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We fall down, but we get up: Mental health, faith, hope, and resilience 

May 15, 2023

Faith, resilience, mental health, and the post-resurrection experience are inextricably connected. Historically, these areas have been challenging to connect. However, today we have more insight into their application. And while there is apprehension from the mental health arena on incorporating faith into treatment, there is a growing appreciation for the presence of faith in mental health.

It is amazing and interesting how childhood toys provide an impactful life lesson. In the 1970s there was a toy punching bag that was made to look like a clown. As a child, when I had the opportunity, I would punch this bag as hard as I could. No matter how hard I hit it, it would become a little wobbly, and bounce back up. Today, the word resilience is used to describe how we persevere through life stressors and challenges and bounce back.

Perhaps the word itself is new to some, yet the concept is not. Resilience can be readily seen in sports. Athletes are familiar with resilience, especially when they have been injured, sidelined, and unable to perform. Those who want to return to their sport work diligently to get back and be better. They are focused on returning. The goal is to overcome the injury that sidelined them initially. Unfortunately, there are some who do not bounce back. They were not able to marshal the components listed in Courtney Ackerman’s article, “How to measure resilience with these 8 scales.” In her article, Ackerman indicates ten components that help perpetuate resilience. They include optimism, altruism, moral compass, faith and spirituality, humor, having a role model, social support, facing fear, meaning or purpose in life, and training.

Falling—experiencing failure, grief, loss, and despair—is a fact of life for us, as it was for Jesus’ early followers. However, hope inculcates the ability to get back up, again and again. And where there is hope there is resilience. In this way faith, resilience, mental health, and the post-resurrection experience are inextricably connected.

While resilience has become a buzzword in the mental health world, the concept is timeless. Ackerman, along with other psychologists that study resilience, find that it is worth including faith and spirituality as components that aid individuals in being resilient. In a 2022 article titled “Religion and Mental Health Care: Ethics, Pastoral Care, and Theology” The Berkley Forum, from the Berkley Center at Georgetown University noted “Research suggests that higher levels of religiosity are associated with better mental health outcomes such as lower rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal behavior. So, religion can be a helpful factor in mental health treatment.” Religion and spirituality that have not continued to perpetuate negative stereotypes of mental illness, fall within a faith tradition that nurtures resilience.

Church history has demonstrated that followers of the Christian faith have the ability to bounce back. Faith, in general, that posits and nurtures a positive perspective on mental health facilitates resilience. Faith traditions offer individuals tools to be resilient. The very word “faith” is at the core of resilience. Faith provides buoyance in life. Christianity defines “faith” biblically as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1 NASB) The central character of the Christian faith is Jesus. If the narrative of the life of Jesus offers anything at all it offers hope. Faith, hope, and resilience are inextricably intertwined. At the core of faith is hope. Hope is that essential element that gives resilience its buoyancy.

The post-resurrection experience is a story of resilience in the darkest period of the lives of Jesus’ followers. After his death, the story could have ended. Initially, the followers of Jesus thought that all was lost. When despair invades our lives, it has the capacity to crush us. Depression and anxiety can be debilitating when the vicissitudes of life are battering us. Persons who face heartbreak, loss, devastating crisis initially grieve. The elements mentioned in Ackerman’s article—including faith and spirituality, social support, and facing fear— intensify our capacity to be resilient in the face of grief and loss.

After Jesus’ death, those who followed dispersed. Many went back to what they did before encountering Jesus. However, those that composed the inner circle gathered together. They essentially formulated a faith community to support one another. They may have even asked the question, what do we do now? Raising that question suggests hope. When faith communities help individuals deal with mental illness and wrestle with existential questions, they offer the opportunity to reach for hope. Today, the Christian faith fosters resilience through worship, prayer, fellowship, and other aspects of the faith community. In the context of worship, prayers are offered. These prayers symbolize the essence of hope. Hope encourages those who have been knocked down to get back up. The music of faith also speaks of resilience. Gospel artist Donnie McClurkin’s song “We Fall Down” is like many other gospel and Christian songs, one of hope and resilience. It does not deny the reality that we fall. Falling is a fact of life. However, hope inculcates the ability to get back up, again and again. And where there is hope there is resilience.

Lt. Gregory Johnson serves in the US Navy Chaplain’s Corps. The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views the US Navy or the Department of Defense.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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