As promised, here is the first chapter of my new book, Stronger: Trading Brokenness for Unbreakable Strength.
Thanks for reading along!
Chapter 1: When I Am Weak
This isn’t how it works in the movies.
On a chilly Sunday morning in December, David Works and his family—his wife, Marie, and daughters Stephanie, Laurie, Rachel, and Grace—finish worshipping at New Life Church in Colorado Springs.
As usual, they stay after the service to enjoy conversation with friends.
On their way to the exit, David announces that lunch will be at a nearby hamburger restaurant called Good Times. The members of the Works family pull their coats tighter and step into a brisk breeze, shuffling carefully across patches of snow in the parking lot.
As the family approaches its white Toyota Sienna van, Laurie heads for the left-side sliding door.
“No, no—you have to sit in the back on the other side,” Rachel says.
It is a Works family tradition that everyone keeps the same seat for both parts of a trip. Laurie rode to church in the rear right seat of the van, and Rachel intends to continue the custom.
“Okay, okay,” Laurie says.
She walks around the back of the van, enters through the right side sliding door, and takes her place in the back seat. Rachel, behind Laurie, pauses in front of the open right-side door to look for something in her purse.
That is when it starts.
David, sitting in the front passenger seat and in the process of buckling his seat belt, hears a sharp metallic sound. What was that? He lets go of the seat belt and swivels his head to the right, surveying the parking lot. To his shock, a young man dressed in black stands just twenty yards away. He’s pointing a large assault rifle at the Toyota.
What in the world?
Another shot rings out.
“Get down! Get down! There’s a shooter out there! He’s shooting at us!” David screams. He curls up in the van’s footwell, trying to get as low as possible. He hears the sound of more gunshots mixed with his family’s screams. The sound of the shots changes; David understands the shooter is on the move.
Wait a minute—where is Rachel?
She’d been just outside the van when the shooting started. David twists to look behind him. His sixteen-year-old daughter is still standing next to the Toyota, a dazed look on her face. Her burnt-orange T-shirt has a hole in it at the level of her lower-right rib cage.
“Rachel!” David cries.
“I think I’ve been shot,” Rachel says. Suddenly, she collapses, falling backward onto the blacktop.
David jerks his door handle and jumps out. The instant his feet hit the ground, another volley of bullets whiz past his head. He turns; the gunman is no more than ten yards away, rifle pointed directly at him. Before he can move, David feels pain on his right side, just above his waist. He too falls to the pavement. The shots continue.
“Gracie, get down and play dead! He’s still here!” David orders. His youngest daughter, eleven years old, had been moving from the backseat to help her sister.
The firing stops momentarily, then resumes, but the sound is more distant and muffled. David realizes the gunman has gone into the church.
David has been shot in the abdomen and groin. He stretches his arm in Rachel’s direction, willing his body to move. His daughter needs her father—her protector—yet David can’t even crawl. Through tears, he says, “I’m so sorry, honey. I can’t reach you.”
“That’s okay, Daddy,” Rachel whispers.
On this horrifying, heart wrenching day, David Works would give anything to turn into a Hollywood action hero. If this were a movie, he would be Superman, leaping in front of his daughter and watching bullets bounce harmlessly off his chest. With his super strength, he would pick up the van and fly his family to safety, then return to catch the bad guy before he could hurt anyone else.
But this isn’t a movie.
David Works has no super strength. He is lying in a church parking lot, weak, helpless, and bleeding, and watching the life ebb from his beloved daughter.
Let’s leave this traumatic scene for the moment and visit the mother of a different family. Lori Mangrum is a pastor’s wife. She and her husband, John, have two children. But Lori isn’t thinking about her family right now. She’s slumped in a chair at home. The curtains are drawn. For months, she hasn’t slept or eaten well.
Lori grew up in a Christian home and learned to smile and appear joyful no matter what was going on around her. Like any family, she and her parents and siblings had their share of troubles, but Lori didn’t want to burden her parents with her own fears and worries. She became the “sunshine” for her family, always working to cheer up others but rarely addressing her own emotional needs.
Years later, after marrying John, having kids, and moving to a new home, Lori started experiencing panic attacks. Without warning, feelings of terror overwhelmed her. She felt a crushing weight in her chest and became nauseous, dizzy, and disoriented. She thought she would die. The attacks increased to the point that Lori couldn’t drive a car or go into a grocery store.
One day, after a series of tests, a physician explained to Lori that she had a benign heart condition that could cause some of the symptoms of panic attacks. Finally! Lori thought. I knew they would find something!
But the doctor wasn’t finished.
“You have another problem,” he said gently. “I believe this problem manifested itself because of some psychological problems. I want you to see a psychiatrist.”
Lori couldn’t believe it. I don’t have any stress, she told herself, and what stress I do have I handle better than many others!
Now, sitting in the dark at home for week upon week, Lori is depressed. Friends have told her, “Pray harder, get yourself together, and stop this!” Yet she doesn’t even have the energy to talk, eat, or take a shower. Lori is disgusted with herself. She would give anything to change her circumstances, but emotionally, she feels weak and helpless.
Those Uncomfortable Feelings
You may never have faced a crazed gunman or dealt with debilitating depression, but I’m guessing that at some point in life—perhaps many times—you’ve experienced some of the same feelings that David Works and Lori Mangrum went through in the incidents described above.
Weak. Helpless. Useless. Vulnerable.
Some pretty uncomfortable feelings, right?
We all do our best to avoid situations that expose our failings and fragility. But whether it’s a life-or-death crisis or the challenge of simply getting through another day, sooner or later we each confront the undesired sense of being powerless, worthless, feeble, disabled, and dependent on others.
And we don’t like it.
Most of us, especially in America, grow up with the idea that we can shape our own destinies.
This, after all, is the land of opportunity. This is a place where dreams come true. We see ourselves as rugged individualists, fully capable of taking control of our lives and rising to the top.
And the weak? “Those people” are not us. Most of us profess to have empathy for the struggling and more helpless members of our society. But many of us are also conditioned to feel, deep down, a certain amount of disdain for the unfortunate few. You’re homeless? That’s too bad—but maybe you need to work harder at finding a job.
You’re depressed? Yeah, I get discouraged sometimes too—but enough of feeling sorry for yourself; it’s time to get yourself together.
Part of the problem is that the weak and helpless are all around us, and when we see others having problems, it reminds us that we’re vulnerable too. Some of us cope by closing our eyes and shutting our ears to troubles. I will confess that this can be my attitude at times.
But no matter how hard we try to ignore the trials of others, they rise to our attention like steam from a teapot. We think we’ve guarded our minds and hearts, and suddenly we’re faced with:
• The distraught mother who watches her teenage son storm out of the house in anger, not knowing what to say or do and wondering when or if she’ll see him again.
• The discouraged father of four who has lost his job, has been evicted from their home, and is so deeply in debt that he doesn’t see a way out.
• The terrified little girl who is sexually molested by her “uncle” when Mom isn’t home and is told to keep quiet about it “or else.”
• The lonely wife who thought she was marrying a soul mate and is desperate because she can’t get her husband to talk to her.
• The sullen fourth-grader who repeatedly gets teased and bullied by a sixth-grader on the way home from school.
• The worried single mom whose son is being recruited by a neighborhood gang.
• The shocked fifty-year-old who has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
• The young woman who feels paralyzed by depression and guilt over an abortion.
• The husband who can’t forgive himself for an affair.
• The despairing grandmother who is watching her children and grandchildren destroy their lives with alcohol and drugs, yet doesn’t know what to do about it.
It’s hard enough to put aside the struggles and weaknesses of family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors. It’s harder still when the hurting wife, husband, mother, father, little girl, young man, or grandmother is us.
Do you know what I’m talking about? Are there times when you feel utterly incapable of dealing with the skyscraper-sized obstacle in your path? When you wish you didn’t feel more helpless than a bug on your back? When you wish you were Superman or Wonder Woman instead of plain old pint-sized “me”?
If so, I understand at least some of what you’re experiencing.
One of my earliest memories, from when I was four years old, is of a man suddenly bursting through our front door one night as my brothers and sisters and I were watching TV. The man looked like a monster. His eyes were puffy, red, and glassy. His face was unshaven. He carried an oak-handled, ball-peen hammer in one hand and a jug of Gallo burgundy wine in the other.
The half man, half monster was my father, and he was looking for my mother. When he realized she wasn’t there, he roared, “This is what I’m going to do to your mother!” He swung the hammer and bashed a giant hole in the wall. I spent the rest of that night in my bedroom, cowering under a blanket, even after the police arrived and took my dad away.
Up to that point, I’d enjoyed a fairly typical childhood. I was more worried about missing favorite TV shows like Batman than whether I would make it to the age of five. But everything changed for me that night. Although I couldn’t have put it into words at the time, I suddenly learned just how vulnerable and helpless I really was.
It was a pretty awful feeling.
The feeling grew worse when my parents got divorced, Mom remarried, and we moved to an apartment complex in Compton, California. One night soon after, someone was murdered ten feet away from my ground-floor bedroom window. The rumor was that the killer used a shotgun. Knowing that only four inches of stucco and drywall separated me from whatever was out there left me distinctly scared.
I felt exposed. Defenseless. Weak.
The final blow occurred the next year. I understood that my mom was sick. She seemed to get more and more tired and eventually stayed in bed all the time. My stepfather, Hank, was so overprotective that he wouldn’t even let us kids talk to her. Weeks later, when my mom went to the hospital, I still just thought she was really sick. It never occurred to me that she might be dying.
When my brother Mike told me that Mom was dead, I was shocked. I squeezed Mike’s arm so hard that I left fingernail marks. In some strange way I felt that hanging onto Mike would keep me from losing my mother.
My dad was out of my life. My stepfather left the family the day of Mom’s funeral and had no real interest in or relationship with my siblings and me. My mother was gone. I felt completely alone—and more helpless than ever.
How I wished it could be different. I wanted something then that I simply did not possess. I wanted strength.
A Different Kind of Strength
Most of us admire strength in its many forms. We all want to be strong. But the word strong conjures up a variety of meanings and images in our minds. For some, it means sheer physical power. We might think of bulging muscles and the ability to handle the next bad guy who crosses our path. For others, strength is about having the persistence to do what we set out to do—such as taking the lead on a difficult project at work or potty training our children.
Some may think of strength of intellect—an ability to outsmart any person or problem. For still others, being strong means appearing immune to any irritations or challenges that threaten to disrupt daily life. Some like the idea of being emotionally detached, to embody a “James Bond” approach to life. Whatever comes up, we’ll take care of it, and we’ll do it with style.
Think of the figures portrayed so prominently in the media today: politicians such as our current president; technology gurus such as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs; athletes such as Peyton Manning or LeBron James; actors and actresses such as George Clooney or Nicole Kidman; media moguls such as Oprah Winfrey.
Each of these people possesses strengths that the public appreciates. It might be physical strength, emotional strength, talent, intellectual capacity, or influence, but the world admires these folks for what they have that the rest of us don’t. They seem to have it together.
They appear strong.
But I want to talk with you about an entirely different kind of strength. It’s a quality of strength that David Works and Lori Mangrum discovered. It is so powerful that it overshadows every other kind of strength, like a Himalayan mountain towering over a molehill. It wasn’t the strength that David and Lori were looking for in their moment of crisis, darkness, and greatest weakness. In some ways, it was the furthest thing from their minds. But it was exactly the strength they needed most.
I think it’s just what the rest of us need too.
We’re Going Through
In the instant after David Works was shot that December day in 2007, he realized he was in a situation that was beyond him. He didn’t have the power or strength to control the events around him.
He was helpless to protect himself or his family. So he turned to the only one left who did have the power and strength to change matters.
God, what’s going on here? he thought. This is crazy. We’re supposed to be a missionary family getting ready to go around the world for You. What’s this all about? It doesn’t make any sense.
David sensed an immediate answer. It wasn’t audible, but it left a deep impression on him nevertheless: We’re going THROUGH. We’re not going OVER or going AROUND this. We’re going THROUGH.
Most of us would be thrilled to receive a message from the Lord. Under the circumstances, however, that message wasn’t what David wanted to hear.
David survived the attack on his life that morning. His daughter Rachel and his oldest daughter, eighteen-year-old Stephanie, did not. Stephanie was struck by a bullet while sitting in one of the van’s middle seats. She died at the scene. Rachel died a few hours later at the same Colorado Springs hospital where David was treated. The gunman was a twenty-four-year-old who had also killed two people earlier that day at another ministry facility. Inside New Life Church, he’d been shot dead by a security guard before he could claim any more victims.
As the father of two boys, I can only imagine the physical and emotional anguish that David and his family endured in the hours, days, and weeks that followed the shooting and loss of two precious daughters and sisters. I can also imagine that they would have been tempted to curse God for what occurred that day, even to turn away from Him for apparently not intervening when they needed Him most. But that’s not what happened.
That first night, lying alone in a hospital bed, overwhelmed by shock and grief, David tried to make sense of the tragedy. He took it straight to God.
Lord, I don’t understand You at all right now. I don’t get it. How could we lose two kids in one day? You’re not making any sense. But somehow, I trust You in this situation. Obviously I don’t have any better ideas. I’m not going anywhere. I will stick with You, Lord, because You have the words of eternal life. I need You tonight more than ever.
From that humble beginning, David found a strength he didn’t know he had. After just nine days, he was discharged from the hospital. Gradually, and with persistent effort, he recovered from his physical wounds.
What is more incredible was David’s emotional and spiritual recovery. At times the grief and despair overwhelmed him; at one point he was out of control, thrashing, wailing, and sobbing until his voice was hoarse. Yet he was able to attend his daughters’ burial and memorial service, where he read the Twenty-third Psalm and thanked God for allowing him to heal quickly enough to be there.
A few days after Christmas, he addressed a crowd of 350 people and talked about how, through the nightmare of the previous three weeks, God had never left his family.
Most amazing was that when the New Life pastor asked if David and his family would like to meet with the parents of the gunman, they took a day to think about it, then agreed. And when they met, there was no hesitation. David stretched his arms out and encircled another grieving father and mother in a long embrace, followed by the hugs from the rest of his family. Through tears, he and his family repeated, “It’s okay. We forgive you.”
Lori Mangrum experienced her own amazing emotional and spiritual renewal. In the midst of her depression, she too turned to God. Though He seemed distant, she began reading Scripture with a new interest and curiosity. She read about the Lord’s relationships with sinful men and women and saw how He loved them despite their weaknesses.
One afternoon, while driving home from a session with a therapist, Lori cried out to God, “I can’t do this alone. It’s too hard. If You’re really there, then show me, and I will trust You!”
Lori sensed an answer in the stillness.
Trust Me first—then I will show you.
Starting with small steps, Lori began to relinquish control of her life to the Lord. She focused more on pleasing Him instead of everyone else. It helped her to say no to some requests—and to speak up when she felt upset, angry, hurt, or scared. She began sharing her fears and feelings with her husband. And when a panic attack did strike, she faced it head-on, reassuring herself that she didn’t have to cooperate with what her body was trying to tell her.
The grace and courage demonstrated by David Works and Lori Mangrum blows me away. Could I have faced and forgiven the parents of a man who murdered my children?
Honestly, I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out. Could I take the brave steps to surrender to the Lord and allow Him to lift me out of a disabling depression?
Again, I’m not sure, and I’d prefer not to take that test.
But am I attracted to what David and Lori have? You’d better believe it. Because what they have demonstrated is not simply physical, emotional, or intellectual strength. It’s something far deeper, far more powerful, and far more lasting.
David and Lori took the worst that life could throw at them.
Did it hurt? Of course. Did it bring them to their knees, both figuratively and literally? Yes. Did they find themselves utterly weak and helpless? Absolutely.
Yet somehow, through that weakness and their connection to a merciful God, David and Lori were transformed. They didn’t just survive. They didn’t just “get by.”
They got stronger.
That’s the kind of strength I want: a strength that never leaves, a strength that actually magnifies during the tough times, a strength that isn’t dependent on me but resides in a power that can’t be stopped.
How about you?
I don’t presume to have all the answers to life. But I know who does, and I know who provides the greatest strength of all. It is a strength that I believe is found and forged only through weakness.
It’s what the apostle Paul meant in his message to the members of the fledgling Corinthian church: “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
Let’s talk about it.