What Happens When God Doesn't Give the Strength You Prayed For
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” Paul said jubilantly in Philippians. For about ten years of my life, I felt like this verse was a lie. I kept asking God for strength to be the kind of Christian I knew I should be—but the strength didn’t come. But having God not give me the strength I asked for turned out to be Jesus’ gracious provision. I wanted to be a strong Christian. Instead, Jesus helped me experience the blessing of bein
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” Paul said jubilantly in Philippians. For about ten years of my life, I felt like this verse was a lie. I kept asking God for strength to be the kind of Christian I knew I should be—but the strength didn’t come.
The problem began in college. On the surface, I was growing and maturing in a sincere, Christ-powered faith. I made Jesus a priority: joining a campus ministry, attending leadership training, witnessing, leading Bible studies, and reading Christian resources. I longed to bring my whole life before God—my studies, love life, social interactions, future career, and values.
Mostly, I wanted to make good choices—to depend on God’s power to guide me into right living, right thinking, and peace. If I did, surely I’d find the strength to live well, avoid painful mistakes, and experience Christian peace.
Then I graduated. Within a few months, I fought with my parents and got kicked out of their house. I found out the ministry I’d applied to join didn’t think I was a good candidate for a staff position—they asked me to get counseling instead. Then, when I got the counseling, my therapist told me I was depressed.
I was unemployed, alone, frightened, and rudderless.
All my careful Christian striving had done nothing to shield me.
I loved Jesus, and trusted Him. I thought following a Christian path would give me strength. Instead, my Christian activity had distracted me from my pain, depression, and self-loathing.
But having God not give me the strength I asked for turned out to be Jesus’ gracious provision. Rather than depending on hard work and careful behavior, I learned to open myself to intimacy with God and lean on others for help.
I wanted to be a strong Christian. Instead, Jesus helped me experience the blessing of being brokenhearted.
Photo Credit: Unsplash/Sylas Boesten
We Need Honest Weakness More than Strength
When I was in seventh grade, I played the role of Annie in the musical. It was tremendously physically taxing—I got sick at the beginning of rehearsals and spent the entire run with bronchitis, losing weight by the week.
The morning of that last show, I woke with a fire in my throat, but I didn’t tell anyone I had gotten worse. Instead, stoic, I crunched a few cough drops, went on stage, and lost my voice in the middle of the show.
Let’s just say that experience is a tidy metaphor for my entire life. I will put on my game face, push past my body’s objections and never once let anyone know I’m struggling.
Take my post-college breakdown. Had I not been turned down for the ministry job, I never would have known I needed therapy, much less gotten any. It felt humiliating to be told I was mentally unfit for ministry… except it was true. Through the interview process, the staff could see I had spiritual bronchitis, and was operating on fumes. I would have collapsed in their ministry had they not turned me down.
My mental illness was understandable: I had suffered a lot of trauma as a kid. No one had helped me grieve losses I suffered in elementary school; I had a lot of belated processing to do.
Growing up, I learned to be strong and keep anyone from finding out just how badly I was doing. I was so successful at this that I even deceived myself. Being turned down for that ministry meant I had to tell my parents, friends, and acquaintances that I had failed; it meant I had to reckon with being mentally ill. Everywhere I turned, I had to wrestle with the mismatch between the “strong” front I put up in the spotlight and the deep weaknesses I masked offstage.
I had to get real with God, too. I was so angry about feeling humiliated. I very nearly lost my faith as a result. But rather than working harder to be a strong Christian, I began to tell God what I really thought.
It saved me.
I thought Jesus wanted my strength, my air-tight theology, and my sincere desire to please, but instead, he wanted me. He even wanted me when I was depressed, unemployed, and angry. He wanted me to be right where I was, no stage makeup required.
Weakness Helps You Depend on Others, Including God
You wouldn’t think losing your marbles in the privacy of your own home would be more excruciating than doing so live in front of an audience. But you’d be wrong.
Pretty much everyone struggles with the transition to parenthood. But the trauma I lived through as a child resurfaced with a vengeance when I had my own kids to parent. I fell into another depression.
If college had forced me to be honest about my weakness, new parenthood pushed me to ask for help. Socially isolated by the abrupt transition to motherhood, I was desperate for companionship.
I’m generally more comfortable on my own than in groups, and would rather walk on hot coals than venture into gatherings where I feel like a third wheel. But in the year I was depressed, I was willing to do anything to combat my isolation. I showed up at a walking group of established friends, nervous I was unwelcome. I began showing up at a mere acquaintance’s house in the middle of long afternoon, afraid I was a burden. I joined a community playgroup where I knew no one, and practiced the small talk I usually find excruciating.
This was tremendously out of character for me. If I’d had my way, I never would have risked being an awkward third wheel. But I needed the companionship so desperately I humbled myself and kept reaching out for help. Once again, I had to set down the mask of strength and admit I was desperate.
Especially when I was depressed, this did not feel like a blessing. Just like in college, it felt like a humiliating admission that I had failed. But Jesus isn’t in the business of helping me perfect my performance. He’s in the business of transforming my soul.
Quite honestly, asking for help from God and other people still challenges me. It feels like a high-wire act. Recently, I emailed a wise friend to give me counsel about a knotty problem I’m having. I had to keep reminding myself that if the roles were reversed, I’d be delighted to help her. Being the needy one feels terrifying.
I find it easier to ask God for help then other people, because God is invisible, and our conversations top-secret. Asking practical help from human beings is usually my hardest spiritual practice.
“Abide in me,” Jesus says. Be utterly dependent on God for everything. Be willing to admit you’re weak, powerless and bewildered. Be willing to let go of your earnest plans to succeed at faith. Be willing to abandon your good name and stellar reputation. Be willing to confess your need.
Strength Is Overrated… and Essential
I don’t want to be flippant about how God uses our weaknesses and how much better it is when we’re weak. If you’ve been abused, for instance, these words might sound like a return to slavery. If you’re chronically ill, and being weak is a daily physical burden, relishing weakness might turn your stomach.
I do not want to glorify the very real pain and suffering weakness can cause. Yes, Christ is made perfect through our weaknesses, but suffering itself is not something to celebrate.
Still, though, I cannot deny that in failure’s furnace, God transforms our souls. Every person I admire has affirmed that suffering has deepened and transformed them into people with uncanny hope. It’s not cheap optimism, or shallow theology, but a resilience and dignity born of fire.
God has not always given me the strength I asked for, and yet I can still agree with Paul: I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. But the strength Jesus gave me wasn’t the kind I wanted. I wanted the shiny success of the competent. He gave me the strength of a humble servant, who bends low, even unto death.
Jesus knows the kind of strength that moves mountains and saves our souls. Thanks be to God: we’re given a savior who meets us in our brokenness.
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Photo Credit: Getty Images/kieferpix