Why Mental Toughness is Critical for Spiritual Strength

  • Published
  • By Maj. Jeffrey McMillen, 24th Special Operations Wing Chaplain
  • 24th Special Operations Wing

My wife, three children and I have gathered at our kitchen table for over 25 years.  From the time when they were strapped into booster seats to the teenage years when we’d holler, “Don’t lean back on your chair!” the dinner table was where we gathered.  Nearly every night, we would give thanks to God, enjoy a home-cooked meal, and talk about life.  There we laughed and cried together.  The dinner table became a symbol of our family’s strength.

Of course, each of us had a chair upon which to rest our weary bones.  Amazingly, these chairs have remained strong for many years.  How?  These chairs have three characteristics that contribute to their strength.  First, they are made of oak, one of nature’s toughest woods.  Second, they have four legs (not one, two or three) that make each one stable.  Third, those four legs are tied strongly together by cross-braces beneath the seat.  No leg can support the weight of a person alone.

Our U.S. Air Force continually works to ensure our Airmen have a strong, four-legged oak chair upon which they can depend.  We call it “Comprehensive Airman Fitness”.  It is composed of the four strong legs (pillars) that support the weightiness of life: mental, social, physical, and spiritual.  For our “seat of life” to remain strong, it’s critical to understand that each leg is necessary and interdependent upon the other.  If one leg is loose, cracked, or disconnected from the other, the seat is unstable.  The intent of this article is to show how the mental and spiritual pillars are interdependent upon one another, and critical to our personal strength. 

How is mental toughness related to spiritual strength? 

Being strong in the mind is very important to spiritual strength.  Although faith is perhaps the engine of the spiritual life, thoughts provide fuel.  What one trusts in the heart must first pass through the mind.  If thinking is sound and focused in the right place, then stronger faith will likely follow.  Some scriptures from both the Jewish and Christian traditions illustrate this.

“For as he thinks within himself, so he is.”  --Proverbs 23:7

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” --2 Timothy 1:7

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true…honest…just…pure…think on these things.”  --Philippians 4:

I propose that a person’s spiritual strength is dependent upon a disciplined thought-life, remaining focused upon what we believe to be true, regardless of our circumstances.

Why is mental toughness important, especially in times of trial? 

Most of you have endured seasons of trial.  The suffering in those seasons, as you may attest, can break you like nothing else.  All sense of direction, strength, and hope can be stripped away.  It is then, at your weakest point, that everything you believe is tested. 

I would guess that few believe themselves to be mentally tough in the middle of a trial.  In fact, most feel weak in every way; physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally.  Perhaps our degree of toughness can be found before and after the trial. 

Our Special Tactics Airmen invest countless hours in physical training.  Why?  They know that the day will come, in training or in combat, when their physical strength will be tested to its limits.  The ones who emerge victorious are those who gave blood, sweat and tears preparing physically for that day. 

I propose that becoming mentally tough requires preparation as well.  Ask yourself, “How much time do I invest in my beliefs?”  If you have a faith or religious tradition, do you practice? If you have particular values, do you rehearse, memorize and exercise them?  If we fail to prepare ourselves in that way, our minds will be weak, and our spirits will be as well.  Under the pressure of trial, we will find ourselves unprepared and vulnerable.

How do we build mental toughness in ourselves and our loved ones?

Here are some simple ways, from a spiritual perspective, to make ourselves mentally tough for the trials:

STUDY-  If you adhere to a certain set of values or beliefs, spend time daily studying literature that reinforces it.

BUILD COMMUNITY- Spend time with others who share your beliefs.  This could be in the form of a church or other group who can reinforce your beliefs and support you in times of need.

LIVE IT- Each day, look for ways to live out what you believe.  Your actions reinforce your beliefs in a powerful way. 

What role does community play in staying mentally tough?

Sadly, American society has become very individualistic.  Although we are more “electronically connected” than ever before, many report being extremely lonely. Consequently, when trials come, we go through them alone. 

In the context of my own faith tradition, I explain to others that God designed us to need each other.  None of us are self-sufficient in this life.  To be mentally tough, we need others to remind us of truth we may doubt or have forgotten.  In my darkest moments, I have had others who stepped into my life and rescued me from sure destruction.  I could never have survived alone.

What has working with the Special Tactics community taught you about mental toughness through difficult times?

The Airmen and families of our ST community are some of the most mentally tough people I’ve ever met.  As a ground combat unit, they have endured the fiery heat of trial.  Although the wounds of war are evident, their constitution is strong.  Mental toughness has been hard-earned by our warriors.

I am tempted to compare my own experience to theirs, thinking, “I’ve not been tried as they have.”  While this is true with regard to combat, we all endure fiery trials of our own that test our strength.  The lessons I’m learning from my ST family is this: the fire of trial can make you tougher in every way.  For this important lesson, I will be forever grateful.

What was a moment in your time with the Special Tactics community that tested your mental toughness?

In the last 18 months, the ST Airmen have endured painful loss.  At times, I have found myself discouraged. To be sure, the men and women of ST have felt the pain deeply and continue to grieve, but I have been awed by the mental toughness of our people.  How?  Our warriors know that life is fragile and brief, yet they press on.  Why?  They live out what they believe every day, that they are called to serve the cause of freedom no matter the cost.  That is tangible proof of “mental toughness.”