Strength is Not What We Imagine

"I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:13)
"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might." (Ephesians 6:10)
"Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)
While I know pastors shouldn't say such things, I hate the above bible verses.

Before you call the theology police, let me clarify: I hate the way they have often been used in my own life and in the lives of others. I hate them when I see them on coffee mugs and t-shirts. They are wielded as hammers, torn out of context and used to dismiss struggle and discredit pain. They develop into mantra-ism, positive sayings we repeat over and over in the hopes of deluding ourselves into feeling differently about our lives. Just because they're from the Bible doesn't guarantee every use for them is good: hospitals are full of wonderful drugs, but misapplied, many of them can lead to death.

The common misuse of these verses is tragic because they do offer real hope. I love what they are actually saying; it's just that we often stick the needle in the wrong place, trying to cure the wrong disease. To understand that, we first need to name a few ways they are abused and then recognize how their own contexts speak against these errors.

First, these verses are often used to promise a different sort of strength than what the text actually offers. When people imagine God making us strong, what they picture is a life full of winning. I imagine myself kicking down every obstacle without my hair getting mussed, stomping suffering to the curb while whistling a praise song. "I am more than a conqueror," I declare with a whitened smile and a thumbs up for the camera. When life doesn't feel like that, I start to question the promises. Even worse, when my life doesn't look like that, others start to question whether I have really applied them to myself.

When we pay attention to the context of these verses, however, that whole image falls apart. What are the "all things" Paul says he can do through God? "I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need." (Philippians 4:12) He is describing his experiences of persecution and imprisonment. As such, "do all things" does not mean "win at everything;" it means "endure even the worst things." Survive even the worst life brings his way with some level of peace in God.

That is likewise the context of Ephesians 6. Paul tells us to "be strong," but it is not strength to trounce life's challenges without a sweat. Rather, Paul is talking about the strength to "stand" (verse 11), to "wrestle" (verse 12) against the assault of the enemy. This is the context of the "armor of God" we are told to put on: "Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm." (Ephesians 6:13) This is not, despite the way we tell it to our children, the glittering parade armor of the victory march. It is the raiment of a soldier, stained with soot and blood, arrows rainings against his shield as he plants his feet and tries not to move.

Strength, in the biblical sense, does not equate with life going well or us feeling strong. Indeed, if we feel that way, we probably aren't experiencing what these verses describe. It's like lifting weights. If you do it right, you will feel like a weakling. Your arms will ache and you'll be gasping for breath. If you go to the gym and don't have to shower afterward, if you aren't sore, that doesn't mean you are a mighty conqueror. It means you did something wrong.

The test of divine strength is this: at the end of this day, with all of the pain and sorrow it brings, have I endured and remained faithful to Jesus? Have I sought to obey Him and walk with Him, however faltering and agonizing that walk has felt? If so, then that is a product of the strength God has given me. As we follow Him, He will give us the strength to walk forward in that following.

Crucially, though, He won't give us more than that. He will not make it easy. He will not remove us from the battle. He simply promises that, as we cling to the grace He provides, we will not be overcome.

If that is one way to misunderstand strength, the other is even more destructive. People also apply these verses as if we have a different source of strength than they promise. They do this in two different ways.

First, consider Joshua. He stands as the leader of Israel, having just buried Moses, about to lead this tattered tribe of desert nomads against the walled fortresses of Canaan. He is understandably worried. In Joshua 1:9 we see the end of God's speech to him, the famous money quote that gets put on the posters. We often treat it as if it is saying "Joshua, you are strong. You've got this." Yet the context proves that nothing could be farther from the case. Joshua is objectively not strong. He has good reason to be afraid. God's words to him are a reminder that He is with Joshua. God tells Joshua he is going into the land "I have given you." (v. 3) "I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you," (v. 5) God says, "for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go."

The foundation of Joshua's hope is not his strength but God's presence. God is strong. Joshua is not. If Joshua looks in the mirror and says, "I am powerful. I am good. I've got this," he is actually denying the word of God. Using this promise to prop up our egos is to forsake it and set ourselves up for ruin.

At the same time, the fact that God is our source of strength also reminds us that our call to be strong comes with a purpose. Indeed, while Joshua is thinking about the conquest, God is concerned with something deeper: Israel's obedience. The invasion of the promised land is simply one piece of a larger calling to faithfulness. "Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go." (Joshua 1:7)

God does not promise us the strength to accomplish our dreams. He does not promise us the strength to get all the things our sinful hearts desire. He promises us strength only within the context of our seeking what He declares is truly good.  Of course, obedience to God is the posture of true blessings. It results in Paul's contentedness (Philippians 4:11). It gives Joshua success. However, the contentedness and the success come only on God's terms. If we claim these promises to serve our own agendas, it is like putting on a diving suit and jumping out of an airplane. We ought not complain to the oxygen tank company when it doesn't stop our fall.

God's strength is not a promise of ease but of endurance. It is not an encouragement that we are strong but a guarantee that we are not but that God is with us. It is also not a license to do as we please and expect victory but a promise that, if we fight in this great battle, He will help us to stand and the triumph will ultimately come. We need to bear all of that in mind when we hear these verses.

However, we also ought not in all those clarifications miss the glorious hope. If we are in Christ, if we are seeking to follow Him, God will not leave or forsake us. He will strengthen our limbs and embolden our hearts. Indeed, He already has - our journey so far has been made only by the power of God, and while we might not have such a reserve that we could in ourselves run a marathon, He will always give us enough to take the next step.