Hang with me as I complain a bit; I’m going somewhere with this brief tale of woe:
Three weeks ago, I got a voice message from my mom telling me that my father had a heart attack on a cruise ship in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. After a scary day at sea in the ship medical clinic, Dad (with Mom at his side) was medically disembarked to Cartagena, Colombia. In two days, I somehow managed the bureaucratic gymnastics of getting a lightning quick passport renewal and flew to Colombia with my sister. To our delight, Dad began to improve. We returned home. One week later, with Dad safely in the USA, I went on a 30-some-odd-hour road trip with two small kids in tow to celebrate my husband’s graduation. Then, on the way back home, my kids got sick. I spent nights cleaning up throw-up, washing sheets, and soothing a sad 4-year-old.
Now, I am spent. Exhausted. Utterly.
The time in South America was a whirlwind of joy mixed with sorrow — days divided between discovering incredible Colombian beauty (and native sloths!) and sitting in a hospital trying to translate medical questions. The time on the road was one of seeing great friends and celebrating my husband’s accomplishment, but also of family bickering, long days of travel, and long nights of illness.
In the midst of all of this, I overheard the old saying: That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It stuck with me, turning over in my mind as I held Dad’s hand in the hospital or rubbed my daughter’s back as she hunched over a bucket by our bed.
The reason I kept thinking about this cliché is that it rang so hollow to me. I do not feel that these hard days, these stresses and sorrows and challenges, make me stronger. At the end of these three weeks, I feel profoundly weak and vulnerable.
I brought up the oft-quoted phrase to my husband and he reminded me that Nietzsche, who understood power as our ultimate goal, first uttered it. Originally, his phrase, which appears in his book Twilight of Idols, read: “From life's school of war: what does not kill me makes me stronger."
As I get older and life keeps going, I face, day-by-day, things big and small, that are difficult and have not yet killed me. And I’m finding that that which doesn’t kill me makes me weaker, and that maybe that’s okay — maybe that’s the way of redemption. In life’s school of love, what does not kill us makes us more needy and, therefore, more able to give and receive love.
The people whom I most respect are those who’ve suffered and, in the process, have become beautifully weak — not tough as nails, not bitter or rigid, but men and women who bear vulnerability with joy and acceptance and trust. One such hero of mine is my friend Marcia; she’s a widow who tells great stories. She has some life under her belt and some stories of suffering, but her appetite for goodness and beauty is magnetic. Somehow her suffering has worked to allow her to live vulnerably and empathetically in a dark world. To me, she seems almost luminescent, like a paper lantern, weak enough that light shines through.
In Walker Percy’s essay “Stoicism in the South,” he argues compellingly that Southern Christianity, which I grew up in, is influenced more by stoic philosophy than by the radical notion of a God who emptied himself and became weak. This kind of stoic thinking can creep into our faith and make us believe that if we have enough self-control, fortitude, and strength, we can somehow avoid the sting of suffering.
I believe and proclaim and have taught 2 Corinthians 12, Paul’s surprising message from God: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And I want to be like St. Paul, boasting gladly of my weaknesses. But in my day-to-day life, I default to stoicism — I power through, avoid feeling deeply, put my head down and just keep going. When I rub up against my own limits or when I face pain or fear, whether it is in deepest darkness or just the ordinary, daily struggles of living in a broken world, I react, habitually, with self-protection, with anger or busyness or distraction.
I want to learn the craft and habits of embracing weakness. I want to learn to face loss, feel it, and bring it to Jesus in prayer and silence and groaning. I want to learn to admit my needs and limitations to God, others, and myself without hiding or making excuses.
But in this weird mix of stoicism and Christianity that I’ve imbibed, I catch myself trying to avoid vulnerability — to be perfectly strong and safe — while at the same time following this Christ of the cross. Several years ago on Ash Wednesday, I knelt at the front of the church to receive ashes next to a young girl who was maybe around 9 or 10 years old. Our priest marked our foreheads with a cross of ashes, a reminder of our overwhelming weakness, a sign that all our vanity and accomplishments end up in a grave. And I heard my young neighbor turn to her mother and whisper, “Does my cross look all right?”
I laughed. It was an absurd question. She had a large black smudge on her forehead. Of course it didn’t look all right. But I also laughed because I saw my own heart in her question. I want to walk this way of the cross and still look like I’m doing fine: I’m strong, I’m competent, I’ve got my life pretty much together. I want to avoid the shame of my weakness, my brokenness, my most embarrassing, unmanageable sins. I want to walk with Jesus, and I still want to look okay.
But the message of the gospel is a humiliating one for those of us who long to be strong. Christ came for the sick, the weak, the embarrassing ones. The way of the cross is a way of weakness, neediness, and profound vulnerability. In Marva Dawn’s essay “The Tabernacling of God and a Theology of Weakness,” Dawn reminds us that:
Even as Christ accomplished atonement for us by suffering and death, so the Lord accomplishes witness to the world through our weakness. In fact, God has more need of our weakness than our strength. Just as powers overstep their bounds and become gods, so our power becomes a rival to God. As the Psalms and Isaiah teach us, God's way is not to take us out of tribulations, but to comfort us in the midst of them and 'exchange' our strength in the face of them. By our union with Christ in the power of the Spirit in our weaknesses, we display God's glory.
Christians believe that this way of the cross is also, mysteriously but really, the way of joy. These hard weeks have made me weaker, but by the work of the Spirit, they, I hope, can make me more alive, more capable of displaying God’s glory as my strength wanes. Of course, these smudges on our foreheads, this sin and death and humiliating gospel do not look okay. But we are loved by our Maker and, therefore, led through the cross to resurrection.
There is no real hope in stoicism, there’s only bearing with things, holding our breath until death. In Christ, hope is born of weakness and need. As God leads me through suffering and joy, both big and small — these things that do not kill me — my prayer is that they would be a school of love, a way to learn the art of vulnerability, to imitate God as a beloved child who has received love and can be vulnerable enough to give it away.
Tish Harrison Warren is a writer and a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She and her husband work with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries at The University of Texas at Austin and have two young daughters. She writes regularly for The Well, InterVarsity's online magazine for women. Her work has also appeared in Her.meneutics, Christ and Pop Culture, Anglicanpastor.com, and Christianity Today. For more, see tishharrisonwarren.com or follow her on Twitter at @Tish_H_Warren.