When you’re going through a hard time, people don’t always know what to say. The result is meaningless clichés or trite attempts to cheer you up. I’ve always had a problem with cliché phrases– the kind that don’t mean anything to the person saying them and don’t actually help the person hearing them. Silly things like, “Chin up” and “It’ll get better.” Really? How do you know? You don’t do your friends any favors by giving them light, fluffy hopes that aren’t rooted in anything. When deep pain hits we need rock solid truth to sustain us.
During his bout with cancer, Christopher Hitchens voiced similar frustration with some of the meaningless phrases we throw around. He spends a few pages attacking one of them in his book, Mortality. Nws hais tias, “In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that ‘whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’” He goes on to say, “In the brute physical world… there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker.” Can’t you just feel the joy?
It sounds depressing, but I think Hitchens is right in a sense. It is quite possible that we can go through difficult things that only weaken us and bring us closer to death. I can imagine someone asking the question, “How could something this terrible make me stronger?” Even the most positive people can be broken down by the brutality of our fallen world. Optimism can only survive so many beatings until it breaks, and reality finally chokes it out. Phrases that once sounded cute now seem worthless. But is the well-meaning sentiment Hitchens attacked ever true? I think so.
When Is It True?
“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” can be true, but only if there’s something beyond this life. If this life, this world, and this body are all there is, Hitchens is right. It’s a lie. It would be like saying, “What doesn’t total my car makes it stronger.” That’s ridiculous. You’d have to ignore the truth to believe that. But if our temporary trials have some kind of eternal meaning it changes everything.
Paul tells us, “All things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” This verse is sometimes abused, but it’s one of the most beautiful promises in all of Scripture. This doesn’t mean that Christians are invincible. All of us will face trials, but we can’t finally be defeated by them. Even our worst enemies, like suffering and death, become our friends in Christ, because they ultimately work in our favor.
So how exactly can these devastating trials actually make us stronger? Here are three ways (with significant overlap):
1. They make us depend on Jesus
When I feel like everything in my life is going well, my heart immediately retreats into self-dependence. It never fails. I start to pray less because I subconsciously assume I don’t lack anything. I become proud because I think I’m the reason everything’s going well. In those times, I’m forgetting that God is the giver of good gifts, and I still need Him to sustain me. I’m assuming that I’m entitled to all of His mercies.
But when trials come our way, they show us our own weakness. Sickness reminds how fragile we are, lay-offs remind us that hard work doesn’t guarantee anything, and conflict reminds us that we need Jesus in every area of our lives.
2 Corinthians 12 is a comfort to me in times of weakness. Paul recognizes that God gave him a trial to “keep [him] from becoming conceited.” And he says he boasts gladly in his weakness, and that he’s content with all kinds of trials. How could Paul be content and even glad about His trials? I think Paul is saying that these trials make clear that He needs God’s grace and power. Self-dependence is weakness, and dependence on Christ is strength. So Paul says, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”
2. They make us more like Jesus
We’ll never be able to endure devastating trials until we realize that our comfort and good health isn’t what’s most important. Comfort and health are good things that God delights to give us. But God’s primary will for our life is that we would be like Jesus. And He’s even willing to use trials to accomplish that. Hebrews 12 hais tias, “[Vaj tswv] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.” Training in God’s gym may hurt sometimes, but He will make us stronger.
James 1:2 comes to mind, where he tells us to “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds…” The reason we should count it joy is the Christlike character it produces. Our humility is more important than our happiness. It’s better to be physically weak and spiritually strong.
3. They make us long to be with Jesus
Our hearts are weakened by sin, and we often find ourselves longing for more of what this world has to offer. But when the temporary joys of this world are taken from us, we’re reminded that Earth is not our home. Our citizenship is elsewhere.
I love staying in nice hotels, and when I do I try to take advantage of all the perks. But then I start to miss my wife, and then I realize I don’t have the clothes I meant to bring, and then I realize room service is about half as good as my wife’s cooking. It reminds me that this hotel isn’t my home. Unmet desires make me long to be at home. This earth isn’t where we belong, and trials remind us that our paradise is elsewhere, with our Lord. There will be no unmet desires in Heaven, because our Lord will satisfy all of our longings. He’ll abolish pain and pour His grace out on us forever.
So the next time you have a friend going through a tough time, remind them that even the most tragic circumstances can make us stronger. Not through positive thinking and optimism, but through real hope and real change. And when you’re going through a difficult season, let it draw you closer to Christ. Don’t be afraid, the Lord is with you.
The believer’s hope is beyond the grave, and in the next life we’ll be like and with Him. So even what kills us makes us stronger.