I know a young man, whom I’ll call Stanley, who is a bit of a hero to me. When Stanley was very young, he decided that he was an athlete. Unfortunately, athletics did not come naturally to him. He was clumsy and awkward and struggled to learn to throw and catch. But Stanley was not to be deterred. And, through years of hard work, he made himself into an athlete, even winning Athlete of the Year by the end of High School. And so, Stanley is a bit of a hero to me, not because I necessarily value athletic achievement, but because he’s such a tremendous example of the power of perseverance, which is the character trait — the type of good fruit our lives can produce — we’ll be looking at this week.
According to the VIA Institute on Character, “Perseverance involves the voluntary continuation of a goal-directed action despite the presence of challenges, difficulties, and discouragement. There are two vectors of perseverance. It requires both effort for a task and duration to keep the task up.” Niemiec and McGrath, in their book The Power of Character Strengths, add that “When you are at your best with perseverance, you keep your short-term and long-term goals in mind, overcome internal and external challenges without taking shortcuts, maintain a healthy level of energy and motivation to get things done, and enjoy the whole process” (104).
In simpler language, perseverance means sticking with things and not giving up.
The benefits of perseverance to human wellbeing are obvious. It helps us improve our skills and allows us to accomplish big projects that are either challenging or tedious. It helps build our self-confidence and increases our sense of agency, causing us to attribute less of our success and failure to luck or factors outside of our control.
Perseverance has always been a highly prized and praised character trait in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Job is lauded for his perseverance in faith and hard work (see especially Job 2). It is also a major theme in both the book of Deuteronomy, with its focus on diligent obedience to the Law of Moses, and Proverbs, with a dual emphasis on perseverance in both hard work and seeking God. In the New Testament, the Gospel according to Luke records Jesus teaching about persistence in prayer, in his humorous story of a neighbour banging at one’s door at midnight asking for bread (see Luke 11.5ff).
But it’s really in the Epistles of the New Testament where Christian teaching on perseverance really comes into its own. This makes sense since the Christian Scriptures were written primarily to encourage believers at a time when it was socially and politically difficult or dangerous to be Christian. Perseverance in faith is, for example, the dominant theme of the book of Hebrews. The author writes at the climax of the book: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (12.1). Similarly, the apostle James writes that those who persevere in doing good will be blessed (James 1.25), and Paul urges the Roman church to “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer” (Rom 12.12). Paul also tells his friend and mentee Timothy: “Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable” (2 Tim 4.2). The Christian tradition as a whole has taken up these themes of both diligence in work and persistence in faith during discouraging times.
It’s easy to see how the absence of perseverance, quitting or laziness, can become problematic: These traits make it impossible to complete long-term goals or accomplish anything that takes sustained effort. Since the things in life that bring the most joy and accomplishment are also those that don’t come easily or quickly and which require a lot of sustained effort, an absence of perseverance is a double hit to our well-being. Even worse is the opposite of perseverance: helplessness — an inability or unwillingness to work hard or in a sustained way out of a belief that hard work isn’t worth the effort because will not change our circumstances. While it’s true that trying hard does not necessarily mean that we will meet our goals, not persevering in them does necessarily mean that we won’t!
But the shadow side of too much perseverance is also dangerous. This is stubbornness, refusing to cut one’s losses in a situation that isn’t going to turn out well. As much as it’s wise to persevere, there is also wisdom in knowing when it’s time not to waste further resources of time and effort on something that isn’t going to happen. Of all the character traits we’ve explored so far, I think this one is the most nuanced and difficult to be certain where the sweet spot is. By definition, avoiding the problematic excess of perseverance looks like its absence. The truth is that sometimes we need to quit persevering; the problem really comes when quitting becomes a habit.
So how might we improve a healthy perseverance in our lives? Here are some ideas:
- Keep a checklist of things to do and regularly update it
- Clarify your goals and why you want to achieve them
- Set goals and break them down into small, practical and achievable action steps; monitor your progress and see how far you go!
- Maintain optimism, expect good things, and keep a daily list of positive experiences. (Practice hope!)
- Let go of your attachment to results and focus on what you put in to achieving them
- When in doubt, fake it till you make it.