Last week, in our mid-week church group, we were reflecting on what God has been teaching us during 2020. Various people shared experiences, and particular biblical passages or verses—but one person shared a word, not from Scripture, but from reflection on the year and a sense of what God was forming in this person, and the word was ‘resilience’.
Resilience has become a very popular word in contemporary reflection. An internet search for the term shows that its use online has rocketed in just the last year or two. This might be a response to the stresses of the Covid-19 pandemic, the lockdown response, and the way both these threats have made us realise the importance of withstanding unexpected pressures. I also wonder whether the interest in resilience is a response to a contrary narrative—that life ought to be fair and predictable—which creates something of a shock when we find that it isn’t.
The word itself has its origins in a physical metaphor, ‘the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity’ which reflects its etymology from the Latin verb resilire which means to recoil or rebound.
Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. As much as resilience involves “bouncing back” from these difficult experiences, it can also involve profound personal growth.
One website dedicated to the subject takes the Latin roots of the term so seriously that it describes itself as setting out the Bounce Back Project.
The current popularity of the term is demonstrated in the range of books available on the subject, which explore either the seven skills of resilience, or the five skills, or the three categories (whilst listing four!) or the six domains…and so it goes on. The term has become popular in discussions about business and management, partly in relation to the qualities of an individual, but also in relation to business organisations. What kinds of organisations are going to continue to ‘bounce back’ when the external context changes and offers new and unpredictable challenges? This suggests that organisations need to be flexible and responsive—but the difficulty with the discussions in relation to individuals is that it often quite quickly moves to the language of ‘toughness’, drawing comparisons between individuals in business and soldiers in combat coping with the trauma they encounter in actual battle.
We don’t find the term ‘resilience’ in the New Testament, but we do find an important term that carries many of the same ideas, and which has a particular importance in the context of Christian discipleship. The term is ὑπομονή (hypomone) which is defined in the BDAG lexicon as:
1. the capacity to hold out or bear up in the face of difficulty, patience, endurance, fortitude, steadfastness, perseverance.
2. the act or state of patient waiting for someone or something; expectation.
It is related to the verb ὑπομένω (hypomeno) which means:
1. to stay in a place beyond an expected point of time, remain/stay (behind), while others go away.
2. to maintain a belief or course of action in the face of opposition, stand one’s ground, hold out, endure, remain instead of fleeing.
3. to wait for with persistence, wait for someone.
It thus combines ideas of endurance, patience, and courage, and is translated in various way in ETs, including ‘endurance’, ‘steadfastness’, and (my favourite) ‘patient endurance’—hence the ‘word’ in the title of this piece. The two terms together occur 49 times in the New Testament, in 46 different verses, which suggests their importance, and it seems to me that there are four senses in which they are used.
The first sense is seeing patient endurance as a general virtue associated with the life of faith. Thus Paul in Romans 2.6–8 talks about God’s justice in relation to two kinds of people:
God “will repay everyone according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self–seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.
He describes patient endurance as one of the characteristics of love in 1 Cor 13.7, and by listing it as the last quality perhaps suggests that it is the supreme virtue. When writing to Timothy and Titus, he commends it as a virtue to be pursued in 1 Tim 6.11, one of the qualities that has marked out his own ministry in 2 Tim 2.10 and 3.10, and a quality to be encouraged in the older men within congregations in Titus 2.2. This general sense of the role of patient endurance in the life of faith is found in the only occurrence of the term in the gospels, as a hallmark of the fourth seed that grows into a fruitful plant in the parable of the sower and seeds in Luke 8.15:
As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.
All this has something in common with other ethical thinking in the ancient world. Aristotle discusses the importance of endurance in his Nicomachian Ethics chapter 7 section 7. However, he uses a different term karteria from that which we find in the NT, and does not see the endurance of pain as an unqualified virtue; there might be appropriate contexts in which we avoid pain rather than enduring it, and sees self-control as a superior virtue. The Stoics saw courage or fortitude as one of the four cardinal virtues, which again included a sense of endurance, but use quite different language to describe it.
The second use of ‘patient endurance’ links it with hope. In what is probably one of Paul’s earliest letters, to the believers in Thessaloniki, he immediately introduces the triple of faith, love and hope, which he returns to elsewhere, and links these respectively with work or action, labour (it is this verse which gives us our phrase ‘labour of love’) and hope. More word-for-word translations (like the ESV) describe this as ‘endurance of hope’, but others (like the NIV) offer us a little more interpretation: ‘your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’. It is the hope that we have in Christ which leads to and shapes in us this sense of patient endurance.
There is a curious parallel here with secular explorations of what makes people resilient. The most common factor is a sense of optimism—that things will work out all right in the end. But this is expressed in terms of personal temperament; people who are naturally optimistic will be more resilient, because they don’t see the current challenge or disaster as the end of the story. But for Paul, this confidence in a better outcome arises not from within the individual, but from without—the hope that is found in the promise of Jesus. Because of Jesus’ resurrection as an anticipation of the destiny of all who trust in him, we have a foretaste of this future hope, and it rests on our discovery of the faithfulness of God.
The third use of ‘patient endurance‘ links it with suffering. If hope is the thing that energises us and forms patient endurance in us, then it is suffering which calls for such patient endurance and puts it to the test. This is an idea we find in both Paul and James:
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces patient endurance… (Rom 5.3)
You know that the testing of your faith produces patient endurance. Let patient endurance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1.3–4)
Blessed are those who persevere (patiently endure) under trial, because when they have stood the test, they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. (James 1.12)
Both James and Paul then link the issue of suffering with hope, by means of the language of patient endurance. Paul goes on in Rom 5.4 to note that patient endurance creates character in us, which allows us to have a greater hold on hope. And James returns later in his letter to this theme in his introduction (as he does throughout this earlier circular epistle) in James 5.11, where he mentions the patient endurance of Job (in the face of his suffering) as an example for us to follow.
The combination of hope and suffering point us to what I think is a fourth theme in the NT use of hypomone, that of the eschatological context of our discipleship. We live in the tension between two ages—this age, and the age to come. This age is in large part marked by the triumph of evil, the oppression of the people of God, and futile suffering, but the age to come (the kingdom of God) is marked by the defeat of evil in all its form, the liberation of God’s people, and healing and peace. Those who follow Jesus have experienced the reality of the kingdom of God as a foretaste of what is to come when Jesus returns, yet we continue to live in this world, and so are constantly caught in the tension between the two. John expresses this succinctly at the beginning of his visionary prophetic letter that we call the Book of Revelation:
I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. (Rev 1.9)
John passes on the words of the risen Jesus to the different communities in the seven cities of Asia that he writes to, and this includes commendation to those in Ephesus and Smyrna for their ‘patient endurance’, which is embedded in exactly the same kind of language that we found Paul using to the Thessalonians: deeds, hard work, love and faith (Rev 2.2, 2.19). In the message to those in Philadelphia, their ‘patient endurance’ is also linked to suffering explicitly; because they have been formed in this, Jesus will keep them in the hour of trial that is coming.
When we have experienced the wonders of life and fellowship in Christ, yet continue to live in a world where there is suffering, and in particular where we experience suffering, pressure and perhaps even direct opposition because, in walking by the Spirit (Gal 5.25) we are out of step with the world around us, then we need this quality of patient endurance. It is formed in us by the foretaste of the world to come, and is tested in us by the pressures of the world we live in.
One final use of this term is striking: patient endurance originates in the person of Jesus, and it is when we abide in him that this virtue is formed in us. Paul mentions this once:
May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance (2 Thess 3.5)
But the writer to the Hebrews expands on this and makes it quite explicit:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance (patient endurance, hypomone) the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured (hypomeno) the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured (hypomeno) such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Heb 12.1–3)
The verb hypomeno is a compound of the more common term meno, meaning to abide or remain somewhere. In the Fourth Gospel, the term is introduced as a simple, literal enquiry from the first disciples as to where Jesus is living (John 1.38). But, characteristically, as the gospel unfolds, it acquires a second, deeper meaning: where do you find your home? Where do you abide? And Jesus invites us:
Abide (meno) in me, as I will in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. (John 15.4)
This patient endurance, being willing to remain in Christ, even when there are pressures to move on, is a lesson of discipleship that we perhaps need to recover. And it might be that, in a strange way, the pressures and challenges of the last year could become God’s gift to us in teaching us the importance of such patient endurance for all of life.