A Time for Resilience

By Dr. Puiwing Wong

The Angus Reid Institute’s new year survey reports that young adults are twice as likely than the general population to expect greater stress in 2024. The President of Angus Reid noted that, unlike what he had seen for many years, the current subgroup of young adults “is not only most pessimistic about their financial situation but, concerningly, their stress levels”[1]. This corroborates the warning from The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health that there is a growing mental health crisis, especially among young people, and the problem is global[2]. Unhealthy use of social media has been identified as a major cause[3]. Disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic and their lingering aftermath, news of wars, economic insecurities, climate crises, social discords, etc., all contribute to an atmosphere of anxiety and disorientation – “everything, everywhere, all at once.” There is a growing recognition among educators, counsellors and ministers that resilience is essential for thriving in our increasingly complex and conflicting world. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as the ability to successfully adapt to challenging life experiences, to withstand adversity, and to bounce back despite life’s downturns[4]. From the spiritual perspective, this means taking up one’s cross daily and following Jesus. How, then, can resilience be cultivated?

Ecclesiastes provides inspired insights into this question. Its observations, made 3,000 years ago, are amazingly congruent with contemporary views. The qualifier “under the sun” appears many times in Ecclesiastes. Our outlook in life and ability to withstand adversity would be starkly different depending on what we believe – whether our existence is limited entirely to what is “under the sun” or if there is a reality “above and beyond the sun” in which we can proactively live in the presence of God.

The “Preacher,” the son of David and king in Jerusalem, devoted his wisdom and immense wealth to try everything out “to the max” (1:12-17).  His experiences led to several difficult questions and nihilistic conclusions. What do we truly gain from all our hard work (1:3, 3:9)? Why is there so much corruption and wickedness in the very places we expect to see justice and righteousness (3:16-17)? Are human beings different from beasts since, in the end, they all die (3:18-21)? Perhaps knowledge, pleasure, accomplishments, wealth, and honour, indeed everything under the sun, are all meaningless, a striving after the wind (1:16)? Echoing the increasing acceptance of MAiD (Medical Assistance in Dying) in our society, perhaps those who are dead are more fortunate than those who are alive. It may even be better if we were not born at all (4:1-3). Giving up on life is the ultimate failure in resilience. The ancient words in Ecclesiastes foretell the angst, cynicism, and lack of meaning and purpose prevalent in our society when God is practically out of the picture.

On the other hand, with God in the picture, we can be confident that our best course of action, regardless of circumstances, is to be joyful and to do good as long as we live (3:12). To everyone who pleases him, God gives the ability to eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil (2.26). Thus, what we have for our enjoyment are gifts from God, not something we earn. Further, in pointing out that no one can have enjoyment apart from God (2:25), Ecclesiastes clarifies that genuine satisfaction comes not from the gifts but from our relationship with the Giver. Ecclesiastes’ emphasis about that relationship is to fear God (3:14, 5:1-7, 7:18, 8:12-13, 12:13-14), which echoes Proverbs 19:23, “The fear of the Lord leads to life; then one rests content, untouched by trouble.”

The Preacher alluded to the “one Shepherd” as ultimately the giver of wisdom and guidance (12:11). In the person of Jesus Christ, we receive answers to fundamental questions about life that have perplexed the Preacher, as well as many today. To those who are frustrated that they are unable to find satisfaction under the sun (5:10, 6:3-6), Jesus offers himself as the Bread of Life so that everyone who believes in him will never be hungry again (John 6:35). To those who have resigned to the assumption that death wipes out all meaning and purpose (5:19-22, 9:1-3), the resurrection of Jesus guarantees that there is life after death (1 Corinthians 15:51-53). As a result, we can “always work enthusiastically for the Lord, because nothing we do for the Lord is ever useless” (1 Corinthians 15:58). The assertion that God has made everything beautiful in his time – even though we cannot yet fully make sense of God’s work (3:11), foreshadows the precious promise in Romans 8:28, with the expanded understanding that, in addition to our security, we are given the privilege to contribute to God’s beautiful work.

These liberating truths provide the basis for resilient lives.

Last summer, I had the privilege of meeting many believers worldwide living such resilient lives. In August, my wife and I and about 900 delegates from over 160 countries attended the World Assembly of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students in Jakarta, Indonesia. The theme was being resilient witnesses of Christ in the university and beyond. Psalms on trust, obedience, lament, confession, and praise provided the biblical foundation. Bamboo was used as a decoration throughout the venue. Although it is a humble grass, bamboo has the tensile strength of steel. It bends to the ground under heavy ice and snow in the winter but returns to its original shape in the spring. The structure of its fibres and the spaces between the nodes make it strong and unbreakable. The bamboo was an object lesson that we need to allow space in our hearts to be filled by the Holy Spirit so that when confronted with challenges, even seemingly unbearable ones, we can persevere and bounce back. There are many practical manifestations of being filled with the Spirit. For example, we learned from an academic researcher at the plenary session on mental health that biblical virtues, such as forgiveness, compassion, and gratitude, have been scientifically demonstrated to enhance mental health if practiced regularly.

On the first morning of the Assembly, I happened to sit at breakfast with a brother from a country that prohibits gospel sharing. He became a Christian in 2000 because a missionary read the Book of Romans with him. He recalled it with vividness and joy like it happened just yesterday. Since then, he has been going to the campuses to share the gospel, often via creative means, despite strict penalties if he was caught. He exuded a sense of adventure and fearlessness that reminded me of the adage, “If you fear God, you need to fear nothing else.” I will never forget his admonishment regarding evangelism, said with friendly humour. “You Westerners analyze too much. All we do is read the Bible with them.” During the rest of the conference, I heard numerous similarly inspiring stories. While there was a wide range of circumstances and challenges, each story was a confirmation that God’s grace was sufficient and an encouragement to persevere.

Before attending the World Assembly, I was invited to participate in a short-term mission to Myanmar. I was hesitant because I was already going to Jakarta, and another trip would require too much additional time and effort. To my surprise, midway through the Assembly, a brother from Myanmar sat next to me. He shared with me news not available in the media because of censorship by the military. His people have been suffering from many years of armed conflicts, with the situation having greatly worsened since the military coup in 2021. My friend, a pastor and a seminary professor, could not see an end to the crisis. Nevertheless, he is continuing with what he has been called to do: to meet with students and to write a book on biblical theology for his native churches. He encouraged me to take the short-term mission. “Please come. Because when you come, you tell our people and the military junta that the world has not forgotten us.”

Hence, in November, my wife and I went to Mae Sot, Thailand, a border town just across the river from Myanmar, to volunteer with Nation to Nation[5]. This mission serves refugees and migrants from Myanmar. The founders are Kevin and Julia Garratt. The Garratts were missionaries in China for 30 years until they were falsely accused of spying and detained in 2014. Following interventions by the Canadian Government and prayers by many Christians across Canada, Kevin was released after 775 days. Their ordeal and their resultant insights into courage, kindness, love, and faith are recounted in Two Tears on the Window[6]. After recovering, they resumed missionary work in Thailand, building on their long experience in China.  It was a privilege to serve in person with the Garratts. They are down-to-earth, kind-hearted, and see opportunities in everyone and every situation. They personify the humble bamboo that decorated the World Assembly. We visited many schools and group homes for migrant children. There are so many of them, and their needs are so enormous that what we could offer is a mere drop in the ocean. Yet, the Garratt and their team are undaunted. We saw an abiding sense of contentment and joy as they carried out their daily work. It was clear that their satisfaction came from enjoying time with the children and instilling in them hope in Christ that  will change lives. Accomplishment is not their standard for meaning and purpose. This makes sense when we recall that, at the Final Judgment, Jesus will reward acts of kindness to the least of his brothers and sisters, just like they were done to him (Matthew 25: 31-40).

A commonality amongst the resilient people we met in Jakarta and Mae Sot is that they all obey God’s calling for them, which gives them clarity, endurance, and joy regardless of circumstances. It This confirms the wisdom of the Preacher’s advice for seeing through the complexities and perplexities in our lives.

That’s the whole story. Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, good or bad.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

Writer Reference: Dr. Puiwing Wong, Ph.D., MBA, MTS, presently serves as Chief Administrator at North York (Chinese) Baptist Church in Toronto, and as Chair of the Board of Directors of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship of Canada. He and his wife, Celia, live in Sharon, Ontario. The Lord has blessed them with two sons and, recently, a granddaughter.

[1] ottawacitizen.com/opinion/columnists/kurl-exhausted-and-frustrated-by-2023-canadians-hope-for-better-in-2024

[2] www.camh.ca/en/driving-change/the-crisis-is-real

[3] ontario.cmha.ca/documents/addictions-and-problematic-internet-use/

[4] www.everydayhealth.com/wellness/resilience/

[5] www.nation-to-nation.com/

[6] www.twotearsonthewindow.com/