Recently, I spent nearly a whole day talking to students and hearing how the term had gone for them. It was fascinating to learn about what had kept them going through all the difficulties of lockdown 3, and how they had remained motivated and excited about their studies. No one suggested it had been easy, and some acknowledged that they had found it really hard. This season has been rightly described as a ‘stress test’ of discipleship. But what was it that had proved helpful to these students in these uncertain times?
One repeated refrain I heard was the importance of Christian friends. Whether they met online or at a social distance, conversations with friends had made all the difference to them. They were following the admonition of Heb 10:25, ‘Don’t stop meeting together.’ These friends were no doubt struggling with many of the same anxieties: How would their health hold up? What might this mean for their loved ones? And how would the world look post-Covid? They shared their thoughts and fears, and they prayed. What a difference that had made.
As I reflected on what I heard, I remembered work I have recently been doing on how Christian leaders can develop resilience. How are they to cope with the disappointments, criticisms and setbacks along the way? Martin Seligman has carried out research on the subject, and has published a very helpful article, ‘Building Resilience.’[i] His main findings were that leaders should keep things in perspective, do what they can to improve the situation, and draw strength from networks of support. This is all rather unsurprising, and the sort of thing we might have heard from parents and mentors, although it is good to know that there is evidence that these things actually work. But the striking thing to me is that these practices are built into Christian discipleship. These are the very things that our students were doing.
Christian friends helped our students keep things in perspective. They knew the need to, ‘fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith’ (Heb 12:2). Even in uncertain times, Jesus does not change. He is, ‘the same yesterday, today and forever’ (Heb 13:8). What is troubling us today will not be troubling us in eternity. ‘“What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”— the things God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor 2:9).
These students also did what they could to improve the situation. They reached out to friends to share what was on their heart and prayed together for their needs. They cast their anxieties upon the Lord, knowing that he cares for them (1 Pet 5:7). Rather than finding someone to blame, they trusted themselves to God, did what they needed to do, and waited to see what good God would bring out of these challenges, as Joseph had done (Gen 50:20).
And the students drew strength from their networks of support. They did it instinctively. They know the blessing it is to be part of the worldwide church. Relationships which they had often built up over many years proved to be of inestimable value in these testing times. Several students said they could see that these challenges had made them stronger and more reliant on the Lord and the family of God. It would also help them to help others do the same in the future.
What immense blessings we enjoy as the people of God - what perspective, what hope, and what support. In these uncertain and testing times, God continues to lavish upon us his faithful and dependable love, and so often we experience it through Christian friends.