The Story: A new survey finds COVID-19 has strengthened religious faith, particularly the faith of evangelicals. Here’s how obedience causes our faith to grow and leads us to become “antifragile.”
The Background: A Pew Research Center survey conducted in the summer of 2020 found that Americans, more than people in other economically developed countries, said the pandemic has bolstered their faith. Nearly three in 10 Americans (28 percent) reported stronger faith because of the pandemic, and the same number think the religious faith of Americans overall has strengthened, according to the survey of 14 economically developed countries.
In other parts of the world, though, religious faith has not had such an effect. A mere 10 percent of British adults say their faith is stronger as a result of the pandemic, and 14 percent think the faith of Britons overall has increased because of COVID-19. In Japan, only five percent of people say religion plays a stronger role in their lives and the lives of their fellow citizens.
Majorities or pluralities in all the countries surveyed do not believe faith has been strengthened by the pandemic, including 68 percent of American adults who say their faith has not changed much and 47 percent who say the faith of their compatriots is about the same. The presence of white evangelicals appears to have bolstered the American results.
As Pew notes, white evangelicals are among the most religious groups in the country, by a variety of standard measures. (It’s frustrating that Pew continues to use “white evangelical” as a subgrouping in situations like this one that would apply equally to all racial and ethnic groups within evangelicalism. If Pew were to broaden the question to all evangelicals, the results would almost certainly be the same.)
Nearly half (49 percent) of white evangelicals say their religious faith has grown, while 43 percent say the same about the faith of Americans as a whole.
In comparison, only about three in 10 Catholics and two in 10 non-evangelical Protestants say their faith has deepened.
What It Means: Fragile items break when under stress and the resilient recover from stress. But what do we call things that grow stronger under stress? Since no word existed for that concept, Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined antifragile to describe people, organizations, or systems that benefit from obstacles, unexpected events, and change. An example is the ancient Greek myth of the Hydra, a serpent-like water monster with multiple heads. If you cut off one of the Hydra’s heads, two would grow back in its place, making the creature stronger than before
The Christian faith is another example of a system designed to be antifragile. Several passages of Scripture show how trials, such as the pandemic, are used by God to strengthen our faith. For example, James 1:2–4 tell us: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
The Christian faith is another example of a system designed to be antifragile.
Peter says this: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:6–7).
And Paul says again in Romans 5:3–4: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
God’s using trials to strengthen us may seem counterintuitive. But that is how he designed Christians to respond. “Strange as it may seem,” says John Piper, “one of the primary purposes of being shaken by suffering is to make our faith more unshakable.”
It should therefore not be surprising that evangelicals—who tend to believe that what the Bible says is infallible truth—have a faith that’s mostly likely to grow during times of trouble. But faith doesn’t become antifragile simply by believing God’s Word. So how does it work? In a word: obedience.
We can define obedience as the grateful response to God’s Word that leads us to submit to his authority and do his will. Obedience is the primary way we come to enjoy God. We obey God so we can find his rhythms and glorify God by enjoying him forever. But to enjoy God, we have to know him. And how do we know God? In 1 John 2:3 we find the surprising answer: “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands.”
We tend to think of knowledge as purely intellectual activity, but in Scripture knowledge is often gained through experience. It’s the difference between knowing about something or knowing it because we’ve gained understanding through an experiential encounter.
Think of the way we can have knowledge about swimming through books, but we don’t really know what swimming is like until we are immersed in water and flailing our limbs in an attempt to stay afloat. We only fully gain knowledge of swimming by swimming.
Similarly, we don’t come to know God through abstract speculation but through living in the way the Lord requires. Specifically, we come to know God by understanding and then doing what he commands.
We gain the first part—understanding—through such spiritual disciples as Bible reading and study. We search the Bible to understand exactly what God commands of us. Once we understand what God wants us to do, we then come to know God by doing what he wants us to do.
A prime example of this pattern from belief to knowledge is the royal official in Cana who had heard about the healing power of Jesus (John 4:46). Because his son was dying, he begged Jesus to come and heal him. But rather than go to the child, Jesus gives the official a command to obey: “Go; your son will live” (John 4:50).
We also gain biblical knowledge when we follow the same pattern as the official from Cana:
Belief—We take thoughts captive by believing a biblical command or principle is true.
Action—We obey Christ by acting on the belief.
Knowledge—Because Christ is always truthful, our obedience confirms the truth of the belief, causing us to believe even more.
We must act on what we say we believe in order to know in the biblical sense. What that means, in light of verse 1 John 2:3, is that we know God through what I call the Obedience Cycle:
1. We learn what God requires through reading and meditating on his Word.
2. Empowered by God’s grace, we obey and keep his commands. (We often need to be pushed into this step through various trials and sufferings, such as the pandemic.)
3. Through keeping God’s commands, albeit in our flawed way, we gain experiential knowledge of Jesus, who kept the commands perfectly.
4. By increasing our knowledge of Christ, we grow in communion with the Father.
5. This knowledge, gained through the experience of keeping God’s commands, gives us assurance, as John wrote, that “we know that we have come to know him.”
6. This knowledge reveals God’s beauty and glory, motivating us to delve deeper in Scripture so that we may gain a better understanding of how to obey him even more.
This leads us back to the first step, and the cycles repeats indefinitely.
Obedience thus becomes not just our means for knowing God but a motivation that drives us to know him more. The more we know God, the more we enjoy him, which makes us want to obey him more so that we can know him more and enjoy him more—and on and on it goes forever.
Trials can thus help us become more antifragile: As James would say, the “testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:3). But we don’t have to wait for suffering to bring about steadfastness. Instead, we need to follow the advice of the old hymn—“Trust and obey, for there’s no other way / To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”