How Struggles Make You Stronger

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” There are some days, no doubt, when we can’t tell the difference. At least that’s how it feels to me. There are days when we can’t decipher if whatever we’re going through is “it,” our final undoing, or if the details are just sparks in a blazing fire, forging our steely resolve. If we knew the outcome, I suppose it would remove the element of faith. The struggle during that time of confusion, that time of wandering, that time of battle, can and does at times seem like the heaviest of darkness.

Today, I’m thinking of dear friends who have battled different forms of cancer. I hate cancer. HATE. I try not to hate things, but I hate cancer. I don’t know about it, personally, but I understand that chemotherapy treatments essentially take your body to the brink of death, creating a sort of “clean slate,” killing good and bad cells alike. I’m told that through other treatments, you are strengthened and brought back from the brink, hopefully without the deadly cancer cells. I’m sure that’s the most elementary and basic explanation, but even so, it sounds beyond terrifying.

Being brought close to death, to the brink of existence, whether literally from chemotherapy, or figuratively from the circumstances of life, will either make us stronger, healthier, or better in the end, or it will kill us: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or in all those ways. That’s something I happen to know a lot about.

I’ve been in a transitional period in life, a wandering in the desert, so to speak. I think it started when we moved to Franklin almost five years ago. While we have been blessed and have prospered in many ways, I have also struggled a great deal. This is no secret. I don’t feel the need to get into details, but I’ve struggled physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually for some time now. I’ve battled changing employment situations, challenging family decisions, my own issues with anxiety and depression, the guilt and shame that comes with anxiety and depression, not to mention the challenges of moving to a new place and establishing new connections and new friends. It has been a challenge. It has been a struggle. There were times I didn’t know if tomorrow would come.

If you’ve read anything of mine, you know I take issue with people who misuse God’s word, not out of their own ignorance (because I’m sure we all do that), but those who use it as a cop-out or as a diluted substitution for empathy or action. I do not like “all things happen for a reason” talks, especially at funerals or when a child is sick. I do not like when people dismiss a person’s suffering with “Well, at least….” conversations. I don’t respond to “time heals all things,” or the inane “just give it to God” clichés.

I respond to empathy. I respect vulnerability. My healing comes from people who are not afraid to sit with me while I cry, or to just say “Wow. That stinks” or those who will admit that they don’t have answers, but they do have chocolate. Redemption comes when heroes of mine say, “Me, too.”

I know, in my head, that any struggle makes me stronger. Just as lifting weights or stretching helps us physically, I know that these troubles have expanded my heart, my soul, my mind, and have changed me. I can see that I have grown. I can feel that I have grown. My marriage, my parenting skills, my understanding of myself, my faith, my peace of mind, and my relationship with God, have all grown exponentially in these few short years. There is no doubt about it: I would not have grown in those ways without the struggle.


But friend, I must admit that some days, a LOT of days, I’m just tired. I can’t discern if this is just a long, slow, painful death by way of a thousand tiny needles, or if it’s all just a long slow walk through fiery hells, burning away all impurities in me, to hopefully, miraculously, reveal a purer, stronger, more flexible, and AWESOME me. I hope it’s the latter. Is this the fire from which the legendary Phoenix rises? Will I someday look up and finally feel like Leonidas from the movie 300 and stand nose to nose with Satan or Trouble or Temptation and then land an epic “THIS IS SPARTA!!” kick right in its chest? Right now, I don’t know.

Wow. I just got all Debbie Downer, didn’t I?  Nope. I just got REAL. I don’t have the answers. All I have is the daily struggle with this life. I can either choose to move toward stronger or I can choose to be done. That’s all I’ve got.

Here’s the bad news: between the two choices, “Stronger” or “Done,” you can’t know the difference, at least not when you’re going through it. You can’t know because you can’t see the future. You can make plans and you can try to help yourself out, but you cannot know the outcome. The determination can only be made in hindsight.

But, I’ve got good news. God, the Father, Alpha and Omega, creator of all things, hears my cries and He hears your cries and knows about your suffering. Not only that, but He cares whether it kills you or makes you stronger. Either way, He will be there for you.

A verse that comforts me says, Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell. What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.” Matthew 10:28-29

Not a single sparrow, huh? Not a one. One. Not one. Not even one measly, useless, plain little brown bird.

Have you ever seen a sparrow? There’s no doubt you have. They are tiny little birds, mostly brownish in color, with some black or white markings, varying slightly. They don’t weigh much at all. I saw one estimate that said an average sparrow has the same mass as about 6 nickels. To say they are common is a gross understatement. According to my research, it’s safe to say that no matter where you live, you’ve encountered a sparrow. They’re plentiful throughout the world. According to Wikipedia, sparrows were first plentiful in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Settlers imported them to the Americas, Australia, and other places, too. They are highly adaptable and can live in virtually any habitat. Who knew?

A few years ago, over Memorial Day weekend, Blake and the boys and I visited my parents in Decatur, Alabama. While at their home, relaxed and congregated on their back deck, on which they’d been working for a long while. One of our favorite things about sitting out there was seeing all the birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and critters of all kinds. I began to understand why some folks just like to sit and look at birds for hours. Despite myself, I was mesmerized by watching the cardinal pair feeding on sunflower seeds, the finches eating the thistle, the bluebirds feverishly feeding their babies, and all the other birds and activity, coming in and out of the yard.

On Saturday, we saw a group of tiny brown birds flitting about. Somebody in our group casually mentioned that one of them had a string hanging from its foot. We figured it was from a nest, or perhaps for building a nest. Seeing a bird with a string in its grasp is not unusual. The bird was flying fine and besides, there was no possible way to catch it and remove the string. Understandably, we all went on and forgot about it.

On Monday morning, I sat on the deck drinking coffee and talking to Blake and Mom. As we talked, I started hearing a sound behind me. It sounded like short bursts of rapid whirring. I couldn’t locate its source. I thought it might be the air conditioning unit or something in the neighbor’s yard. I went in and out of the house several times, but I kept hearing this sound and I realized it was coming from a thicket of vines on Mom’s lattice fence.

Even though it sounded harmless, I approached the vines with some hesitance. I clapped. I shook the vines. I kicked the fence. The sound stopped. I walked away. It started again. I walked back over and started to move the vines. All I could think about was the scene from Christmas Vacation where Clark peeks into the Christmas tree and the squirrel flies out onto his face.

Then, after looking in a few places, I finally saw it. There was a small brown bird deep in the vines. Initially, I thought it was just a baby bird, perched on the branch, unable to fly, and simply testing its wings over and over. I went inside, determined to put some food close to it. Luckily, Mom decided to come over to see the bird with me. When I showed the bird to her, she made me see what I had missed. It wasn’t a baby bird, unable to fly. Rather, it was the bird with the string on its foot. The string was tangled in the vines and the bird was stuck, at times hanging by one foot, struggling, flapping desperately but to no avail.

Let’s pause for some background. There are two things you should know about me right now. First, I love a challenge. Second, I love animals. Put the two together, and I’m in my sweet spot. This was perfect.

After assessing the situation, I tenderly closed the vines that had surrounded the bird, careful not to add to his stress. I hustled to dad’s shop and found some old cleaning gloves and some scissors and went to work. I returned, determined to help. While mom held the vines back, I reached in and tried to secure the bird, being careful not to break or bend his little wings. He weighed next to nothing. It was a delicate balance between grasping him and crushing him. He chirped and squawked and struggled against me. I finally grabbed him just right and then the little booger BIT me, or rather bit my GLOVE as hard as he could and latched on. Then an instant later, his beak firmly attached to my glove, his body in my hand, he closed his eyes, still with clamped beak, and went limp as if to say, “Yep. This is it – go on and get it over with.”

We carefully cut the plastic string off his foot as much as possible. His little leg was raw from his struggle. His foot hung limp. He looked fragile and near death. I had zero hope of him recovering. To my surprise, however, as soon as he realized he was free from his plastic shackle, he leapt out of my hand, disappearing into some ground cover. Again, I had no hope for his recovery.

We spent the rest of the day watching for him, keeping the kids and dogs away, putting out water and seed, eventually naming him “Fredbird,” and cheering as he made big strides: first just surviving; then flying up one step on the deck, flying up to the water fountain, then eating and drinking, flying up to the top of the fence and ultimately flying around and beyond the yard with his bird friends by the end of the day. Although I knew he might not survive anyway and knew that his leg would probably be permanently damaged and possibly useless, it made my heart smile to know that we had at least given him a chance and he was fighting to live, despite all the odds.

Another thing you should know about me is this: I’m a sentimental type. I don’t know why such little things have a great impact on me, but that little bird inspired me and gave me some new energy. For the first time in a long time, freeing him from the string and the vines, I felt like myself. Helping that tiny little bird reminded me that I’m a servant at heart, and that it’s a good thing. Seeing him improve throughout the day reminded me that I’m an encourager and champion, especially for underdogs, outcasts, and the weirdo crowd. It also reminded me of the verse I quoted above. Not one sparrow falls. Not even one.

Not one sparrow falls without God knowing about it. If on that day, a bald eagle or macaw got stuck in the vines in our yard, it would probably make national news. If we accidentally killed a parakeet or a peacock, we’d probably feel sad over the death of such a beautiful creature. But sparrows, finches, and all their insignificant budgie cousins mean virtually nothing to us. Yet God our Father, and THEIR FATHER, knows when one falls from the sky. He knows when one falls from its nest. He knows when one is hung by a plastic string in a thicket of vines and gives up all hope. I find comfort in the fact that God uses a tiny, common, nondescript, “nothing” of a bird to illustrate His love for us. How many of us, especially when we’re facing trouble, feel as small, common, and insignificant? I do.

If God knows when the sparrow falls, He certainly knows me. He knows my husband, my kids, my hopes, my dreams. He knows my fears, my weaknesses, and all my struggles. He knows my anxiety, my depression, my darkest secrets. He knows my pain, my disappointment, and my shame. He knows my joy and my troubles. He knows my strengths and my weaknesses. He knows, but what’s more amazing is that He cares.

It was just a little bird and an otherwise normal weekend, but it reminded me of God’s infinite and unfaltering love for me. Whether my troubles simply tie me to an inconvenience, or permanently weigh me with a seemingly unbearable yoke, I think the better question is not whether the troubles will kill me or make me stronger. I think the question is “During the troubles, and despite the troubles, in whom will I trust?” When it’s scary and when I brace, like poor Fredbird, for my imminent demise; when I’m technically free, but left to carry scars; when I’ve closed my eyes, ready for the end; when I see no way out; when I’m terrified and the odds are stacked against me; when I feel small and insignificant thinking nobody hears my cries or understands my struggle; in all these things, I must fix my eyes on God. I must trust in Him.

Maya Angelou said, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

I wish I could say otherwise, but the truth is that I am still struggling. There are challenges, both large and small. I’m a working mother of two little boys and I’m also a wife. I struggle with the daily chores and time management. I still deal with anxiety and depression. I deal with the unfair and unpredictable ripple effects from them, too. I struggle with feelings of inadequacy, with self-confidence, with mommy guilt, and body image. I struggle with finding time for friends, with making new friends, and with trying to not be judgmental. On some days, I struggle to get out of bed. Some days, I wonder if it’s even worth it – if I’m even worth it – if it even matters what I do. From a small bird tangled in a thicket, God spoke this message to me: I see you. You matter. Keep fighting.

I think I’ll do that. I think I’ll keep fighting. I know I will fall, but I will not be defeated. I will be stronger. For myself, my family, my friends, and my God, I will keep trying and struggling. I will not give up. I will struggle and conquer another day. I will turn my face to God, as He has turned His face to mine, and I will fight. Why? Because I know He’s fighting for me.

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