What Will Make You Resilient?
Learning from a Living Miracle
On a street not far from where I live, there’s a pottery studio with an attractive little storefront that displays beautiful clay works for sale by local artisans. Now, let’s imagine that you and I are in this little shop browsing and admiring the craftmanship, when suddenly in walks a grim-faced man wielding a baseball bat.
Before we can respond, he strides up to a beautiful, delicate-looking pot on the central display and takes a hard swing. Both of us wince, expecting the pot to explode into smithereens. Surprisingly, it takes the blow, slams against the back wall, and drops to the floor — intact. The man growls in frustration as he marches over, picks up the pot, and throws it against the entry wall. Again, it refuses to break. After shouting an expletive, the man stomps over and gives the pot a hard parting kick as he storms out. It skids and rolls across the floor, but comes to rest unbroken.
With the bat-man gone, you and I walk over and carefully examine the pot. It’s clearly made of clay, but there isn’t a crack or even a chip. I ask, “What kind of clay is this thing made of?” You shake your head in wonder and reply, “Who’s the potter?”
Why would you and I find this pot so perplexing? Because everyone knows this kind of pottery is not resilient. It’s fragile — it breaks easily. Fragility and resilience are antonyms. Something is either fragile or resilient, either brittle or bendable, not both.
And yet, resilient pottery is precisely the paradoxical metaphor the apostle Paul chooses when describing Christian resilience:
We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Corinthians 4:7–10)
If you and I are Christians, we are such perplexing pots. We are fragile jars of clay that ought to shatter under the blows we receive from the various kinds of destructive afflictions we suffer. And yet we have the capacity to be indestructibly resilient, leaving observers wondering what kind of mysterious strength is baked into us. They’re left asking, “Who’s the potter?”
“Our resilience (or lack thereof) depends on where we look for hope.”
Now, if you’re like me, you don’t feel indestructibly resilient. But our capacity to be “afflicted in every way, but not crushed” does not depend on our self-perception or self-determination. According to what Paul says just a few verses later, our resilience (or lack thereof) depends on where we look for hope.
Before digging into these verses some more, let’s look at a living example of indestructible Christian resilience.
Resilience in Real Life
When Joni Eareckson Tada was only 17, she discovered just how fragile her clay-jar body was when, on a warm summer day in 1967, she dove into Chesapeake Bay and became a quadriplegic. Every day since, her wheelchair, her dependence on others to help her with basic life tasks, her experience of nearly constant chronic pain, as well as additional afflictions like cancer and COVID, have been stark reminders of her bodily weakness.
Yet, more than fifty years later, millions around the world would describe Joni as among the most resilient, industrious, fruitful, contagiously joyful Christians they could name. She’s an influential author and speaker, she’s an accomplished artist, and she’s the founder of an international organization that ministers to disabled people and their loved ones all over the world.
When you read what Joni writes, however, or hear her speak, or listen to her sing, or even exchange informal emails with her (as I’ve been privileged to do), her quadriplegia and her impressive achievements become eclipsed by her unquenchable love for Jesus and her indomitable faith in Jesus. She exhibits an otherworldly strength of heart, enabling her to withstand blows that might send the fiercest soldier or MMA fighter fleeing for dear life. After each blow, she still sits in her wheelchair, radiating joyful hope.
Joni is a personification of that clay pot we imagined at the beginning. After all the blows she’s taken, how can she still be in one piece? Who is this Potter that she talks so much about?
Where Do We Find Resilience?
To answer that question, let’s first return to 2 Corinthians 4 and hear Paul describe where Christian resilience comes from:
We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)
Do you see it? What strengthens a Christian’s “inner self” and keeps him from losing heart even though his “outer self” is wasting away? Where he chooses to focus the gaze of his heart-eyes.
Paul knows that what Christians choose to look at has the power to either fill or drain the reservoir of hope in their “inner selves.” If we focus on the transient, visible realities of futility, sin, and suffering, we will lose hope (lose heart) and not be able to withstand the afflictions we suffer. But if we focus on the eternal, unseen reality, what Paul calls “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6), then the “God of hope [will] fill [us] with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit [we] may abound in hope,” even while enduring the worst kinds of afflictions (Romans 15:13).
“Indestructible Christian resilience comes from looking to the right reality.”
In fact, this focus has the power to so transform our perspective that even severe afflictions become “light” and “momentary” compared to the glory we will experience. Indestructible Christian resilience comes from looking to the right reality.
Secret of Joni’s Strength
This exercise of faith is why Joni is still in one piece, so to speak. She’s not in some special class of superhero Christians who are simply blessed with extraordinary stamina or an extraordinarily joyful temperament. Read any of her books, listen to any of her talks, and you’ll hear her candidly describe just how dark life can feel for her — how similar she is to you and me. The secret to her resilience is where she chooses to focus the gaze of her heart-eyes.
Joni recently wrote a devotional book, Songs of Suffering: 25 Hymns and Devotions for Weary Souls. This is not your run-of-the-mill devotional; it is a manual for building Christian resilience. In one of the entries, she writes,
I have lived with quadriplegia for more than half a century and have wrestled with chronic pain for much of that time. I struggle with breathing problems and am in an ongoing battle against cancer. All this makes for a perfect storm of discouragement.
Yet when my hip and back are frozen in pain, or it’s simply another weary day of plain paralysis, I strengthen myself with Jesus’s example [of hymn singing] in the upper room [just before his crucifixion]. My suffering Savior has taught me to always choose a song — a song that fortifies my faith against discouragement and breathes hope into my heart. And so I daily take up my cross to the tune of hymn. (18)
So, Joni’s incredible resilience comes from . . . singing songs? No. Joni’s incredible resilience comes from seeing her affliction in the context of ultimate reality. But she uses substantive songs of faith to help her see.
Where Will You Look?
Anyone can admire Joni’s resilience, but what we might miss is that her resilience really can be ours, through whatever trials we face. If our afflictions are less severe than hers, that doesn’t mean we are less in need of daily spiritual renewal, and that renewal is possible — every day. We share with Joni the same faith and the same hope. The same power from the same Holy Spirit is available to us. Which means we can be as indestructibly resilient in our afflictions as Joni is in hers — and as Paul was in his.
Joni’s example of singing her way to gospel hope is a strategy that has been used by millions of saints over the centuries (and why we have a book of Psalms in our Bibles). But that’s just one strategy of many available to us. We each must learn ourselves well enough to know which strategies are most effective in helping us focus the gaze of our heart-eyes on the unseen, eternal reality revealed to us in Scripture. And then, like Joni, we must cultivate them into habits of grace so we can wield the armor of God in the fight of faith with resilience.