My experiment began shortly after my wife and I arrived in England. After ten years of waiting, our dream of having a child had come to an abrupt end and we had moved here from Australia to make a fresh start. Looking back, I see the timing of the experiment was perfect.
I had read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount plenty of times before, but normally briskly. While these famous words of Matthew 5-7 contain much comfort, they can be demanding too. It was easy to breeze past the hard parts about loving one’s enemies when the nicer words about God giving us good gifts lay just ahead.
Then one day I decided to read the Sermon every day for a month. All of it, not just the comforting bits. Each morning I read it slowly and prayerfully, and on weekends I studied it in depth. The experiment stretched beyond one month to two, and then on to three. Before I knew it, the Sermon had taken hold of me.
And for good reason. In the Sermon I found a guide to the essential aspects of life—our callings, relationships, practices and choices. But I also found an underlying theme I’d previously missed – the theme of resilience. Jesus reveals it at the end of the Sermon: While rain may come in torrents and floodwaters rise and winds beat against us, by putting his teaching into practice we will withstand life’s storms (Matthew 7:25); we will become resilient.
Resilience has recently become a popular psychological concept, with researchers investigating what helps us bounce back after physical, emotional or spiritual trauma. Psychologist Martin Seligman suggests four factors help to develop it in his book Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being – and How to Achieve Them (Nicholas Brealey Publishing). As it turns out, these factors are inherent in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus beat the psychologists to their discoveries by two millennia.
Before I knew it, the sermon had taken hold of me
1 MANAGING THE HEART
According to Seligman, the first factor in developing resilience is managing our emotions. By learning to amplify positive feelings like gratitude, hope and love, and navigate negative ones like bitterness, sadness and anger, we can develop inner strength.
It doesn’t take much to see this factor present in Jesus’ Sermon. Jesus declares us to be the ‘blessed’ ones who are loved by God, comforted in sadness, and given hope for the future (Matthew 5:1-12). He prescribes forgiveness to counter bitterness (6:12, 14-15), and provides concrete guidance on what to do when we’re angry (5:21-26).
But perhaps Jesus’ most practical teaching about emotions is on worry, something most us of battle. As teenagers, we worry about fitting in. As 20-somethings, we worry about careers and marriage partners. Later in life we worry about bank loans. Since Merryn and I won’t have children, we’ve worried about who will look after us when we’re old.
In the Sermon, Jesus gives two reasons to unlearn the pervasive habit of worry. One is practical: worrying wastes energy on things that may never happen. ‘Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?’ he asks (6:27, NLT). They can’t. ‘So don’t worry about tomorrow…’ he says. ‘Today’s trouble is enough for today’ (6:34, NLT).
The other reason is theological: to worry is to ignore God’s activity in our lives. To make his point, Jesus leads us through a guided meditation on the natural world. ‘Look at the birds…’ he says. Look how God ‘feeds’ them each day (6:26, NLT). ‘Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow…’ he adds. Look how beautifully ‘dressed’ they are (6:28-29, NLT). Look – God is active right now, providing for creation. And this same God is active in your life too. So don’t worry about what you’ll eat or wear – or anything else that makes you anxious. If God looks after birds and flowers, he’ll look after you too. Even when you’re old, Sheridan. In his Sermon, Jesus helps us manage the hopes, cries and worries of the heart. And managing the heart helps us build resilience.
2 STRENGTHENING RELATIONSHIPS
A second component of resilience is having strong relationships – good marriages, deep friendships, and meaningful connections to our community. ‘Very little that is positive is solitary,’ Seligman says. ‘Other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up.’
Notice how much time Jesus devotes to relationships in the Sermon on the Mount. In one lengthy sweep, he tackles the four main forces that destroy them – anger, unfaithfulness, false promises and retaliation (Matthew 5:21–42). Because relationships are at the heart of life with God (22:37-40), they take centre place in Jesus’ Sermon.
But Jesus is no sappy self-help columnist offering puppies-and-daisies relationship advice. His directives are challenging and gritty. False prophets are to be shunned (7:15-23); enemies are to be loved (5:43-48). Sweet sentimentality this is not. And miracles can happen when it’s all put into practice.
Many years ago the Ku Klux Klan was led by a man named Johnny Lee Clary. One day Johnny was invited to take part in a radio station debate with a black church leader named Wade Watts. Offering his hand to Johnny on arrival, Rev Watts said, ‘Hello, Mr Clary. I just want you to know that I love you and Jesus loves you.’
The debate was intense: Johnny arguing why blacks and whites should be separated, and Reverend Watts refuting each claim from scripture. As Johnny was leaving the station afterwards, the reverend called out: ‘Nothing you do can make me hate you, Mr Clary. I’m going to love you and pray for you whether you like it or not!’
Johnny got vicious from that point. The reverend’s windows were broken, effigies were torched on his lawn, the Klan burnt down one of his churches and set fire to another. On one occasion, Johnny phoned Watts with a threat: ‘We’re coming to get you and this time we mean business.’ But the reverend kept his promise to love his enemy, responding with disarming humour. ‘You don’t have to come for me,’ he said. ‘I’ll meet you. How about a nice restaurant I know out on Highway 270? I’m buying.’
Johnny’s life would later collapse. He would leave the Klan, cry out to God, and become a Christian. One day he phoned the reverend to tell him the news and share his calling to preach. ‘Have you spoken anywhere yet, son?’ Reverend Watts asked. ‘How about you give me the honour of preaching your very first time in my all-black church?’ And that’s what happened. Johnny Lee Clary preached in the very church he once tried to burn down.
Jesus’ Sermon contains the power to strengthen even the most fractured of relationships. Without strong relationships, we are unable to develop resilience.
Jesus is no sappy self-help columnist offering puppies-and-daisies relationship advice
3 UNEXPECTED ACCOMPLISHMENT
Another factor appearing in the lives of the resilient is a sense of accomplishment, whether through pursuing a goal, mastering a skill, or doing work that is personally significant. Resilient people can look at something in their lives and say, ‘I did that well.’
Now, nowhere in the Sermon does Jesus tell us to find a hobby, practise a sport, or set ourselves a career goal to achieve. I don’t believe he’d object to any of these, but instead he sets us up for accomplishment of a higher order.
Those gathered on the mountainside to hear Jesus are a motley group indeed. In addition to the disciples, the crowd includes people from the surrounding regions who’ve come to him for healing (Matthew 4:23-25). Some have been sick and diseased, others have suffered seizures and chronic pain, some have been paralysed, and a few have been demon possessed. Jesus looks at them all and says, ‘You are the salt of the earth’ (5:13, NLT).
In that crowd are Jews from Jerusalem and Judea, and Gentiles from Hippos and Gadara. He looks them in the eye and says, ‘You are the light of the world’ (5:14, NLT).
Salt of the earth. Light of the world. Seriously, Jesus, are you sure? What effect could this bunch of peasants have on anything? These insignificant ones? These little people? According to Jesus, a lot. These insignificant ones are the salt that will flavour and preserve society, and lights that will draw people to God. These little people are God’s chosen agents to bring the world back into harmony with his plans. As history tells it, they will soon turn the world ‘upside down’ (Acts 17:6, ESV).
These words of Jesus fell on fertile ground for me. Merryn’s and my relocation to the UK meant me leaving a fulfilling career in broadcasting and other significant opportunities in Australia. For the first time in years, I no longer knew who I was or what I was here for. It was a good time to have my self-concept realigned.
When we feel like nobodies, lacking achievement, accomplishment or influence in the world, let’s remember who Jesus proclaimed as the world’s reformers: the little people. Common folks. Insignificant ones. Not the elite or powerful or the brightest in the class, just those who stay close to Jesus and do practical acts of salt-and-light love however they can.
Through his Sermon, Jesus positions us to be people of profound accomplishment – and accomplishment leads to resilience.
4 A GRAND CAUSE
A final factor in developing resilience is having a sense of meaning to our lives: we need a purpose to live for, a grand cause to serve that’s bigger than us. We are strongest when we connect to something greater than ourselves.
When we pray the words in Jesus’ Sermon, ‘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. It is a cause bigger than making money (6:19-24), bigger than self-centred spirituality (6:1-18); a cause full of peril (7:13-23), full of reward (5:1-10); a cause requiring total commitment (6:24,33), and even suffering (5:11-12). It is the cause of the kingdom of God – God’s mission of reconciling the world to himself. As I was to discover, it is a cause that can see our worst experiences recycled into something meaningful.
Our move to England was followed by an unexpected opportunity to write a book about the experience, and I soon found myself speaking publicly about following God through our broken dreams. After speaking at a large church one Sunday, a guy came up wanting to talk. ‘I haven’t been to church in 26 years,’ he said. ‘I’ve just been through a divorce and a business failure – I have lots of broken dreams. All week I had this feeling I should get to a church service. What you said tonight has really rocked me. It’s like I was meant to be here.’
A few minutes later, a couple walked up. ‘I haven’t been to church in years,’ the guy said. ‘And I’ve never been to church,’ said the girl. ‘But all this week,’ the guy said, ‘we had this strange feeling that we should get to a church service. What you shared tonight was exactly what we needed to hear. It’s like we were meant to be here.’
God was using our pain to reconcile people to himself. Our broken dreams were being incorporated into his grand cause. While questions over our predicament remained, our ordeal was being redeemed into something good.
In his Sermon, Jesus calls us into the kingdom of God – the ultimate grand cause where weakness is transformed into strength.
My experiment reading the Sermon on the Mount each day shaped me in many ways – revising my priorities, keeping desires in check, putting my life into perspective, influencing how I should act. Without my realising it, this was all helping me to start again.
Some days we wake to a world of crystal skies and bright possibilities. And other days it’s to rain pelting our windows, thunder rattling our roofs, winds shaking our walls, and torrents threatening to overwhelm us. Jesus never said we’d be spared the storms of life. We will creak under their winds, we will be tested and stretched. But in living out Jesus’ words we’re told we won’t break. We will recover; we will spring back.
We will be resilient.
Sheridan Voysey is a writer, speaker and broadcaster on faith and spirituality. His latest book is Resilient: Your Invitation to a Jesus-Shaped Life (Discovery House). Visit sheridanvoysey.com/resilient for free resources.
Sheridan will be a keynote speaker at the Woman to Woman conference on 24th October, and the Premier Digital Conference on 14th November