How can we develop resilient faith?

From 15th to 19th May I am speaking at Lee Abbey in Devon on ‘Resilient Faith: coping with doubts, difficulties and disappointments’. You can find full details and book here.

We are sometimes given the impression that a Christian faith will protect us from all the doubts and difficulties in the world. So when challenges come, they can often take us off guard. But when we read scripture carefully, we find that doubts, difficulties and disappointments are recurrent themes for both individuals and the whole people of God! What insights does scripture offer us in recording these experiences, and what can we learn from them? And what habits of life will help us grow faith that endures through all these challenges? Join us this week and we’ll face the challenges together.

In anticipation, I wrote this for Lee Abbey’s ‘Rapport’ magazine to give a taster.

Although it was nearly 25 years ago, I remember that day like it was yesterday. 

I had left my high-flying job in business. I had studied theology, and been ordained. I had continued study and completed a PhD in New Testament. I had finished my curacy. What was God calling me to next? The obvious answer was a post teaching in a theological college—and just the job I was looking for came up, and we had a strong sense that this is what God was calling me to. Even better—I was the only applicant! I thought that the interview had gone well, but after an agonising two hour wait outside the interview room, I was given the devastating news—they were not going to appoint me.

It is hard to describe what moments of bitter disappointment like this feel like—but there is an almost tangible physical sensation. I now faced a miserable two hour drive home, through the dark and rain. The weather reflected my mood, and though I am not much given to tears, I think I cried all the way home. 

But perhaps the most challenging part of this whole experience was that my ministry, including my preaching, changed dramatically from then on. People commented immediately—‘there’s something different in you’—and they meant it as a compliment. There was a depth, a credibility, an authenticity in my preaching that I had not known before. 

Handling disappointments

How do we handle the disappointments of life? What do we do when God appears to lead us in one direction—yet we then suddenly find the apparently open door slammed shut in our face? How should we cope with the challenges of illness and incapacity? And what do we do when the challenges to our faith come from the very people we hoped would encourage us and build us up?

The one thing we can be sure of is that challenges will come. On his final night with his disciples, Jesus was very clear: ‘In this world you will have trouble’ (John 16.33)—and the word Jesus uses here is translated in the AV as ‘tribulation’, meaning serious testing and suffering. When Luke summarised Paul’s evangelistic message on his ‘first missionary journey’, he quotes Paul thus: ‘Through many tribulations must we enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14.22). And John, writing to the Christians in the Roman province of Asia, the Western end of what we now know as Turkey, was clear: ‘I, John, am your brother and companion in tribulation, kingdom, and patience endurance’ (Rev 1.9). 

But Jesus was also confident: ‘Take heart! Be courageous! For I have overcome the world!’ As we follow Jesus as disciples in the world, we will face challenges, we will face suffering and disappointment—but these will not have the last word! It is possible to live with patient endurance, our eyes set on the hope that we have in Jesus—which in the end will not disappoint us (Romans 5.5). 

Safety cells and crumple zones

So how, in practice, can we grow in confident faith whilst facing these challenges? 

Strangely enough, we are given a clue by modern car design. When cars were first built, they were structured around a rigid steel chassis. It is easy to understand why: if you want to protect passengers from the shock of a collision, surely you want to build the structure of the car as strong as possible? But in fact it turned out that a strong, rigid chassis simply passed the shock of the collision on to the passengers, resulting in terrible injuries and death. 

Instead, modern cars are built with two kinds of structure. The centre of the car is built as a strong ‘safety cage’ which protects all those inside. But at either end there is what is known as a ‘crumple zone’, which collapse by design on impact, and in doing so absorb the shock of the impact, so that the energy is not passed on to the passengers. I think this kind of model gives us important insights into developing resilient faith, and I have found five things helpful in doing so. 

1. Be real

There is a great temptation, especially when faith is new, to see the truths about God and his love for us in Jesus as an escape from the realities of everyday life. That can be true and helpful in different ways and for lots of people; when life is hard, coming away from it with fellow pilgrims and basking in the reality of God can be an important relief. 

But this is not the way that mature faith grows. Jesus encourages us to learn lessons from the natural world, especially from the garden and field. When you sow seeds and grow young plants, you cannot hide them away from natural light and temperature changes—if you do, they grow quickly but spindly, pale and weak. But if you plant them out too soon, they are not ready for the shocks of everyday weather. Plants need to be ‘hardened off’ by exposure to real life as they grow stronger, and the same is true for us.

2. Seek understanding

When Jesus saw the crowds coming to him after he had been away on a short ‘sabbatical’ with the Twelve, he sees them as ‘like sheep without a shepherd’, needing help, hope and healing. So what is his response to this need? ‘He began to teach them many things’. All through the gospels, and in the letters of the New Testament, there is a consistent emphasis on ‘understanding’. So Paul, whilst rejecting the ‘wisdom’ of Greek philosophy, nevertheless tells the Christians in Corinth that they need to be ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’ in their understanding (1 Cor 14.20). This is clearly not about an intellectual exercise—since Paul is clear that his readers are not ‘wise’ or learned!

Tempting as it is to simply be told what to do or what to believe, God wants us to understand the ‘why’ of faith, and not just the ‘what’. This leads to my third observation.

3. Ask questions, don’t just accept formulas

Formulas can be very helpful. I still remember helpful guidance given to me when I was a young Christian—such as the pattern of ACTS for my personal prayer (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication). But though formulas and summaries can be helpful, they are no substitute for mature and enquiring faith. 

When I travel and speak in different churches, as often as I can I try to make space for people to ask questions—and there is never any shortage! We are not very good at creating space for allowing the asking of questions, since we are all afraid of looking foolish or exposing our lack of understanding. But when we do, we usually find there are others who are asking just the same question!

4. Create a secure cell of belief

Like cars with crumple zones, there are going to be things that we need to let go of and rethink when hard questions are asked, and that can be painful. But there are also things that we can be confident of, and hold on to, and these are just as important. I find it curious when people characterise ‘asking questions’ as the only sign of mature faith, as if we can never be sure of anything! Yet Jesus, our example of ultimate maturity and our model of faith (Eph 4.15) was asked the hardest question—yet continued to trust his heavenly Father to the bitter end. 

Sharing in a statement of what we believe can be an important habit in this—yet many of our churches don’t do this. Perhaps it is a healthy habit we need to recover! And that connects with my final observation.

5. Grow in endurance in community

It is very striking that John says to his readers in Asia ‘I am your brother who shares with you in tribulation…’ The verb ‘share’ is related to the noun koinonia, ‘fellowship’. Even though he was at a physical distance from them, John needed to emphasise that they were a community on a journey together, and needed one another to stay strong in the trials and tribulations of the faithful life. 

We, too, need one another. When I have faced disappointments, it is the prayer, support, and encouragement of those around who have sustained me and enabled my faith to grow, rather than crumple, in the face of challenges. 

Come and join us in May, when we will be exploring all these themes in more depth—and discovering once again that ‘hope does not disappoint us’ (Rom 5.5).

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39 thoughts on “How can we develop resilient faith?”

  1. Thank you Ian. A real encouragement.
    May God bless your week at LA: I’m sure he will! I’m with family for the same period but will be praying for you

  2. How can we develop resilient faith?
    I would suggest reading the Old Testament as in Hebrews Ch.11 Heroes of faith.
    Also the raising of Lasarus. Jesus purposely delayed,they were devastated,
    disappointed, but Jesus wanted to teach them more about faith,”If thou shalt believe” the outcome of which was their seeing “the glory of God.”
    Jesus sent his deciples away[He knew a storm was brewing] tribulation why that He May give them a revelation that He is the Master of circumstances.
    Which leads us ultimatly to Paul in 2 Cor. Ch 1
    1:7 And our hope of you is stedfast, knowing, that as ye are partakers of the sufferings, so shall ye be also of the consolation.
    1:8 For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life:
    1:9 But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead:
    1:10 Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us;
    1:11 Ye also helping together by prayer for us, that for the gift bestowed upon us by the means of many persons thanks may be given by many on our behalf.
    And ultimately to 2 Cor.Ch.12
    12:9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
    12:10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
    Paul never was on the retreat.

    • Thanks Alan. I’ve just drafted a sermon on John 11 for Sunday week. Amazingly (?) I found myself picking up the themes of danger, death and disappointment leading through questioning faith and courageous following to a greater depth of relationship for those who knew Jesus best. Still more amazingly, to me, last month I booked on to the week at Lee Abbey, with our Coventry ‘connect group’, well before reading Ian’s text. My life is not my own; our times are in his hands

  3. Thank you, Ian.

    Having enjoyed good health for most of my life, the last two years have brought a variety of illness and weakness which have resulted in exhaustion. Your article was so timely and i am very grateful.

  4. Thanks, Ian, for your insights.

    ” Sharing in a statement of what we believe can be an important habit ..”

    Indeed, especially if the Creed is so explicitly Scriptural – like ‘The Apostles’ Creed’.

    (No Creed but the Bible?)

    • Creeds were written as bulwarks against the heresies of their day. So there is nothing wrong – and a good deal right – about writing a creed for today (and for our culture). Today Arianism is not the menace but atheism, and the importation of what the bible calls sin into the church.

    • A popular joke in the 18th century was that the word ‘not’ was to be taken out of the Ten Commandments and put into the Creed.

      That isn’t so funny today.

      • Anton : That reminds me of a reprint of the King James Bible published in 1631, by the royal printers Robert Barker and Martin Lucas. Unfortunately, they omitted the ‘not’ in the printing of the seventh commandment. They were called to the Star Chamber, and sentenced to a heavy fine, and confiscation of their printing license.

        (P.S. I sent you another post, which I think is further down)

        • John: I have seen the Cambridge University Library copy of what became known as the “wicked bible”, to which you refer, and which was somehow preserved.

          • Interesting.

            I notice that the Bible Society’s library is now located with the Cambridge University library. Were you a student at Cambridge, Anton?

          • Yes I was, and a research student and postdoc in theoretical physics. The ‘wicked bible’ was on display as part of an exhibition for the King James’ 400th a decade ago. The KJV was also read out nonstop during daylight hours at Great St Mary’s church in town – it takes about a week.

        • Great St Mary’s has a long tradition and of very creative clergy. Among them Mervyn Stockwood, Hugh Montefiore and Michael Mayne, whose preaching and writing is amongst the finest I have ever encountered. He was also Head of Religious Broadcasting for the BBC and also Dean of Westminster Abbey. He well understood the power of wonderful language such as in the KJV.

          • Mayne bravely overcame personal problems in his godly ministry, but Stockwood’s superciliousness is apparent in his disastrous debate with the Pythons about Life of Brian (readily viewable on Youtube), while Montefiore suggested that Jesus was homosexual by inclination. You use the adjective “creative” rather creatively.

  5. I find this article hugely resonant and important.

    Failure is real, but it’s not the end of the story. Look at Peter. Sometimes failure and closed doors are bitterly hard to take (or face up to), but I do believe they can deepen us, and very wonderful and unexpected things may follow, through discipline, through the Love of God.

    Thank you, Ian.

  6. How can we develop resilient faith?
    By talking about it to people who don’t have it?
    First Bible text to come to mind: Romans 10:9
    I went to the dentist this morning. I mentioned I was a Christian. That was as far as I went. The secular Muslim dentist probably thought I was making a cultural distinction between Pakistan and the UK.
    I talked about my Christian art to the barber last week. Just vague Christian stuff.
    Neither of these encounters qualified as ‘testimony’ and so the ‘witness of the Spirit’ and ‘Assurance’ were missing. No progress in ‘resilience’ was made. No ‘treasure in heaven’ added to my account.

    • Steve – you did very well here – most people aren’t inclined to say very much at all about anything when they have the dentist’s drill in their mouth and they’re recovering from the needle afterwards. On the other hand, a Christian dentist has a captive audience and is in a great position to do a bit of evangelism …

        • Thank God for dentists, they had better teeth I reckon in Jesus time. I went to the dentist this morning too and a fortnight ago had a wisdom tooth out which came out easily (plenty of prayer beforehand). I have never been bold enough to witness to any dentist and feel rather guilty about it but I am saying to myself that an appropriate moment has never arisen, but then again I have never prayed for that opportunity.
          I belong to a group who pray weekly in Exmouth town and many times pray outside barber shops and beauty parlours for fruitful conversations to arise for the glory of God. I am praying that your dental treatment will be successful.

          • Thanks!
            I’m stuffed full of theology. I just need to learn how to be season or out.

    • Because Islam is both political and religious, and because England has an established church, Muslims suppose that the English are all Christian and that the social disaster they see clearly in England today – sexual confusion and promiscuity leading to widespread family breakdown – is the fruit of Christianity. It is always worth explaining to Muslims that this is actually the result of turning FROM Christianity. Then you can explain that this has happened because gospel Christianity is a voluntary religion – you cannot force belief, you can only force conformity. Ask them if they wash before prayers. (They do.) Then ask them how they wash their soul before praying.

    Thanks for the book tip; it looks like a life changing book according to digest and folks reviews. Personally I find that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. Over a long life I marvel that no one has written a Teach yourself Christinity book as so many Churches do not “do” Bible Studies or Prayer meetings
    expecting that souls read some improving books or grow by osmoses’
    God bless you Ian as you minister.May the entrance of His Word give Life.

    • A golden rule for anyone writing a ‘Teach Yourself Christianity’ book :

      ‘Keep it Simple !’

      (cf. Acts 2:14-42; 9;17-22; 13:14-42; 17:1-4; et al ).

  8. Will your talks at Lee Abbey be available afterwards, either online or in print? I can’t be there, but would be interested to hear (or see, or read) what you say.

  9. I agree Anton, that the menace today is atheism, and various Christianophobic, Western ideologies such as ‘cultural Marxism’, ‘postmodernism’ and ‘political correctness’.

    As regards ‘Creeds’, I would say the more explicitly Scriptural they are, the better. The original Apostolic kerygma was extremely intellectually simple (cf. Acts 2:14-42; Acts 9:17-22; Acts 13:14-42, et al.). I personally think we need more bibliocentric, Apostolic simplicity’ :

    “The Church can and must gather to confess the faith once delivered to all the saints against heresy. But put not your faith in the councils of men, whether they be popes or presidents, councils or conventions; put your trust in what is sure, what is certain. Men can err, and man will err, but the Word of God endures forever.”


    • I commend the writing of Creeds as an exercise in precis/summary against the belief systems that challenge the gospel today (New Age paganism, secular humanism, Islam). But I shan’t trespass further from the subject of this thread by giving mine.

  10. Very helpful stuff here, Ian, thank you.
    I particularly like the image of the crumple zones and the secure centre. I went through a difficult time in my professional life once when I let myself be troubled by comparatively small matters. I had to learn to repent, laugh some things off and focus on the important. As a result I became a happier person and, I think, more useful to God and others.
    Prayers for your ministry at Lee Abbey.

  11. AMEN James
    Much prayer for you at Lee Abbey Ian.
    What do the rulers find so difficult about “Feed My Sheep?”
    The rise of Mega Churches, Bible weeks, and Retreats is testament that the sheep are hungry. Praying that our Shepherd will open ears and hearts as you open the Scriptures Ian, “I [The Lord] give understanding and wisdom”

  12. Ian – in my own case, I think the faith in and of itself is quite resilient – in the sense that I know that I am in the number of the Saviour’s family, that I have been transported from death to life, that I am going to the heavenly kingdom when I pass from this life to the next. All this I believe (i.e. I know that it is true).

    At the same time, I have full confidence that before very long, yet another of these trials and tribulations is just around the corner and that the Good Lord will see fit to strew my path with yet another shower of cowpats from the devil’s own Satanic herd.

    In fact, I’m pretty sure that this is just how your average Ukrainian Christian sees life just now.

    I find the first part of this piece very interesting. Firstly, why didn’t you stick with the job in industry? Was this incompatible with being a Christian? Did it become clear to you that you couldn’t witness effectively there and that you would be a better witness if you re-trained in theology and became a church-man? If so, why did you take the business job in the first place?

    Also, with the job at the theological college -which college was it? And did they give any reason for not employing you? I’m wondering, because there are lots of very wiggy colleges out there; perhaps you escaped a ‘Hotel California’.

  13. I realised in hospital when having a pre -heart op. lung function test how much of my Christianity was functionally performance based.

    Maybe it was based on what I was fed early in my Christian life – “I know the plans for you, plans to prosper…” and other affirming scriptures, which I could loosely categorize as a health, wealth and prosperity and happiness *gospel, which I now see as sometimes, now, passing under the guise of “flourishing”. Sure, there is nothing wrong with any of these things until they are manufactured by that idol factory that is our heart into ultimate things on which we rely and base our lives on in the place of God and removal of which can result in the collapse of our, significance, identity, security, acceptance, standing, belonging.
    Some 25 years on, with an intervening stroke, and less than good health for my wife and me, more and more the depth of my sin is revealed. Neither is it helped by underlying messages, exhortations, with the best of Christian intentions, which can amount to, be reduced to:
    – try harder
    – you are not measuring up
    – you may have been chosen before the foundation of the world by God in Christ, but so far as you are *useful* to him.
    Last night, our mid-weeks groups finished a six-week series at looking at King David, based on teaching notes from the Good Book Company. The scripture was 2 Samuel 22, aka Psalm 18. Amongst the challenges was, did we know God as David did, even as it pointed forward to fulfillment by and in Christ, looking with hindsight, to God working in and through David’s trials, tribulations. He could now see that, which he couldn’t at the time, even though his first port of call was to God in prayer and now he wanted all the glory to go to God. There was far more, far too much for an hour and for this short mention to do justice to scripture, David, God in Jesus, to ourselves, even.

    Ian could see, as could others, the change in him, from the rejection, (a cap on the upward trajectory?).

    There are people like Jeremy Marshall, like Tim Keller (who has stage 4 cancer and who has written that he and his wife thought that they knew about prayer – he has written a book on prayer and a one, with his wife, on the Psalms, – and practice before, but not as they do now) whose shoes I’d not seek to walk a mile in.

    I am not my own, the Gettys:


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