Emotional Resilience

26 May 2013  by Soo-Inn Tan


I hate to lose. Which is why I will never forget the Dental Inter-Year tug-of-war finals of 1974. We were Year 1s. We defeated the Year 4s in a tough semi-final (there were only four teams). Then came the final with the Year 3s. We were equally matched but they had had a much easier semi-final.




Then came the disaster. There was some confusion about the starting whistle. We thought the officials would stop and restart the match. They didn’t. We were caught flatfooted. After a tough fight we lost. I was furious. To lose in a fair fight is one thing. But this was … unfair! I complained to the officials. I complained to the Dean of the Faculty. (He looked amused.) But there was to be no justice. We burned for many days.

It’s been many years since that fateful tug-of-war match. There have been many other reasons to be angry and dejected. More important ones. 


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The fact is, living in a fallen world, we will experience disappointments and frustrations. Life in a fallen world is not fair. And if we care about things that matter, like justice and goodness, we will be emotionally kicked in the gut from time to time. How do we deal with this? Not by extinguishing our convictions and hopes, even if we could. We cannot not care. Instead we must develop emotional resilience. Gordon T. Smith writes:

The capacity to handle difficulty, suffering, disappointment and setback is an essential element of long-term vocational development. How we handle a major setback, failure or loss may be one of the most critical factors in our lifelong vocational effectiveness … Indeed, nothing represents maturity as emotional resilience. We remain perpetually adolescent if we fail to develop emotional maturity … Emotional resilience will enable us to respond to the changes and challenges that will inevitable come and which will enable us to respond with strength to setbacks and disappointments. (Gordon T. Smith, Courage & Calling [Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2011], 220-221.)

Smith goes on to say:

…  the sign of emotional health is the capacity to respond with sorrow — anger, mourning or discouragement — when pain intersects your life. But you always come back to an emotional center of joy. The person of emotional maturity is the individual in whom the dominant emotion is joy, which is rooted in the confidence in the goodness of God, trust in the providential care of God and hope in the ultimate triumph of justice and peace. (Smith, Courage & Calling, 224.)

Smith does not say that we shouldn’t feel anger or discouragement in the face of painful circumstances. But that we are able to returm to a default position of joy. He is also clear why we can be joyful. God is loving and sovereign even when things don’t seem to going right, and God and good will triumph in the end. Our emotional resilience is based on a God of Good Friday and Easter. There are times when evil appears to have won. Even then God uses evil against itself. Jesus’s death on the Cross conquered evil decisively. And the last word is Easter.

It seems that if we are to be of any use to God and to kingdom work we must develop emotional resilience. It is the stamina we need for the long haul. As Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians, we grieve but we grieve with hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). And how do we develop emotional resilience? Smith tells us:

There is no other way to discover and sustain emotional growth and health than with a strong vertical connection to God and a vital horizontal connection to others. The first speaks of solitude, the individual private encounter with God. The second speaks of community and conversation. We need both … (Smith,Courage & Calling, 227)

To finish our race we need emotional resilience. To develop emotional resilience we must take solitude and community seriously. And most of us are in trouble. Especially the activists who take seriously the call to serve God in church and/or in society. We are all busy doing stuff, good stuff, important stuff. We run for a long time without solitude and authentic community. And we wonder why we burn out and are unable to deal healthily with the inevitable disappointments of life.

This is God’s call for us for the hour. Accept the fact that it is a long road to any semblance of heaven on earth. And who knows when the new heaven and the new earth will get here. We need to man up. (What is the equivalent call for ladies?) And that means doing what we need to do to finish our race (2 Timothy 4:7). This means investing in solitude and community as an essential part of our life rhythms.

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9 NIV)

(I still think the freshman team should have won that tug-of-war match in 1974.)

Rev Dr Tan Soo-Inn is the Training Consultant and Chairman of Graceworks. Since 1985, Soo Inn has been journeying with people through his ministry of preaching/teaching, writing and mentoring. Please visit the current website: http://graceworks.com.sg/emotional-resilience for complete story. 


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