I park across the road from the entrance to the forest preserve. A few moments later, I am crossing the road with two of my friends to walk past the gate, which is still closed because it is not yet sunrise.
Headlamps on, we start running on the trail through the dark woods, skirting puddles and stepping over roots and rocks. The lights allow us to see only about five to ten feet in front of us. In other words, the next two strides.
I usually prefer to run when I can see the trail and the woods around me. But my running buddies have to be at work early. Usually, they run the streets, but once in a while, we take on the challenge of trail running in the dark. For the heck of it. For fun.
Why on earth would I do that? The adrenaline rush, partly. But also, to stave off stagnation, to keep things interesting. In a crazy sort of way, it’s fun. And doing it with my running buddies? That’s the best part.
There is value in doing hard things. Scientists say it actually improves brain health. I think, if we could somehow hook up electrodes to our souls, we’d conclude that doing hard things also strengthens our souls.
Lately, I’ve been writing and thinking about what I call “embracing inconvenience” as a path to intimacy with God. (I’m writing a book about it.) Loving Jesus sometimes is hard. Responding to his call to care for the poor and marginalized can be inconvenient, messy. Loving his followers, especially during this election season when a lot of us are behaving badly, has been particularly challenging. When we embrace the inconvenience of loving people, of following Jesus, we will find our relationship with him strengthened. We’ll suddenly realize we’re not running trails in the dark alone. We’ll run straight into the intimacy and love we’ve been looking for all along.
I live a pretty uncomplicated life. Most of it is fairly straightforward, with a normal amount of stress. I work from home, at a job I love. I’m an empty nester—a lonely but not exactly stressful season. I’ve been at the same church for 30 years and am thankful to be a part of it. My husband and I have been married for 25 years, and we get along some days, and disagree vehemently other days. But in this season, our marriage is less stressful than normal, for which I’m grateful. All this is great. But I don’t want to coast. I want to keep growing. So I say yes to new ministry challenges. I keep working on my marriage. And I go trail running in the dark.
I’ve endured hard seasons before, and I know they’re always around the next corner. And I’ve noticed: doing hard things makes you stronger. Whether it’s training for a race, finishing a book or big project for a client, navigating conflict with husband or friends or family—hard things are God’s tools to strengthen and sharpen us. Hard things build the muscles of faith that would atrophy if life were only easy.
Challenges don’t always have to be about movement and striving. Sometimes the hard thing is to rest, to Sabbath, to trust. Sometimes the hard thing is to let go, to be generous, to be kind, to be quiet. To be quiet on social media when everything in you wants to set people straight. Sometimes the challenge is to be grateful in the midst of struggle.
If we choose to do hard things once in a while, we grow stronger in a variety of ways. And then when hard things that we did not choose come our way, which they always do, we are less likely to panic. We’ve done hard things already. We’ve run five miles through the woods in the dark, more than once. We’ve tripped over roots and fallen, but still got up and finished the run (yes that happened this week).
Running through the woods in the dark at 5 a.m. is not my typical routine. Doing this strengthens not only my heart and legs, but my brain—because it is something different and unusual for me. Scientists who study the brain say that disrupting our routine, trying new things, strengthens our brain by forcing it to find new neural pathways. Embracing inconvenience is like cross fit for your brain.
“Anything that initially appears complex or complicated or requires problem solving is a great workout for the brain,” writes Michelle Kutner, a social worker and certified therapeutic recreation specialist.
So tromping through the woods on an uneven trail, navigating roots and puddles and deer staring at our headlamps as we run past in the dark, is not just a workout for my body, but my brain. God designed us this way—to function optimally when we’re challenged. I think doing hard things is also a workout for our souls. If I can run a trail in the dark, I can have that hard conversation to resolve a conflict at home or work.
When we embrace inconvenience, we move toward intimacy. God comes alongside you, giving you power to do what you otherwise could not. And we realize we are not alone.
In one of my favorite books by John Ortberg, he wrote about how God shows up when we take a step of trust, move toward doing difficult or challenging or even scary things, get out of the boat. But we have to take the step, to do something we could not do unless God helped us.
“Is there any challenge in your life right now that is large enough that you have no hope of doing it apart from God’s help?” Ortberg writes. “If not, consider the possibility that you are seriously underchallenged.” (From If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.)
What challenge are you facing right now? If there isn’t one, what is one step you could take toward doing hard things, embracing inconvenience, and discovering the intimacy with God you’ve been longing for? Comment below.