You’ve probably heard or read the saying in music, movies, or Internet memes: Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It’s generally taken as a reminder of human resilience; people have an amazing capacity to bend without breaking. I’ve read the memoir of a man who was nearly burned to death in a house fire, as well as a woman who was nearly crushed to death under the front wheels of a semi — only to be run over seconds later by the back wheels. These were people to whom emergency doctors gave little chance of survival. And yet somehow, they not only lived but bounced back and grew from the ordeal.
But please, if you’re trying to comfort someone else who’s going through extreme hardship, don’t lead with that. You don’t earn the right to tell them they’ll be stronger until they know you can listen to the pain and fear, and do so without judgment.
The saying originates with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who was known for the even more famous pronouncement that God was dead. In his moral vision of humanity, those who faced up to the chaos and meaninglessness of life and took charge of their own fate were to be praised for their courage and nobility. The true “Supermen” followed the dictates of their own noble will and were above the law, or for that matter, religion.
Nietzsche also had no patience for the Jews, who promoted the opposite temper and seemed to make a virtue out of humility and suffering. It’s for such reasons that the philosopher has often been blamed for the rise of the Third Reich. While that’s now a controversial and much disputed perspective, Christians should still consider the source before quoting the saying.
I suspect that Nietzsche would also have had little use for the following words of the apostle Paul. In Second Corinthians, Paul writes about his “thorn in the flesh” — some nagging physical limitation (nobody knows what it was) that keeps him humble despite the amazing things he’s seen and done. He’s asked God to take it away, but to no avail, and Paul has made peace with that fact:
I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone. He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” So I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me. Therefore, I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong. (2 Cor 12:8-10, CEB)
“Power made perfect (that is, complete) in weakness”? Nietzsche would have hated the idea. Four times in this short passage, Paul talks about his “weakness”; the word could literally be translated as “not strength.” Paul not only talks about his weaknesses, he accepts them, he boasts about them. And why? Because what he wants people to see in him is Christ’s power rather than his own.
To Nietzsche, “whatever doesn’t kill you” would make you stronger — but only if you opposed it, only if you bent your will and determination to mastering it. That is not Paul’s stance. Not that Paul was passive or complacent. Far from it. But for the apostle, God was most certainly not dead. He submitted his will to the will of the one who knocked him flat on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-9). If that meant making peace with his thorn, even finding purpose in it, then so be it.
Our world is one in which we glorify strength and accomplishment. When we apply for a job, we put our best foot forward; we speak of (and yes, exaggerate) what we do well, not what we can’t do. When we need letters of reference, we ask people whom we think will describe us in glowing terms. It’s hard to imagine the job going to the applicant who wrote honestly about his or her deficits, weaknesses, or suffering — unless it was to highlight how the applicant triumphed over them.
And that’s true even of ministry positions in churches where Paul’s message is preached.
“Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Nietzsche isn’t saying that adversity makes you stronger by itself; rather, adversity is an opportunity to assert your will against it, and it’s that willful resistance that makes you stronger, more able to assert your will in the future. That’s not wrong as far as it goes, and Paul himself was certainly no shrinking violet.
But there is also a kind of strength that comes from making peace with the fact that some things cannot be changed. Our acceptance of that fact, and our endurance in the midst of adversity, is testimony to God’s strength in us, as opposed to our strength alone.
Let’s give the last word here to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who penned the well-known Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.