry from the popular (Stoic) idea of patience. It literally means “great courage”. It alludes to a strong, resilient spirit, which remains steadfast in adversity. This patience does not give up, does not give in to difficult circumstances. It is the opposite of a cowardly, faint-hearted person, who “drowns in a glass of water”.
It is far removed from an attitude of resignation, a conformism that is born of impotence and leads to fatalism. On the contrary, Christian patience, fruit of the Holy Spirit, does not resign but struggles, does not crumble but affirms itself in the face of adversity, is not passive but actively searches for ways out.
Now, we have said that patience is a bridge to somewhere. Patience generates fruit, it expresses itself in a reality that the Bible calls contentment. Contentment is the visible expression of patience.
3 CONTENTMENT: SUPERNATURAL ACCEPTANCE
If resilience is natural adaptation, contentment is supernatural acceptance. It is born of this patience which is divine in its origin, the mark of Christ and the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
“I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation…… I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Phil. 4:11-13).
When the apostle Paul wrote these words, he was confined in Rome (probably under house arrest, not in prison). In any case, an involuntary confinement in harsh circumstances. He was not addressing his readers from a position of comfort, but from a deeply troubling situation, and in direct danger of death. Where did he get the strength to send such a serene message in the midst of trials?
He himself gives us the answer: “I have learned to be content”. The original word implies a connotation of independence (autarkeia): not to depend on circumstances, not to be tied to problems. To learn contentment, therefore, is to achieve an attitude of a certain independence from life events and not to be trapped by them.
Contentment leads us to see, think and live differently in the face of trauma. In our days we would speak of acceptance, an acceptance that is not resignation or fatalism or passivity, but the deep conviction that God works his purposes in my life not in spite of the circumstances, but through them. The conviction that for God there is no waste material in my life. He uses it all, recycles it for our good. We could say that God is the great recycler, a specialist in transforming our adversities into opportunities. This is the essence of acceptance.
Paul concludes the text with a phrase that has inspired millions of people: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). That is, I can be stronger than any adversity, overcome any circumstance when I am in Christ, “connected” to Christ. That is where we see most vividly the difference between natural adaptation – resilience – and genuine acceptance that is supernatural. Being in Christ is the source of our patience.
4 HOPE, THE FOOD OF PATIENCE
“Stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.” (James. 5:8)
Patience is inseparable from hope. In fact, it is nourished, nourished by hope and in turn generates hope in a glorious divine circle (Rom. 5:4-5). We could say that patience and hope merge in an embrace. We come to the climax of our theme.
“Hope is to life what oxygen is to the lungs” (E. Brunner) But the key question is what do we hope for? Our hope has, of course, a present dimension. In this case we anxiously await the end of an epidemic. But this hope is not enough and can end in frustration if our expectation is not fulfilled. We do not have the assurance that “everything will be fine”.
Hope does not stop in the here and now, it flies higher and reaches into eternity. Life on earth is a precious good, but it is not the supreme good. The supreme good is eternal life. That is why the Lord warned: “And do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul” (Mt. 10:28). We are impressed that this text precedes the consoling promise of God’s care “for even your hairs are all numbered” (Mt. 10:30).
It is here that the Christian hope allows us to glimpse HINTS OF ETERNITY. James mentions twice the coming of the Lord when speaking of patience. This is no coincidence. The vision of the second coming of Christ is the vision of eternity and “affirms our heart”, strengthens our patience. When we glimpse the glory of eternity with Christ our contentment is renewed and the present tribulation becomes “light and brief” (2 Cor. 4:17-18). Therefore, hope is the moving, motivating force of patience.
Christian hope is not a concept, but a person, Christ; it is not an abstract idea but a living experience; it is not based on a future desire but on a past fact; it does not say “all will be well”, but “all was well at the cross”. What Christ did one day and what he continues to do today is the basis of hope that strengthens patience and complements resilience.
Conclusion: So that, “we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” (Hebrews 6:18,19)
“And may the same Jesus Christ our Lord, and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.” (2 Thess. 2:16-17).
Q: The concept in the face of trial, in the face of difficult circumstances, the “Oh poor me, look what happened to me” speech, where would it fall within these concepts that you mentioned, and the opposite reaction which would be anger at the circumstances. Where would these two reactions fall into these concepts? And when a person falls into depression (even if he is a believer), what has happened? Is it that resilience has gone alone, and has not been accompanied by patience and hope?
A: That is a very interesting question. Let’s start with the first part. There are two key concepts that are important to differentiate. One thing is self-pity, and another thing is lament. They are two totally different concepts. Self-pity is thinking that you are the most miserable, that everything affects you, that all bad things happen to you and that only good things happen to others. Then, you fall into this attitude of self-pity that would be summarized with the phrase: “How unhappy I am and how well life is going for others”. Self-pity is emotionally pernicious, it is toxic because it can lead to self-destruction, but the most dangerous thing is that self-pity can lead to bitterness. And bitterness is obviously a sin. Bitterness is a sin. Self-pity itself is not a sin, but the consequence, which is bitterness, is. Therefore, we must avoid self-pity, it is not good, it is not positive, neither emotionally nor spiritually.
But having said this, lament does have its place in the Word of God, and in fact we can elaborate, it is one of the themes that I like to deal with, an authentic theology of lament. You only have to take some Psalms, for example Psalm 137 “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept, remembering Zion”. There is a place for lament. And what shall we say about a monumental text such as Romans chapter 8 where we are told that creation groans, weeps, but not only creation, but we ourselves weep. And the Holy Spirit also weeps, intercedes for us with unspeakable groanings, therefore, there is a place for lamentation. Lament is biblical. There is a right lament that far from annoying or angering the Lord, is pleasing because it is the expression of seeing and living the reality in this world, seeing the evil with the eyes of God. It is in this sense that the Lord Jesus says: “Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”. And the Lord Jesus himself as he approached Jerusalem mourned, wept over it. Therefore, it is very important to avoid falling into self-pity, but lament, far from being negative, is I would say a form of catharsis, or healthy expression that helps us to assimilate the experiences we are having. “Weep with those who weep”, says the Lord, right?
The second part, the second reaction: anger. Well, it is more or less the same thing. This theme, in fact, I develop it quite thoroughly in the book of the “Sting in the Flesh”, also a little bit in “Beyond Pain”, since they are the two books that have been mentioned. By the way, the concept of resilience I explain it quite well in chapter 3 of “Sting in the Flesh”. There is anger that can be sin because it is expressed against God. But there is another feeling of anger that is not sin because it is not expressed against God, but before God, before God. The problem is not complaining to God but complaining about God.
An example clearly helps us to understand it, the prophet Habakkuk. In Habakkuk, the word used in verse 1 of chapter 2 is very strong. He says: “I will wait to see what God will answer me concerning my complaint”. The word is ´complaint´ in the original. Habakkuk is making a complaint to God. However, we know that Habakkuk fought whilst embracing God. This is what the name Habakkuk means “he who wrestles embraced”. Habakkuk wrestled embracing God, didn’t he? Therefore, it is not a sin to expose our anger, our wrath before God. The problem, the danger is in complaining about God. That is what distinguishes complaining or anger from faithfulness; a position of submission or complaining from rebellion. This is the big difference, isn’t it?
Well, I have gone on for a long time, but the question needed a long answer. That is why I hope these concepts will help. It is legitimate to lament, self-pity is not good, it is legitimate to get angry, but not against God but before God. This would be the summary.
Q: Thank you Paul. I liked the part in which you talked about triumphalism because we have accepted the slogan “everything is going to be all right”, “we will all get out of this together” and that kind of proclamations. And I don’t know what guidelines you would give us so that, especially with children or with others, we can avoid this triumphalism and have a more focused position. Above all, thinking that children are given these messages as a little pill to give them optimism, what would you give us?
A: Interesting, too. I would say that our society moves between two extremes, right? One is the extreme of magical thinking. The hoping and believing that everything will be fine, magically. For example, the emphasis in our society is on solutions. We want solutions to everything. The solution is automatic, it’s instantaneous, it’s magic. The word solution does not appear anywhere in the Bible. On the other hand, the word exit does appear. There is a very important difference between a solution and a way out, isn’t there? The verse I mentioned before from 1 Cor. 10:13. What God promises us are not solutions to problems. What God promises us are ways out.
But let’s notice that the concept of a way out gives us two very important ideas that we must transmit to children. The concept of a way out of a problem is first of all a realistic concept. It is not an idealistic concept, (in a positive sense) nor is it pessimistic. Not everything will go well, not everything will go badly. For some things will go well, some things will not go so well, and some things will go badly. This is the balance to have. Realism is very important. On the other hand, the word “exit” implies the idea of effort. First, you have to look for the way out, you have to inquire and second, when you have the way out you have to walk. You have to walk the path that the exit has shown you, right? This is the path, for example, that the people of Israel had to walk. Well, for 40 years. They probably didn’t like the way out, but it was the way out that God had provided. Let us not forget, in this sense, that the outlets that God provides are part of this recycling process. Recycling the waste material of our life, right?
So, to summarize, I would say to children it is important, as well as to adults of course. Convey to them a message that is not magical thinking, triumphalism that does not keep its feet on the ground, a totally blind idealism. In this respect, it is clear that one of the specialties of politicians today is to sell this kind of magical thinking, isn’t it? And we see it, not only in parties of one colour, but also of the other colour. All parties tend to sell this kind of thinking. And not to fall into the other extreme that we talked about, which is the extreme of pessimism, of fatalism and of nihilism, right?
Q: How do you build a faith that overcomes obstacles and solidly believes in the midst of great difficulties? How can you build a living faith in the midst of situations such as when your business is about to close, and you are going to get into debt or the need to search for a job?
A: It is a work of two, rather, it’s a three-part job. I like this expression “building faith.” In fact, the concept that appears in Paul’s epistles is that of “growing in faith,” isn’t it? The idea of growth is already a process. To advance to a mature, perfect, adult state. This is the word “teleios” in Greek. “He who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” the word here is to mature, to grow, right? But in this process of growth, of building faith, there are three fundamental elements. On the one hand, your willingness, you yourself. Your desire to learn, to submit, to dispose yourself to understand and apprehend the will of God. Secondly, there is the work of the Holy Spirit, the great transformer. The Holy Spirit is the great intercessor, but He is also the great transformer. He is the one who really works this process of transformation within us. Growth in faith is not a matter of self-help. We cannot do it by ourselves alone. In the development of faith, the supernatural help of the Holy Spirit is indispensable. The help of God through the Holy Spirit. And the third ingredient, the help of God’s people, the church, the brethren. The help of the brethren in the church is very important in our growth, in the construction of this faith. The worst thing a believer can do in times of trial is to isolate himself. Isolation is a serious mistake. It is in times of trial when we most need the communion of the brethren.
Therefore, to summarize: faith in times of trial, in fact at all times, is built with the combination of these three elements: your willingness to grow (like the believers in Berea who scrutinized the Word to see what it said about them) a spirit of investigation, of personal growth. The help of the Holy Spirit, a supernatural help, and the help of the brethren of the church that we cannot underestimate. It is an imperfect help, the church has defects, it has blemishes, but it is the People of God, it is the body of Christ and it is precious. And we have to learn to value the church not in spite of its defects, but with its defects, but this would be another topic.
Q: People who fall into depression, is it because they have only remained resilient? Many of us can fall into mild or severe depression when faced with situations of pain that extend over time, is it a lack of hope?
A: The fact that a person falls into depression in times of trial, in itself, does not have to have spiritual implications. Depression is an emotional disorder and spiritual implications can come later. But I would say that resilience alone, rather than depression, leads to what we said at the beginning of the presentation. To resignation, to fatalism, to bitterness, to passivity, to stoicism. A little bit of what we find described in the book of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”, right? In times of trial the depression that can appear is a depression due to emotional exhaustion. And this is an interesting concept, and I am going to address it very briefly.
Testing is an extra drain on emotional energy. We are undergoing a very intense drain on our physical, emotional and spiritual energies. When we are facing the test, we are in struggle and this leads to a loss, an enormous expenditure of energy. If this emotional, physical and spiritual energy is not adequately replenished we end up like Elijah (1 Kings 18 and 19). A paradigm of depression due to exhaustion, in this case not in the midst of the trial, not in the midst of suffering but paradoxically in the midst of success; victory over the Baals, etc… but Elijah’s depression was clearly depression from exhaustion. This is the greatest danger in a testing situation. There are three great dangers in a testing situation. Isolation which we have already mentioned, depression from exhaustion and spiritual bitterness. These are the three great dangers.
To prevent these dangers, we need what I commented before about these three ingredients that build faith in the hour of trial: our predisposition to grow, the supernatural help of the Holy Spirit and the help of the communion of the brethren. Depression in times of trial has a remedy, it has a treatment, it is not something that should frighten us. I would say that in some cases it is a natural response and that it is not so difficult to treat and improve from an emotional exhaustion in the midst of suffering. I am much, much more concerned about bitterness in the ordeal. It is much, much more difficult to fix bitterness in the trial than depression in the trial. This is why the Lord Jesus said to the apostle Peter in Gethsemane, shortly before the cross, “The devil has asked to sift you as wheat, but I have asked…” The Lord Jesus could ask many things for them. He could ask that the trial be shorter, he could ask that God strengthen them. All this was legitimate, however, the Lord Jesus says: “I have asked that your faith may not fail”. Because the weakening of faith, ending up in bitterness is the danger or one of the main dangers in the time of trial.
Q: I am a teacher and I am in contact with students and teachers, how can you transmit what you are saying to people at work who have gone through difficult situations, be it because of the pandemic or something else? Sometimes it is difficult, because you know that much of what you are talking about is based on faith and sometimes I ask myself, what are the little steps I can take to be a blessing to someone who is not a Christian? I say little steps, but maybe steps can be taken that can be a blessing for others, for those who suffer.
A: This is a nice question to end with. Our testimony in the midst of the trial. There is something you can do that probably conveys the most powerful message. It is one of the most powerful evangelistic messages. It is to “be with,” to accompany, stand with. When you are at the side of someone who is suffering, you are transmitting a message of irreplaceable, unbeatable love. Therefore, the company in the hour of trial is a powerful instrument, if we can use this word, evangelistic. You are transmitting a message. The second step, I am speaking to you from a personal point of view because this is subjective, would be that they see something different in you, but not different in the sense of eccentric but attractive. Christian holiness does not have to be eccentric but attractive. There is something different. This, if you remember in the biography of C.S. Lewis “Surprised by Joy” he mentions it. He says that when he was in high school or college, I don’t remember now, the two most attractive teachers. He was a militant atheist. The two most attractive teachers, the ones I liked the most, the ones I was most attracted to and I wanted somehow to be like them were Christians. And this annoyed me, Lewis says. But it’s just that these Christians awakened something in him that attracted him. A holiness that attracted. And I think this is the second little step we can do. First to accompany, secondly to try to show a holiness an attractive difference and thirdly I would say that the power of the Word of God is absolutely irreplaceable, indispensable. Give him some passage from the Word, share with him the Word of God that is living and effective. Something, some reading either from the Word or some commentary on the Word because the Word of God penetrates, and God speaks through the Word. “How will they believe if there is no one to preach to them?” right? And preaching through the Word is fundamental. I could say many more things, but I believe that these three tools are small steps that God can transform into big steps when it comes to giving testimony of our faith. And let us not try to convince anyone. The Holy Spirit is the one who convinces, we are called to sow, not to convince.