lesson: building strength can feel weak

A couple of weeks ago I wrote that doing hard things makes us stronger. And while I’m not about to go back on that thought, I should probably add this. When you’re in the middle of doing the thing that is making you strong, you are very unlikely to feel strong. In fact, that is the time when you are most likely to be aware of your weakness. It’s a time when you face your limits and push against them, and that never feels comfortable.

Inevitably, I had this thought as I was running up a steep incline connecting two contour paths. The incline was rocky and uneven, it was towards the beginning of the run when I felt barely warmed up and, as I think I may have mentioned, it was steep! 

I was about halfway along this 1km stretch, my breath was a little ragged and my calves were screeching for mercy, when I remembered the ‘lesson’ I had described just two short weeks earlier. ‘Hard means strong,’ I told myself, and then it dawned on me. Building strength is a process which forces us outside of our comfort zone, to a place where we face our lack of strength. That is, we come to outer edges of our strength and then dig deeper into depths we haven’t had to reach before. That zone - beyond our known capability and before failure - is the place of growth.

Physical training is one area of life that teaches us the benefits of failure. In weight-training, for example, it can be a good thing to lift a weight ‘to failure,’ that is, until you physically cannot lift it again. Working to failure causes you to push up against that mental or physical boundary between what you feel capable of and what feels impossible. Slowly but surely the boundary shifts: you have built strength, the limit of your capacity has been extended.

In running, at least trail running, we don’t necessarily push ourselves to the point of gut-wrenching failure (we leave that to the track meets). And yet we do train in ways that consistently see us pushing into the uncomfortable place of wondering how much longer we can keep going. We are building not just physical strength, but also mental strength. We can push further and stay longer with the discomfort than our minds would have us believe.

the strength-growing zone

In life in general, we don’t always choose to enter the strength-growing zone. Growing up, we develop a resistance to feeling weak. Our cultures commonly teach us that failure is bad, so we stop experimenting with things we are not good at. We pull back, we stick with the things we know we can do. We learn to self-identify by the things we are ‘not.’ Oh, I’m not creative, we say. Or, I’m not a public speaker. We become allergic to those contexts that cause us to feel less than strong.

Sometimes, of course, life happens to us in ways that throw us into the deep-end of discomfort. Our kid gets sick and we don’t know what’s wrong. Suddenly we are navigating medical services and hospital visits, while trying to manage a job and keep on top of our finances. We are stretched beyond anything we’ve known before and we feel anything but strong. Or perhaps the mental health of an elderly parent starts deteriorating, forcing us to collaborate with siblings we haven’t been close to for years, and triggering all kinds of unresolved childhood junk. It’s uncomfortable, messy and we are very much outside our comfort zones. In these times - when we are faced with the limits of our capacity, such as they have been up to this point, and then  required to go beyond those limits - it could be that we are growing strong in the very place where we feel weak.


In what area of your life are you undergoing the stretching of the strength-growing zone? Could it be that, rather than facing you with your weakness, these are in fact invitations to develop greater power or endurance? How might this perspective change the way you experience the destabilising effects of such moments? To what extent are you able to embrace the discomfort and, heaven forbid, the sense of failure, and then keep going? 


God of all strength, would you meet me in those places where I feel weak. Through the empowering of your Spirit, when I come to the limits of my capacity, enable me to develop a greater degree of strength than I have known before. May my spirit, mind and body be strengthened by you as you invite me to encounter you in those stretching places.