It was nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who originally claimed, “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” The maxim, however callous when offered to a person in crisis, is true in part. Ease and comfort don’t produce results. Resistance does. Like training for a marathon or lifting weights, it is our determination to push through difficulty that builds up our strength. Even so, we all know someone whose life disintegrated as a result of their challenges— Nietzsche’s life included.
So why do storms devastate some homes while having little impact on others? Why does one person collapse in their crises while another appears stronger in spite of them? And why is it that some sufferers experience a deepening of faith while others end up denouncing it?
The disciples knew firsthand what it feels like to be caught in an unexpected storm. Luke tells the story:
One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side of the lake.”
So they got into a boat and set out. As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger.
The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”
He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples.
—Luke 8:22–25 (NIV)
Mark calls the storm a “furious squall,” a violent and sudden storm that overwhelmed the boat and terrified the disciples (Mark 4:37). They couldn’t crank up the boat’s V-8 engine or send up a flare for the Coast Guard. It was man versus nature, and nature proved stronger.
But the disciples missed one life-saving reality: Jesus was in their boat.
In the days before, the disciples witnessed Jesus perform breathtaking miracles, miracles that left no doubt as to His divine nature: a centurion’s servant healed from a distance with a word from Jesus (Luke 7:1–10); a widow’s only son raised from death back to life (vv. 11–16). This same miracle-working, death-defying Jesus sat only a few feet away from them in the boat.
Even so, the strength of the storm revealed the status of their faith.
“Don’t you care if we drown?” they cried (Mark 4:38).
When the storm and their fear raged, their faith in the Lord of the Storm flagged.
Over the past several years, we have found ourselves in the middle of furious global storms. Power-hungry rulers kill innocents in the name of their personal appetites and evil agendas. Racial tensions that have long bubbled under the surface have come to an explosive head. Institutions that once seemed unshakeable now sit mired in disrepute and doubt. We no longer believe “the best is yet to come.” And for many of us, the bedrock on which we stand shifts beneath our feet.
What do we do when the ground grows soft? Where do we turn to find a better footing?
Where is your faith?
Much like a house needs a solid foundation, the spiritual life must be grounded in the cement of faith. Church attendance, pithy spiritual quotes, and a playlist filled with Christian music aren’t enough. Like home decor, they decorate the life of faith but don’t ground it.
If our Christian activity isn’t sourced in something substantial, it won’t weather the worst of life’s storms. The first time a squall rolls in, our rote religiosity will help about as much as wallpaper in a tornado. The well-decorated walls of the Christian life will disintegrate into rubble.
So what hope is there for us, we well-intentioned disciples who sometimes change our spiritual whims in moments of crisis and questions? We who fear our circumstances more than our Christ? How do we live as men and women of indefatigable faith when the world falls apart?
In his bestselling book The Reason for God, Timothy Keller, author and founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, shares this illustration that helps to answer that question:
“Imagine you are on a high cliff and you lose your footing and begin to fall. Just beside you as you fall is a branch sticking out of the very edge of the cliff. It is your only hope and it is more than strong enough to support your weight. How can it save you? If your mind is filled with intellectual certainty that the branch can support you, but you don’t actually reach out and grab it, you are lost. If your mind is instead filled with doubts and uncertainty that the branch can hold you, but you reach out and grab it anyway, you will be saved. Why? It is not the strength of your faith but the object of your faith that actually saves you.”
So how much faith in the branch does it take to be saved? Just enough to reach for it.
Jesus wants the same for you too, friend. He sees your fears and knows your questions.
Follow me, he says, hand extended.
You need only to reach for him.