Last week I finished reading Sarah Lewis’ excellent book on the creative life entitled The Rise: Creativity, The Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery. I highly recommend the entire book, but I’m especially interested in one of the final chapters of the book, entitled “The Grit of the Arts.” Not sense my grandfather made me watch the John Wayne classic True Grit had I ever really thought about what grit means. It’s not a quality reserved solely for the Duke, cowboys, or critically-acclaimed artists. As I read Lewis’ meditation on how grittiness is formed, I hear her insight addressing numerous vocations—teachers, entrepreneurs, mothers, builders, students, and bankers. I hear important connections for all who seek and follow Jesus.
Even though we may be inspired by a vision of goodness and beauty, we all face regular resistance, obstacles, and failures in our goals for the good life. The space between resistance and attaining goodness is the place where grit is formed.
The simplest definition of grit comes from Angela Duckworth, a psychologist who has devoted more than a decade to studying grittiness in human behavior. Here’s her TED talk on grit. Lewis quotes Duckworth on grit: “Grit is choosing to show up again and again” (p. 200).
But that isn’t all. Remaining present, practicing consistency in a task, a vocation, a calling is only the beginning. Grit is formed in the face of resistance and failure.
Grit is connected to how we respond to so-called failure, about whether we see it as a comment on our identity or merely as information that may help us improve…Grit is focused moxie, aided by a sustained response in the face of adversity. (p. 168-169)
Grit is so woven into Finland’s national character that they speak about the concept of sisu, roughly translated as ‘having guts’ (p. 173). Sisu is a cultural value in Finland for demonstrating ‘constant bravery in the face of adversity.’ Makes sense for a nation that spends much of the year in darkness.
Grit for the Sake of Vision
If you have no vision for something that is good, true, and beautiful, persevering through adversity and failure wouldn’t make any sense. But it’s a passionate vision for creating or enjoying beauty that drives you to dogged determination in the midst of adversity. That’s why artists persist in their craft. They long to see the song, poem, or painting hidden in their souls come into being. It’s why parents endure long, difficult days and sleepless nights with their children. They want their children to live beautiful, joyful lives. It’s why committed students endure long hours of tedious and repetitious study. They’re preparing for their life’s work.
Grit for God’s sake
As a Christian, I’m most interested in how grit shapes character through faith in Jesus. Life eternal with God is the ultimate vision of all that is good, true, and beautiful. Life with God in Christ is pure gift. ‘By grace you have been saved through faith.’ But growing in your relationship with God, embracing the calling or vocation he has placed upon your life, this will require your effort. And it will require your effort when you are tired, cranky, bored, at the end of your rope, and sick of ‘showing up.’ It’s easy to endure adversity when you’re filled with inspiration and hope. But it’s much more difficult when your hope and strength has dried up. Acquiring grit is not some emotional high; it’s a test of faithfulness and endurance in the midst of sustained adversity.
How Jesus learned grit
A few years ago I read an interesting study by T.F. Torrance on Jesus’ childhood. Tucked away in Luke’s Gospel is this verse that doesn’t seem terribly significant: ‘And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature in favor with God and man.’ Sounds like a segue verse to pivot to the next story, right? Except that word ‘increased’ in Greek packs quite a punch—literally.
Torrance noted that this word in Greek means ‘to beat forward by blows.’ In other words, Jesus struggled and wrestled to increase in wisdom. No divine trump card here. The Lord of creation acquired wisdom with great struggle, with grit.
Faithfulness in the Ordinary and Mundane
The great tests of faith don’t usually happen in dramatic moments with dozens of people watching what your next move will be. They come on an ordinary Tuesday morning, standing before a regular discipline or task that has become lifeless, tired, and boring. Small decisions to persevere in the face of weariness and discouragement make a lifetime of faithfulness. But it doesn’t appear to be so at the time. The reward isn’t visible. But it’s on the horizon.
And wisdom will honor everyone who will learn
To listen, to love, and to pray and discern
And to do the right thing even when it burns
And to live in the light through treacherous turns
So do what you’ve been called to do today. Do the next task that you’ve been called to do, even though it burns. And then do the next task. Trust that your mundane routines have eternal significance. Remember: you’re enduring this present burn because this gritty life will give way to a weight of glory beyond what you and I could have asked, thought, or imagined.