I recently read an essay about the first black regiment to see combat during the Civil War. An army surgeon recorded how the men of the 33rd United States Colored Troops refused to report to him after being injured because they wanted to stay in the fight. They remained at their posts with bullet wounds in their necks, backs, and even skulls. Those forced by their commanding officer to seek treatment amazed the doctor. Battlefield surgery was more like Medieval torture than medicine, but the soldiers of the 33rd were “perfectly quiet and cool.”
“Another soldier,” the surgeon wrote, “did not report himself at all, but remained all night on guard…having buckshot in his shoulder.” He finally “persuaded a comrade to dig out the buckshot, for fear of being ordered on the sick-list.”
The soldiers of the 33rd United States Colored regiment had a seemingly supernatural ability to persevere through pain; a sticktoitiveness that overcame every obstacle. The surgeon saw many brave men during the Civil War, but concerning the 33rd USCT he concluded, “Braver men never lived.”
Those soldiers had grit.
Research is showing that hard-fought grit is a critical component of a flourishing life and society. Intelligence, opportunity, and even material resources offer limited value when uncoupled from a high tolerance for pain and perseverance. Angela Lee Duckworth has found that grit is a more accurate indicator of educational success among kids than intelligence , and the same appears to be true in other endeavors. Her research says our ability to rebound from failure, stick with a difficult task, and focus on future rewards rather than immediate gratification are much more important than intelligence. In other words, in every race, the tortoise with grit ultimately beats the hare with brains.
But it’s a quality that seems to dilute a little more with each generation. Perhaps we are too far removed from the trials of the frontier and too pampered by memory foam mattresses and “On Demand” everything. My maternal grandparents fought the Nazis in World War II; my grandfather was shot down in a B17 and my grandmother was a nurse in General Patton’s army. My paternal grandparents escaped from Pakistan during the partition of India in 1947 in the largest mass migration in human history. Half a million people were killed in the violence.
My children collect participation trophies.
I don’t mean to appear ungrateful for the peace and prosperity we possess, but we shouldn’t be naive about the dangerous atrophy they create. The resilience of the African-American Union soldiers was not baked in the warm oven of comfortable lives, but forged in the furnace of slavery and injustice. The Civil War surgeon said their remarkable courage was like “the religious bearing of men who realize that freedom is sweeter than life.”
Grit is not a trait we acquire from a book or bottle. It is a character hardened by heat and hammer.
Like the microscopic trauma caused to muscle tissue during weightlifting, it is the small struggles of life that build grit into our character. When we are denied these struggles by a coddling helicopter parent or a society of self-esteem, we enter adulthood unprepared to face the long obedience necessary for marriage, parenthood, citizenship, or religious faith. Everyday it seems I read another report about the exodus of Millennials from the church. Half of commentators blame the church. It’s too partisan and puritanical, they say. It’s a popular narrative based on scant evidence. In 30 years I’ve never heard a political (forget partisan) sermon, and how puritanical can the evangelical church be when rates of divorce and premarital sex conform to national averages? The other half blame Millennials for being taken in by secular philosophies that value social ethics over personal virtue.
Placing the responsibility entirely with either the church or Millennials is appealing, but there is another possibility. We may be experiencing a perfect cultural storm of grit-less-ness. A church coopted by a consumer ethic of comfort that abandoned the Christian disciplines used to develop perseverance has encountered a generation without the self-control to make lifelong commitments. Millennials lack the grit necessary for religious obedience, and the church lacks the tools necessary to cultivate it.
Sometime in the last century, the church embraced the unbiblical notion that mature disciples of Jesus could be formed painlessly. We’ve made suffering an anomaly rather than an expectation of discipleship. In ages past, it was understood that spiritual growth happened by engaging uncomfortable disciplines and self-denial. It was, in Eugene Peterson’s words, “a long obedience in the same direction.” Today, we expect churches to offer a buffet of music styles, programs, and theater seats with cupholders. Discipleship has become a short whim in the direction of whatever church plays the new song I heard on K-LOVE.
Gordon MacDonald, a pastor for over 40 years, pondered why our churches are filled with so many immature Christians. “What our tradition lacks of late,” he writes, “is knowing how to prod and poke people past ‘infancy’ and into Christian maturity.” MacDonald never advances a definite reason, but wonders “what’s been going wrong? Bad preaching? Shallow books? Too much emphasis on a problem-solving, self-help kind of faith?” His questions allude to a form of faith that values ease over endurance; one that lacks struggle and never produces a resiliency capable of meeting and overcoming the challenges of a post-Christian culture.
The wisdom of Scripture, however, tells us that we grow in faith by embracing suffering not avoiding it.
“Count it all joy,” the Apostle James declares, “when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness”
This steadfastness will make us “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Rather than seeing pain as a quality to avoid, James sees it as a manifestation of God’s grace and far from merely tolerating it’s presence in our lives he calls us to celebrate it. Grit is so valuable to the Christian that we should rejoice when the struggles that produce it come upon us.
Dallas Willard said,
“It is absolutely essential to our growth into the ‘mind’ of Jesus that we accept the ‘trials’ of ordinary existence as the place where we are to experience and find the reign of God-with-us as actual reality. We are not to try to get in a position to avoid trials. And we are not to ‘catastrophize’ and declare ‘the end of the world’ when things happen.”
Interestingly, that is precisely what Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt see among today’s college students. In “The Coddling of the American Mind,” they document the rise in campus sensitivity and the “catastrophizing” of common events. The thin skin of Millennials is so well established that comedians like Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and Bill Maher no longer perform on college campuses. They simply can’t take a joke. One professor wrote about this aggressive oversensitivity in an article titled, “I’m a Liberal Professor and My Liberal Students Terrify Me.” Lukianoff and Haidt conclude, “smart people do, in fact, overreact to innocuous speech, make mountains out of molehills, and seek punishment for anyone whose words make anyone else feel uncomfortable.”
So we find ourselves in a slide toward spinelessness with neither the church nor young adults possessing the grit to face the “trials of ordinary existence” where the faith-filled life is cultivated and the presence of God is encountered. If we cannot rejoice in the ordinary trials of life how are we to boldly confront the extraordinary trials facing our world and the sacrifices they demand? They are not problems that can be solved with a hashtag. They will require us to stand at our posts with bullets in our shoulders and remain on the field of battle long after others retreat. “Grit is having stamina,” says Duckworth. “Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for a week, not just for a month, but for years… Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
This leads us back to the brave soldiers of the 33rd United States Colored Troops. There were other regiments in the Union army composed of free Northern African-Americans, but the 33rd was the only regiment of escaped slaves from the South. Few whites, even in the North, believed African-Americans could fight valiantly and the expectations for the 33rd USCT were lower still, but the perseverance they displayed on the battlefield made headlines. Their commanding officer, T. W. Higginson, said, “It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men.”
I can only hope a similar underestimation is occurring today. Maybe there is a toughness within Millennials researchers and cultural commentators have missed because it has not yet been revealed in the crucible of conflict. Perhaps circumstances will arise that stir an unexpected, even supernatural, grit within the church that we did not know was there. Such a trial would necessarily be terrible—the sort we pray to be delivered from not ushered into. In the midst of it, however, we may rediscover the ancient grace lost in our day but known to the resilient generations that came before us.
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