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The Secret of Inner Strength

Resilience has become a big think of late, with researchers exploring what helps us bounce back after physical, emotional or spiritual trauma. After facing his own battering storms, author and broadcaster Sheridan Voysey found resilience in a surprising place. Sorted talks to him about his new book, Resilient.

What is resilience?

Resilience describes the ability to spring back after being bent or stretched out of shape. Resilient people adapt to adversity. They weather life’s storms. They may get hit but they get up again – maybe even stronger than before.

How did you become interested in the topic?

In June 2011, my wife and I came to the UK from Australia to start our lives again. We’d spent a decade trying to start a family, ultimately without success, and had brought that dream to an end (I tell that story more fully in another book called Resurrection Year). The relocation meant leaving a fulfilling broadcasting career for me, and for the first time in years I no longer knew who or what I was here for. I needed inner strength and stumbled upon in it in a surprising place – the Sermon on the Mount

For those not familiar with it, tell us what the Sermon on the Mount is.

The Sermon on the Mount is a speech given by Jesus of Nazareth, and frequently hailed as one of the greatest speeches of all time. It’s what inspired Gandhi to discover peaceful protesting, Martin Luther King Jnr to fight racism, Dietrich Bonhoeffer to oppose the Nazis, and numerous other heroes and heroines throughout history. The Sermon has given us the Lord’s Prayer and the Golden Rule, and made phrases like ‘turning the other cheek’ and ‘going the extra mile’ part of our everyday vocabulary. In short, it’s Jesus’ most succinct guide to living.

Tell us about your experiment reading the Sermon every day for a month and then beyond. How did it start?

Given its impact in history, I had felt a pull to explore the Sermon on the Mount for some time. It’s quite short – only three chapters in the Gospel of Matthew – so I decided to read it every day for a month. But one month led to two, and then on to three as the Sermon got a hold of me! What initially impacted me was how comprehensive it is, covering everything from sex to prayer to conflict to possessions. It addresses our callings in life, our relationships, our spirituality, and even how to make good choices. And you can read it in 15 minutes. It’s profound.

Why do you believe the Sermon on the Mount is ultimately about resilience?

The resilience theme is revealed right at the end of the Sermon, when Jesus gives a famous story of two builders: one builds his house on a strong foundation, the other builds on sand, and when “the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against” their houses, the first house stands while the second collapses (Matthew 7:25, NLT). Jesus interprets the story by saying those who put what he’s said into practice will be like the first builder and withstand life’s storms. They will bounce back and not collapse. They will be resilient.

So, how does Jesus’ teaching develop resilience, and how does it square with modern research?

It’s fascinating to compare Jesus’ teaching with the findings of modern psychology. According to researchers like Martin Seligman, resilience is built on a few key factors: the ability to manage our positive emotions; having strong relationships; having a feeling of accomplishment about what we do, and finding a sense of meaning to one’s life. Jesus addresses all these in the Sermon:

Positive Emotions: Seligman says we can become strong by amplifying emotions like peace, gratitude, hope or love, and managing negative ones like bitterness, sadness or anger. Well, Jesus starts his Sermon by ‘blessing’ those who follow him, saying they’re loved by God, will be comforted in sadness, and will be looked after in the future (Matthew 5:1-12). He prescribes forgiveness to counter bitterness (6:12,14-15), provides practical guidance on what to do when we’re angry (5:21-26), and gives straightforward teaching about worry, something most us of battle (6:25-34).

Strong relationships: According to Seligman, we need good marriages, deep friendships, and/or meaningful connections to our community to be resilient, and Jesus devotes a lot of time to relationships in his Sermon. In one lengthy sweep he tackles the four main forces that destroy them – anger, unfaithfulness, false promises and retaliation (Matthew 5:21-42). To Jesus, relationship with God and others lies at the heart of everything.

A sense of accomplishment: Whether it’s through pursuing a goal, mastering a skill, or doing work that’s personally significant, we are strengthened when we feel we do some things well. While Jesus never tells us to find a hobby, or set ourselves career goals, I think he sets us up for accomplishment of a higher order. In the Sermon he invites us to become the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14). This is astounding considering the people he was addressing were small, insignificant villagers at the time. Through his Sermon, Jesus positions us to be people of profound accomplishment, no matter how successful we are.

A sense of meaning: Psychologists agree that we need a purpose to live for, a grand cause to serve, that’s bigger than us, and that we are strongest when we have one. When Jesus teaches us to pray that famous line in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’ (Matthew 6:10, NLT), we are connecting to such a cause. The ‘kingdom’ of God is God’s grand dream of making the world peaceful, powerful and beautiful under his control again. He calls us to be part of making that so.

So, all the factors for developing resilience are contained in the Sermon on the Mount. You could say Jesus beat the psychologists to their discoveries by two millennia.

Resilient is full of compelling stories. Tell us about Ken Cooper.

Ken was someone I interviewed while still in Australia, and his story is a good resilience tale. I’d describe Ken as the kind of guy you’d want living next door: a loving husband and father, a role model for underprivileged children. But Ken had a dark side – he was also one of Florida’s most wanted criminals. He began shoplifting as a child, was stealing cars by the time he reached college, and when his wife died early from cancer, turned to robbing banks. “My robberies had nothing to do with money,” he told me. “The purpose was to defy this dead, depressed state I was in from losing my wife.”

Ken’s double life ended when he was shot during a bank robbery and sentenced to 99 years in The Rock, Florida’s infamous prison, rife with knifings, murders and rape. But while there, Ken heard about Jesus from a prison chaplain and soon became a Christian. Some of Ken’s cellmates did too. They started putting Jesus’ teaching into practice and their lives began to change.

One day Ken and his friends adopted a kitten, who they named Mr Magoo. Mr Magoo’s back had been broken for fun by other inmates, and was blind from acid they’d thrown in his face. Ken and his friends took turns feeding Mr Magoo each day, and even prayed for his sight to return. Mr Magoo was lavished with love. And his sight did return! Rape rates began to decrease at The Rock and prison guards began asking Ken and his fellow Christians for prayer. Ken the hardened criminal became a kitten-loving gentleman. He was released early, and has dedicated his life ever since to helping others build new lives after imprisonment. That’s resilience.

How did your experiment with the Sermon culminate in the book Resilient? 

My journal is the most important spiritual tool I have. That’s where I record all my highs, lows, questions and discoveries, and where all my articles, radio spots and conference talks come from. As I read and studied the Sermon each day, I scribbled what I was learning in my journal. Those lessons later became short devotional articles, which were then gathered together and expanded into Resilient. There are 90 readings in the book which are designed to give you three months of inspiration.

Each reading ends with questions to turn the ideas into practice – almost like daily challenges. Which one did you find the hardest to do yourself?

One of the final questions I ask in Resilient is, “If you were to write your life into a short story, what would it say?” I found it a difficult exercise as it exposed the conflict I felt between wanting to look successful to others and wanting to be faithful to Jesus. In the end I wrote two stories – one for each motivation – and published them on my blog to expose, and hopefully nullify, my hubris!

Can you leave us with a final challenge?

Try reading the Sermon on the Mount every day for a month too. Some parts will scare you, others will comfort you, all of it will challenge you. But if you dare to put it into practice, it will change you.

Sheridan Voysey is a writer, speaker, and broadcaster, frequently contributing to faith programmes on BBC Radio 2. His latest book is Resilient: Your Invitation to a Jesus-Shaped Life. To download a free ebook based on Resilient, visit sheridanvoysey.com/fivepractices