“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Does it though?
It’s what people tell us to ease our suffering. It’s what we tell ourselves to give our suffering purpose. It’s an easy encouragement to offer our friends and family experiencing a whole host of issues. It doesn’t require much of us. We can offer a sympathetic ear and assure others that “this too shall pass,” and they will be better for it once they get to the other side.
The problem is that there is no scriptural or historical basis for this belief. I’ve experienced suffering that has brought me to my knees. I’ve watched friends and family members endure suffering that never seems to go away, crippling their ability to flourish. While it is possible to see the good that has come of a situation once one gets to the other side, that doesn’t change the fact that they have been broken.
Suffering causes wounds that leave scars.
Emotional hurts change the way we respond to others. They make us more cautious, less trusting, and impact the way we respond to future challenges. A couple of years ago I experienced a job loss that encompassed more than a change in career; I lost confidence in my abilities and friendships that I thought were solid. I questioned every decision I had made since the moment I graduated from college. This not only crippled my immediate job search but has left me skittish about relationships in a new position where I honestly feel valued and appreciated.
Illness or injury that brings us to the brink of death weakens our body, even when we recover. When our bodies survive a brutal attack of any kind, they remember the trauma experienced, and we are frequently reminded of the cost of that survival. Those physical changes stick with us for the rest of our lives. I’ve watched one friend document her own struggle to recover her body and mind from a car accident that nearly killed her. She has been honest about the raw emotions of realizing that she will never physically be the same.
The loss of loved ones or the destruction of relationships leaves us with a hole where that person once was. I have high school and college friends that I will probably never speak to again because of the same ideological conflicts that have divided many families and friendships around the country. While time and other relationships can fill the hole that was left, it never fully goes away. We may find our relationships forever changed through the lessons of loss, but that doesn’t make us stronger.
Suffering changes us.
We live in a fallen world. As a result, sometimes life isn’t great. Pain and suffering are just a part of living on earth. Suffering transforms us in ways that we cannot imagine while we are in the midst of turmoil.
In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis wrote, “But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Lewis wasn’t arguing that God causes our suffering to get our attention. Instead, he was saying that, if we allow it, our merciful God uses our pain to transform us. Suffering is the cost of being human.
Like many, the last two years have made me acutely aware of the suffering of others. I’ve watched friends struggle through disease, divorce, and fears of the unknown as they worked to protect their vulnerable family members and the loss of relationships due to the destruction of trust. I myself experienced a complete change in my professional career that resulted in uprooting my family and moving across the country, a situation that was not without significant emotional, mental, and spiritual turmoil. Our family has been able to see the good that has come out of it, but we are certainly not stronger because of it. And while we can see the positive changes, we are also painfully aware of what we are missing from the life we left behind.
Suffering reminds us that we’re human.
The desire to see suffering as a pathway to strength stems from our need for control. When my world is falling apart, it’s the lack of control that I find the most dizzying, such as in the months immediately following a soul-crushing job loss. But control isn’t strength. Sometimes the strongest thing we can do is to depend on others when we are feeling our weakest, allowing them to use their own experiences with suffering to guide us to the other side. Suffering brings out weakness and vulnerability, an opportunity to walk beside or even carry instead of standing above.
In Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Disciples will not be weakened by suffering, worn down, and embittered until they are broken. Instead, they bear suffering, by the power of him who supports them. The disciples bear the suffering laid on them only by the power of him who bears all suffering on the cross. As bearers of suffering, they stand in communion with the Crucified.” When we depend on others through our suffering, or we offer others our own strength through their suffering, we are strengthening our communities, building a strong foundation on Christ’s own suffering, death, and resurrection.
As we pull strength from others, we aren’t seeking to come out of our suffering better than we were before. Instead, we’re accepting that there may be something better. Kate Bowler, in her memoir Everything Happens For a Reason, says, “Plans are made. Plans come apart. New delights or tragedies pop up in their place. And nothing human or divine will map out this life, this life that has been more painful than I could have imagined. More beautiful than I could have imagined.” As a cancer survivor, she will never be stronger than she was before her diagnosis, but God continues to use her to strengthen her community and His church.
No, suffering does not make you stronger. But with God’s help through the guidance of others, we can still find beauty in the life we live around and through the pain.