The Science of Grit and Resilience

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This past Sunday, we remembered the cloaks and palms and hosannas that were laid before our Lord as he entered Jerusalem. Now, we sit in the midst of the holiest of weeks. Christ’s Passion looms ahead begging us not to rush to Easter morn. Before we go there, we remember the trials and tribulations of Christ: The Last Supper with his disciples, Judas’ betrayal, prayer at Gethsemane, Pilate’s interrogation, and ultimately Golgotha.

The classic spiritual “Were You There?” is central to my experience of Holy Week. But the truth is none of us were there. Jesus alone faced this adversity, motivated by the will of the Father, fully in control, even in the face of death on a cross.

Jesus in the Passion gives us the ultimate example of what researchers often call grit or resilience—a suite of cognitive and character traits working together in combination to achieve a goal in the face of great adversity.

The Science of Grit and Resilience

Grit is often understood as passion and perseverance toward the achievement of long-term goals. Resilience, meanwhile, is about the ways we bounce back from adversity. Collectively, they are linked to traits like self-control, purpose, motivation, perseverance, the growth mindset, coping, and even executive function and expertise.  

Leading grit researcher, Angela Duckworth, has suggested grit may be as important for success as talent or intelligence. As a result, “grit hype” is everywhere, from education to business to the self-help industry. This is perhaps most evident by school districts wanting to measure grit in hopes of improving student test scores. Why so much hype? Because grit gives hope to all; if it matters as much or more than talent or IQ, then we’ve all got a shot—that is, if we put in the effort.

Interestingly, there has been some pushback against this relatively new area of research. Duckworth herself notes how the hype focuses on the perseverance part and forgets the passion. Grit only helps us in areas where we have passion. In the week where we remember the Passion, that might just preach.

Resilience may have more direct links to ministry. We are called to serve the least of these, and they are often the ones in need of resilience. When life keeps knocking you down, it helps us to get back up and, by God’s grace, even to thrive. Research has been done on resilience in the wake of natural disaster and among refugee populations. It is seen as a leading antidote to adverse childhood experiences, a form of toxic stress that includes trauma like abuse, neglect, mental illness in families, and divorce. Nadine Burke Harris calls it a public health crisis.

Psychologist Jamie Aten, a leading researcher, has a powerful personal story of faith and resilience (read this Orbiter interview). He focuses less on child trauma and more on natural disasters by leading a center called the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI; see link below). Of those working on grit and resilience, he most directly connects the research to Christian faith and explicitly translates it for use in ministry.

  • The Gospel Coalition on grace and grit.
  • Jamie Aten’s blog looks at resilience from a number of perspectives.
  • Cultivating gratitude seems to make us more resilient.
  • Looking to help children facing toxic stress? You might start with Resilience.
  • To help your church respond to natural disasters, check out the HDI.

Passion and Grace

Two aspects of what Christ did for us that first Holy Week stick with me—grace and passion. Of course, grace is the very reason for Christ’s Passion.

Jen Pollock Michel has a nice reflection on grit and grace over at the Gospel Coalition. In referencing I Corinthians 15:10, she concludes: “On the one hand, Paul defends his stewardship of God’s grace by his grit. And on the other, Paul acknowledges that even his grit has been empowered by grace. In other words, grace can make us gritty. And grittiness is one of grace’s good gifts.”

Christ’s Passion gives us the passion we need to be gritty and resilient, working for the good of the kingdom. I worry that the grit hype is too often about success for the privileged, but that is in part why I have combined grit and resilience.

Resilience is what “the least of these” need. It is grace for those facing adversity, trauma, and tragedy. How can we better direct our passion to serve them? Can we be gritty in our efforts to help build up resilience to overcome childhood toxic stress or the impacts of natural disasters?

Spend a few moments with the above resources on grit and resilience for your church’s mission and message as you consider how best to respond to Christ’s Passion and his grace.



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