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Book Review: A Resilient Life

Tuesday, 5 February 2019  | Rex Dale




A Resilient Life

By Gordon MacDonald (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004)


This is an important work. When someone from my church asked me to be his mentor, I wondered about what books I should pass on to him. One that immediately came to mind was
A Resilient Life.

This is a book about ‘going on to the end’ in Christian experience and becoming more and more fruitful. Of course, I don’t mean that reading this book will absolutely ensure that this will be achieved. There no such book. We all have our own particular needs, characteristics and blind spots as a result of all sorts of influences, both good and bad. In early Christian experience, finishing well is not something we think much about. But with the passing of the years, this question arises more frequently. This is a book that deserves to be read carefully and prayerfully.

Gordon MacDonald is both a pastor and a long distance runner. He learned long distance running at Stony Brook, NY, under coach Marvin Goldberg, and Goldberg’s sayings are scattered throughout the book. The book is also packed with choice quotations from some great authors, as well of course from Scripture. It is a book that can be read with profit again and again.

Several factors led to the writing of this book. MacDonald started well with a mentor, Vernon Grounds, who, decades ago, was well known in the Christian scene in the US. When there was a problem, Grounds was always available. But he was much older. Clearly he was not going to be around forever. MacDonald was going to have to fortify himself and gain wisdom in other ways. But the question of endurance did not become a pressing one until one day he rang a relative to inform her of his mother’s death. It would take just a few minutes, or so he thought. Instead there was a long conversation about his family history and it was revealed that he came from a family of quitters. Family members would set out on a course of life, abandon it and take to drinking and then just die. Others would be overcome by despair and they too would die. Even allowing for some misjudgement, MacDonald could not easily put aside the words of his cousin. Would that be his fate too?

The thought was not entirely new. In his Stony Brook days he decided to pull out of the athletics program. Rather than tell the coach face-to-face, which was too daunting, he sent him a letter. Back came a carefully worded typed reply. He was told how many people he had let down, and (the coach then went for the jugular) how he was showing a dangerous character trait: that of giving up when things get difficult. MacDonald did not keep the letter, though in later years he wished he had. Later he read how Oswald Chambers became acquainted with a man who demonstrated magnificent Christian qualities, but ten years later, when they met again, was ‘garrulous and unenlivened’, to use the language of the time. MacDonald also recalls a time when he was pastoring a church. Outwardly all seemed to be going well, but inwardly he was aware of running on near empty. Was he about to give up? These are some experiences that led to this book.

The book is the product of much Christian experience (some of it very painful), keen observation and wide reading. MacDonald seems to have a keen eye for books that deal with spiritual decline and its recovery. There are some striking chapter headings. Here are just a few:

Chapter 4: The Face of Aimlessness

Chapter 12: Resilient People Understand the Importance of Repairing the Past

Chapter 21: Resilient People Grow their Minds

Chapter 26: The Perils of the Solitary Life

There are other very important ones, such as ‘Resilient People Squeeze the Past for all its Wisdom’. And it is right here that some will run into a very great difficulty. Should we be bothered with books that were written more than ten years ago? Should we not be looking only to recent authors? MacDonald wisely tells us that there should be a good balance between the old and the new, and he exemplifies this in his book by quoting people like Brother Lawrence:

We must examine with care…. what are the virtues of which we most stand in need, what are those which are most difficult to win, the sins to which we most often fall, and the most frequent and inevitable occasions of our falling. We must turn to God in complete confidence in the hour of battle, abide strongly in the presence of his divine majesty, worship him humbly, and set before him our woes and weaknesses. And thus we shall find in him all our virtues though we may lack them all. (194)

Wise words! Surely they are fit to be framed and placed on the wall in every den, library and common room.

This book deserves to be better known, but it also needs to be read in the right way, prayerfully and with an open mind and heart. Engaging with the book is essential, as MacDonald explains:

The undisciplined mind becomes a lazy mind and easily succumbs to the dominance of another mind, I confess my growing uneasiness at this American Christian world of ours which – thanks to Christian media – is drowning in books, TV programs, and radio where preachers offer systems of thought that are absorbed by the vulnerable listener without the slightest hint of dialogue. Little of value and depth is ever learned through the one-way monologue, be it a sermon or a lecture. And yet there are many eloquent speakers who are relentless in offering their opinions and judgements on just about every issue and who weave a spell of thought that relieves the individual of exploring things for themselves.

This book will make some Christians uneasy. Does it not suggest effort? The idea of asking, seeking, knocking and persistent prayer are not readily accepted in a day when people ‘decide’ to be Christians and feel that fixes everything.

MacDonald says that character – for believers, anyway – is developed when we let Scripture inform us. We are what we permit to enter the deepest parts of our soul. A steady diet of television, cheap publications and shallow literature will make us dreadfully inadequate people. A daily exposure to the Scripture and to literature that focuses on Scripture is a necessary part of the diet (65).

I have read A Resilient Life two or three times before. But it is only in my recent reading that a sentence in Scripture about Stephen the first Christian martyr was particularly impressed upon me. When opponents of the Christian way argued with him, it is said that ‘they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke’. Here in a very concise statement is the secret of Stephen’s strength or resilience: he was strong in his mind, and he had the power of the Spirit. It is easy to go too much one way or the other and to be all mind or all Spirit. But here the two are put together. Of course filling our minds with knowledge is not the same as wisdom. Wisdom is to know what is important and what is less important, when to use a particular piece of knowledge and when to withhold it. But the mind needs to be well stocked in order for wisdom to develop.

MacDonald describes how the emotions can block what we need to hear. He relates how, some years previously, when he was leading an organisation, he wanted authorisation to take certain action. When the organisation said no, he responded badly by becoming silent and probably sullen. Later a friend steered him out the door and told him his behaviour was not classy and that the people he thought were stubborn were just trying to prevent him from making a bad mistake. Take great care, says MacDonald, when you feel anger and resentment rising. It could be your undoing.

MacDonald struck a chord with me when he mentioned a popular chorus that was sung in his youth (and mine). It goes:

If you know the Lord, you need nobody else

To see you through the darkest night.

You can walk alone, you need nobody else

To keep you on the road marked right.

MacDonald rightly disputes this chorus, arguing that we actually do need others. Personal connections are important. He loves the phrase from Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, where the king spoke of a ‘band of brothers… we few, we happy few’. Writing in 2004, MacDonald says that with today’s fast pace of life most relationships are short-lived, so it is vitally important to have the ‘happy few’ who will walk with one another to the end (206-207). He and his wife Gail make a point of meeting up with other couples regularly, though he does not say how often.

It is being debated as to whether Christians are entering a dangerous new era. But all eras are dangerous and the quietist and most prosperous can be the most dangerous of all. MacDonald sets out some very important principles that can be applied at any time.

Rex Dale, a retired professional, has studied many books that throw light on life’s experiences. He is the author of Insights From Graeco-Roman Times – A Christian Response, which gives an overview of the period leading up to Christ’s coming.


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