Listen: Sheridan Voysey shares with Clare Chate how modern psychologists are catching up with Jesus, and how Western Culture is reducing our resilience against the storms of life.
It’s taken a couple of millennia, but modern psychology is finally catching up with the wisdom Jesus handed out on a mountainside in Galilee.
That’s what Sheridan Voysey believes after writing his latest book, Resilient.
In the book he unpacks the many nuggets of advice Jesus shared in his best-known speech, the “Sermon On The Mount”, from the Bible’s book of Matthew (Chapters 5 to 7).
While exploring the ancient sermon indepth, during one of the more quiet and unemployed periods of his life, Sheridan found that it’s essentially a guidebook to living a life of resilience: a life strong enough to withstand the storms that come our way.
And while modern psychology now teaches us how to do the same, Jesus ‘got in first’, said Sheridan in his interview with Hope 103.2.
“Jesus beat the psychologists to their discoveries by two millennia,” he said.
Jesus Said It Before The Psychologists
Among the modern psychologists writing about resilience is Martin Seligman, author of Flourish, described by Sheridan as “the positive psychology guy”.
Seligman distils resilience down to a handful of key factors.
“The first factor is positive emotions,” Sheridan said. “Seligman says that being able to amplify and emphasise things like love and peace and contentment in our lives, and being able to minimise – or at least manage – things like anger and bitterness and sadness, will contribute to resilience.
“The second thing he would say is that reslilience is built on strong relationships: good marriages, good family relationships, colleagues, a sense of connection to our community.
“The third factor would be a sense of meaning, which I always find interesting. Psychologists say we have to be part of something bigger than ourselves to have a good, strong life. You’ve got to find something that takes you out of yourself, whether it be a political ideology or something, some sort of community engagement.
“And then the fourth one is a sense of accomplishment. Resilient people can say “I do something well”.”
For a Christian apologist like Sheridan Voysey, it must be satisfying to realise that these four factors were all covered by Jesus 20 centuries ago.
“Whenever we pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done”, we are connecting ourselves to a story that’s much bigger than us”
The first two factors – maximising positive emotions while minimizing negative ones, and building strong relationships – are dealt with in the relationship advice and the “Beatitudes” (the “Blessed are those” statements) of Chapter 5.
“Jesus says, “blessed are those who mourn”,” Sheridan said. “We’ve got somebody who’s going to come and comfort us in our mourning.”
“He talks about dealing with bitterness when he talks about forgiveness; he talks about dealing with anger when he talks about reconciliation.”
Issues that destroy relationships – like murder, adultery, divorce, revenge, judgment, conflict, lust, broken promises and hypocrisy – are a big feature of the sermon.
Jesus guides his followers to strive for reconciliation instead of revenge, integrity instead of hypocricy.
As for the third ingredient in Seligman’s resilience recipe, a sense of meaning, Sheridan believes that’s embodied in Jesus’ famous prayer better known as The Lord’s Prayer or the “Our Father” prayer, in Chapter 6.
“Whenever we pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, we are connecting ourselves to a big story that’s much bigger than us…the story of God, God’s kingdom and what he’s doing to bring his dream about on earth,” he said.
What about the fourth ingredient, a sense of accomplishment? That’s in the Sermon too, says Sheridan.
“Jesus tells us “You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world”, he said. “I don’t know what sense of accomplishment we could have that was greater than that.”
If You’re Resilient, Tough Times Will Make You Stronger
Based on expert opinions, Sheridan says resilience – “the capacity to be able to bounce back when we’ve been bent or stretched out of shape” – can not only preserve our sanity, but build our strength, too.
“When the storms of life come, when trials come, when challenges come at work or in a relationship, we feel bent, we feel stretched out of shape,” he said.
“We feel pushed beyond what we think we can stand. How often do we say, “I’m at the end of my tether” or “I’m stretched beyond what I thought I could stand”?
“The resilience aspect is the falling back into shape, and actually some psychologists would say, you can come back stronger as a result of a trial. I think that would fit very much with Jesus’ teaching.”
Resilience Is A Better Goal Than A Perfect Life
If there’s anything Jesus and the psychologists of the 21st century would agree on, it’s that building resilience is a far better goal than seeking a perfect, inconvenience-free life.
In the parable of the Wise And Foolish Builders (Chapter 7), storms hit both the wise man and the not-so-wise. The story teaches that nobody is exempt; trying to live storm-free is futile.
The difference between the two men, however, is in how they build their lives.
The wise man is spared the storm damage in his house is built on rock, but the foolish man’s house, built on a foundation of sand, is ruined.
The foundations in the story represent Jesus’ principles of living, says Sheridan.
“He says, “build your life on everything I’ve just told you, and you will weather life’s storms…you will be resilient.”
Is Western Culture Robbing Us Of Resilience?
But while the psychologists aren’t teaching us to seek a flawless, comfort-filled life, it could be argued that consumerist marketing, is.
Sheridan believes the comfortable cushioning effect of prosperous Western living is in fact robbing us of resilience.
“I think there’s no doubt that the forces of Western culture – some of them are good, but if we focus on the bad ones – are focussing on immediate gratification,” he said.
“There’s the little green button in the hardware store just down the road from me, where if I press it, an assistant has to come and assist me within 60 seconds, otherwise I get my paint free.
“We’ve got high speed lanes, we’ve got fast food stores, we’ve got express lanes at the supermarket and express lanes on the highway.
“We want things to happen quickly and fast and right now, and we are the king, because the customer always is right.
“Very soon we find that life isn’t like that, and we don’t actually have the capacity, the resources, to be able to deal with it.”
“All of that, I think, puts us in a position where we expect life to happen on our terms, when we want. No doubt that would chip away at any sense of resilience, because life is not like that.
“And very soon we find that life isn’t like that and we don’t actually have the capacity, the resources, to be able to then deal with it as a result.”
While it’s tragic to see so much human suffering in regions like Africa and the Middle East, Sheridan argues that those living in these less privileged parts of the world are likely far more resilient and equipped to stand up in the face of suffering, than comfortable Westerners.
“They haven’t had quite the same “Disney discipleship” as I sometimes call it, where we’re expecting that our lives will become so perfect…that everything will always work out, there will always be a lovely gift waiting for us at the end, and it will be just what we wanted,” he said.
Sheridan believes this kind of “discipleship” shapes a generation lacking in resilience and resolve.
“I think we’re finding that already now,” he said.