[Listen to Audio] We all hated wind sprints. Fifty yards up and back. Then forty, then thirty, then twenty, and finally ten. My football coach ended most every practice with this particular form of torture.
Already gassed by two hours of running through new plays, working on technique, and full-speed scrimmaging, I dreaded standing in line waiting for the whistle to send each group of five or ten racing down the field.
Being the fastest guy on the team has its advantages. It proved a serious negative during sprints. If I didn’t win every time, coach knew I was dogging it.
One day my friend Rob gave me his secret to enduring sprints. He said, “I just tell myself that it lasts about ten minutes. They don’t last forever. You just have to get through ten minutes.”
I adopted his approach and it helped. A little. And his words shaped how I thought about endurance for years. Get through it. Dig deep and gut it out. You can do this. You’ll be stronger on the other side of a struggle.
From time to time I hear that philosophy summarized in the phrase, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
It’s a catchy line in a Jack-Reacher, tough guy sort of way. And rehearsing that mantra probably adds some motivation in the middle of a CrossFit workout or during marathon training. But as a philosophy of life—especially a Christian philosophy of life—this motto has some problems.
For starters, consider what the author may have meant. Friedrich Nietzsche coined the phrase in his work Twilight of the Idols. In that work, Nietzsche advocates a transvaluation or inversion of values. In particular he criticizes Christianity for inverting nature and being hostile to life.
To be fair, Nietzsche says positive things about Jesus in different contexts. But he still ties life’s meaning to drawing on our own inner reserves to overcome not only our obstacles but the more limited versions of ourselves.
Nietzsche would not advocate central Christian teachings like drawing on a power greater than ourselves and relying upon the transforming power of God’s grace.
If these considerations don’t persuade you that this is not the slogan for you, then think about one undeniable truth. The death rate remains 100%. Self-overcoming stops at the grave.
We all die. Drawing solely on our own inner reserves will get us only so far. The final enemy is death. And, to borrow a phrase from the late Robert Farrar Capon, the dead can’t pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
In the final analysis, we are all either losers or we must reach beyond ourselves to a power greater than ourselves. Only Jesus raises the dead to new life.
So, when Jesus tells us that those who endure will win their souls, he cannot possibly mean that we should do whatever it takes to preserve our lives. On the contrary, he has said the exact opposite.
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:24)
“Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” (Luke 17:33)
When he teaches us to endure, Jesus means something more like this: Give God time to heal you. To make you a new creation. The way of Jesus is the way of dying and rising.
Merely getting through horrible experiences alive can leave us dismantled and tormented. On this Veteran’s Day weekend it seem especially appropriate that we think about the women and men returning from the wars we’ve been waging for over a decade now.
Between eleven and twenty percent of the veterans returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While some recover, an agonizing number of vets live on the streets. More than twenty commit suicide every day.
Less commonly known is the condition called Moral Injury. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a Marine veteran of Afghanistan, describes the condition this way. In combat, people develop a second self capable of killing a perceived threat without hesitation. In Iraq and Afghanistan, women, children, and the elderly will sometimes carry a Kalashnikov or strap on a suicide bomb.
This second self contrasts sharply with the first self who visits grandparents on holidays, delivers Thanksgiving meals to the poor, and tucks children into bed with nursery rhymes.
Returning to civilian life, the second self must merge back into the first self. In Moral Injury, sufferers find this nearly impossible to do. A large part of them longs to be back on the battlefield, the place where they feel normal. They can still be excited by the prospect of opening fire when someone cuts them off in traffic. At the same time, they feel how abnormal this is.
Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t kill them. But war left them morally adrift and incapable of reconnecting with the community they fought to protect.
Men and women suffering from Moral Injury are not weak. But they are shattered, and they lack the resources within themselves to put the pieces back together. Over time, treatment heals the wounds to their moral foundations. The old life dies so that they can receive a new life.
Those suffering from moral injury illustrate for us the Way of Jesus. The way of dying and rising.
Jesus does not teach us that God rewards the strong. The winners. The ones who muscle obstacles aside.
God restores the shattered. Mends the broken. Returns the lost. Revives the weak.
To endure is to wait. To trust. As Anne Lamott put it somewhere, to understand that grace always bats last.
Many things will wound us. One day something will kill us. But Jesus is stronger than death. His love makes us a new creation. All he asks is that we give him time.