When Julia Wattacheril, a transplant hepatologist, was redeployed to the ICU triage at her hospital in New York City this spring, she faced “pure disaster management at peak.” In the first 26 minutes of her first shift, she “had three rapid responses (acutely unstable patients before a cardiac arrest), two arrests, and one death.”
“The hardships are many,” Wattacheril says. Some of the difficulties health care providers face include “acute exacerbations of what we experience daily: chaotic work environments, being underresourced, dealing with medical consequences of social injustice,” and others.
But the most painful hardships, says Wattacheril, came from lack of human connection, as medical professionals walked down “eerily silent hallways” where it was “hard to tell who was whom, given required personal protective equipment (PPE),” she said. “We had no time to think, no time to learn, no time to prepare, no time to discuss.”
As a Christian bearing witness to ongoing suffering in the hospital, Wattacheril finds that her faith is her “bedrock.” “Through anchoring Scriptures, a rich prayer life, a community of friends struggling together, and lots of meaningful music, I have a means toward understanding suffering as a path towards greater compassion and empathy.”
Wattacheril’s story reflects a common question: In a world turned upside down by COVID-19, how does our faith sustain us, even when suffering continues?
The New Testament talks repeatedly about the idea of enduring in the face of suffering (Gal. 6:9; Rom. 5:3–4; 2 Cor. 4:16–18). Endurance could also be called “spiritual fortitude,” a subject that researchers are studying to examine how our faith interacts with suffering. Psychologist Jamie Aten, the director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, collaborated on the first empirical scale of spiritual fortitude, which is “defined as a character trait enabling people to endure and make redemptive meaning from adversity through their sacred connections with God, others, and themselves.” Aten believes that we will likely be experiencing long-term impacts from COVID-19, with delayed economic hits, as well as physical stresses and traumas for those effected by the actual virus.
Christina Wright, a mother of four in North Texas, experienced the daunting challenge of having her family catch COVID-19 early, when even less was known about it. She spent days writhing in bed with intense body aches, and her husband, David, had a fever for weeks, along with headaches, chills, a cough, and congestion. Their situation was unique because they were the first in their Texas county to contract it. They would soon find themselves watching briefings and press conferences about themselves—an experience that was “startling and unnerving” as comments made online about them were everything from supportive, to inappropriate, negative, and even disturbing. She feared that her family would also become a target for “unstable and hateful people” who were assaulting others, including Asian Americans, whom they perceived as a threat of spreading COVID-19.
For the Wrights, their faith was an important support as they faced the unknowns of COVID-19 together as a family. Their situation, while fearful and difficult, showed Wright how God “is always active in my life, and that my strength to endure comes from the [Holy] Spirit.” Through this and other experiences, she has found that “the gospel resides within suffering.” Like Wattacheril, Wright and her husband found that their faith was a vital part of both enduring and understanding their suffering, even before the suffering has lifted.
These personal experiences demonstrate how faith can supply us with strength when facing suffering, and why Aten believes churches “can and should lead” in helping communities understand why faith helps us not only endure but find life despite suffering. As we live out our faith out in 2020 and face many challenges, we have the opportunity, according to Aten, Wright, and Wattacheril, to offer both practical and spiritual aid, especially to those most vulnerable. “This is the time to really take care of one another,” Wright explained. She experienced not only a deepening faith, but also a clearer view of how important communities are in extending a helping hand to those in need. While the stresses of 2020 have affected everyone, there are some who are more vulnerable in multiple ways.
Collectively, we face devastation from the growing number of deaths from COVID-19 and long-term complications for those who recovered from COVID-19. Those who are older or who have certain medical conditions are more vulnerable. Front line responders are at risk for traumatic stress, increased risk of COVID-19, suicide, and financial loss. Unemployment rates have grown to record-setting numbers, with around 40 million people jobless. Many small businesses have had to close their doors permanently. Meanwhile, racial minority groups have the compound stresses of being at more risk both economically and physically during this time, potentially receiving inadequate medical care (realities that Wattacherfil says are “the most worrisome aspects of the pandemic”).
Aten also highlighted the stress racism and prejudice has brought to some minority groups, including Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who continue to face surging reports of xenophobic and racist incidents; African Americans, dealing with long-term discrimination; and immigrants, who are not as likely to seek help after disasters, according to his research soon to be published.
While no one can predict the future, what we do know is that this will be a lengthy recovery process, and church communities should be mindful of those who are especially vulnerable. One resource for the church is Spiritual First Aid, an organization that, according to Aten and his colleague, theologian Kent Annan, gives “basic helping skills and interventions that help address common disaster needs.” Many churches have been actively involved in helping people practically during the pandemic. Leaders are advocating for vulnerable groups, including immigrants, and grappling with how to fight systemic racism.
With so much potential long-term suffering and turmoil, spiritual fortitude is one tool in helping us find life amid the various forms of pain we face. While resiliency—our ability to bounce back—is important, Aten proposes we “need other ways of talking about” difficult experiences. This is where spiritual fortitude comes in. We can think of spiritual fortitude as “our ability to endure long-term suffering,” Aten says. “I think that is very applicable to talking about COVID-19. We found that it’s actually different scientifically than resilience or grit.”
Grit, Aten said, could be described as “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and pushing our way forward,” while resiliency is our “ability to adapt and to overcome. But eventually I think what we are going to see, and I think especially the church can really lead in this area, is helping our culture find the narrative of fortitude.”
Aten pointed out that having fortitude has been important in church history, and Scripture emphasizes it as well. The master in Matthew 25 didn’t say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant” (vv. 21, 23) because he had won the race. Rather, “it was that [he] finished the race. It’s more of a message of endurance,” Aten says. He is quick to point out that we need all three—grit, resiliency, and spiritual fortitude when facing suffering. But what’s unique about spiritual fortitude is that, unlike resiliency, which helps us “get back to life” after a trauma, spiritual fortitude helps us have the “ability to find life even amidst the adversity.”
Many are finding that their faith has increased despite—or because of—the pandemic. According to a recent Pew Research Survey, one-quarter of US adults “say their faith has become stronger because of the coronavirus pandemic,” while only 2 percent felt that their faith had weakened. When you break down the numbers by denominations, the research found that 42 percent of evangelicals and 22 percent of mainline Protestants reported feeling that their faith had grown.
The biggest percentage of Christians who felt their faith had strengthened belonged to those who attended historically black Protestant churches. A full 56 percent found that their faith had increased, despite the various pressures and stresses they were exposed to. Black Christians have long grown in their Christian faith despite ongoing suffering. They may lead the way for others in demonstrating how faith, according to the research of Aten and his colleagues, can grow in the process of “adjusting to, and thriving, in the midst of adversity, suffering, and trauma.”
For Wattacheril, as she continues to face the ongoing pandemic, this translates into something much more than a sentimental salve and pat on the head. “Faith is far more powerful than pleasantries and charitable thoughts to bide the time until the trauma ends.” She explains, “It is a deep wellspring that not only provides comfort and meaning, but also fire and a powerful fuel for the work that it takes to limit the trauma for self and others.”
This illustrates what Romans 15:5 reminds us: It is God who “gives endurance and encouragement” to us through our faith, so that we can have the “same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had.” As faith grows even in the face of ongoing suffering, we find that we better fulfill the commandment to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30–31).
Kimi Harris is a writer, mother, and wife of a pastor. She and her husband serve in the Midwest.