Michael Clark, Australian cricket team vice captain, recently confounded his critics by scoring a career-best 168 in a test match against New Zealand. He had every excuse not to. Before the match, he’d had a week that had included a broken engagement to a celebrity model, a dash across the ditch, time away from training, public accusations of lack of focus and commitment, and intense media scrutiny because of it all. But contrary to his detractors’ doubts, it seems that Michael Clark has got mental toughness!
I’m told ‘mental toughness’ is something that frequently appears as a goal of military training. That’s no surprise; we don’t want those defending the nation to wither at the first sign of difficulty or opposition. There’s an equivalent in the world of parenting and education that parenting gurus and school advertisements call ‘resilience’—the emotional ‘surefootedness’ to survive failure and disappointment that parents want instilled in their children to equip them for life.
Common wisdom says that resilience or mental toughness is something clergy also need to develop. I agree. The New Testament writers go out of their way to warn us that this side of glory, things won’t always go according to (our) plan because failure, disappointment, difficulty and opposition will be par for the course. Anyone who enters ministry not anticipating these things is not likely to last long.
But it occurs to me that mental toughness or resilience is not just for those in public ministry; instead, it’s something all Christians, young and old, can and should have.
The question is, “What sort of mental toughness?” There is mental toughness that is really ignorance—that head-in-the-sand approach that has little or no understanding of the real difficulties or opposition that stand against us. It’s the ‘don’t worry; be happy’ approach that can only last as long as our trials and obstacles are miniscule. As Christians, this won’t do. Christians of all people should be realists. We know that our enemy, the devil, prowls around looking for someone to devour (1 Pet 5:8). We know that what happened to our master will happen to his servants (John 15:20). We know that trials and persecutions will come. In fact, the refrain that runs through the Old Testament still applies to us: be strong and courageous (e.g. Deut 31:6, 7, 23; Josh 10:25; 2 Sam 10:12; 1 Chron 22:13; 2 Chron 32:7; Ps 31:24; Isa 35:4; Dan 10:19; 1 Cor 16:13; Eph 6:10). There’s no need for either if the obstacles don’t really exist. Real mental toughness requires an accurate assessment of the risks.
Then there is mental toughness that is really arrogance. This is the ‘I’m bullet-proof’ approach that is brimming with self-confidence and has little understanding our own frailties and faults. Like the first kind, this sort of mental toughness is also on borrowed time because bluster and bravado will only get us so far. Again, as Christians, this is not an option. As those in the process of putting off the ‘old self’, we still sin. We will fail. And we will face difficulties and opposition beyond our meagre resources. So if we think we can weather the storms on our own strength, our confidence is sadly misplaced. Furthermore, the person who is impervious to criticism, hardship and opposition is shutting off a valuable means that God uses to refine us (2 Cor 4:17; 1 Pet 1:6-7). Real mental toughness requires an accurate assessment of our own weakness.
So it strikes me that the only sort of mental toughness that will cut it—no matter the vicissitudes of life—is the mental toughness that comes from faith in the sovereignty and goodness of Almighty God. This is mental toughness grounded in the knowledge that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:35-39); that he has perfect knowledge of what has and will happen to us (Ps 139:1-16); that he is a perfectly just judge (John 5:30; 1 Pet 2:23); that his grace is sufficient for every situation (2 Cor 12:9); and that his will is good and perfect (Rom 12:2). It is the mental toughness that took Jesus faithfully to the cross (Heb 12:2-3; 1 Pet 2:21-23).
Looked at this way, the sort of mental toughness or resilience we should want to see in ourselves, our children and our ministers is less about ourselves and more about God. Unless God is who he says he is, and unless he has promised what he has promised us as his children, no amount of mental toughness will cut it. It would be another instance where faith the size of a mountain will fail to move a mustard seed because the object of the faith is impotent. But if our faith is in the living God, then faith the size of a mustard seed will move a mountain, because nothing is impossible for him (Matt 17:20). The issue, then, is not the amount of the faith—or mental toughness or resilience—but its object.
Such faith in the living God may not make us burnout or depression-proof, and it certainly won’t prevent us from failing or remove all difficulties, opposition and obstacles. What it will give us is the mental toughness to persevere and say with the psalmist,
For God alone my soul waits in silence;
from him comes my salvation …
He only is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
(Ps 62:1, 6; my emphasis)