One of my favorite movies as a child was Bambi. One scene impressed me more than anything: after Bambi’s mother dies in a forest fire, a strong, majestic figure emerges from the flames. It’s Bambi’s father. He has been mostly absent, but returns to save his son. And he does so by commanding him to leave his mother’s side: “Get up, Bambi!”
The command might seem harsh – even insensitive – to modern ears, but the forest was burning. Still, the father could have come and picked up Bambi. Instead, he orders him to walk. I liked that. I wanted to be that strong.
We all like strength. We want it for ourselves and for our heroes, and the advertising companies bank on this desire, bombarding us with products that will make us strong, tough, resilient, and victorious. But what if that strength eludes us? What if it seems completely out of reach?
This societal emphasis on strength might cause some to hide their weakness. Even in churches where the sinful nature of mankind is confessed every week, the general expectation is that people will greet us with a smile. If we ever open up about our struggles, we like to end with an expression of confidence in God. After all, isn’t that what the Psalms do?
And then we come to Psalm 88, which starts with an unremitting cry and ends with a bitter lament: “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness” (v. 18). Few are willing to admit such hopelessness, maybe because we anticipate a chain reaction of concerns that we might not be able to handle. Pretending to be strong keeps others at a safe distance.
But the Bible is full of admissions of weakness – from the Psalms and the book of Job to Paul’s letters. We may think, for example of Paul’s confession of anxiety in 2 Corinthians 2:13 (when Titus didn’t meet him as expected) or the acknowledgment of his inability to obey the law in Romans 7.
On one occasion, his lack of strength seemed unbearable: “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death” (2 Cor. 1:9-10).
Even Jesus showed dread and anxiety in anticipation of the cross, when he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” Apparently, even after an angel came from heaven to strengthen him, “being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:42-44).
Sometimes Christians are still influenced by the world’s view of success, and expect themselves and others to find ways to bounce back from their pain. They might attribute this ability to God’s strength rather than to the inner reservoir our culture is persuading us to discover, but the basic reasoning is often the same: “Tap into your power (whether natural or divine).”
Part of the problem is that God’s strength is not a reservoir at our disposal, just as God is not a genie to summon at our will. Most of the time, when God exhorted his people to be strong, he gave a reason for that strength: “For I will be with you.” God is our strength (Ps. 81:1) and strengthens us as needed.
Another part of the problem is that we tend to see strength as an end rather than a mean. We dislike weakness and want to be strong all the time. We make it our goal. When our strength fails, we think there is something terribly wrong. And while it feels wrong to us, sometimes weakness is part of God’s purpose, as He explained to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
God remains our strength to reach his ends, not ours and not what other people would like to set as proper ends for our lives. The author in Psalm 88 could only cry in pain, but the very fact that he cried to God, looking out of himself, was – as my former pastor, Rev. Michael Brown, once said – “heroic.” And that Psalm remains as a testimony to those who cry out to God in similar situations.
Strengthening the Weak
There is a time to say, “Get up, Bambi!” Just days after my son died, my equally crushed husband dragged us out of our gloomy house to eat at a restaurant, goading us to move on. And Luther told a depressed Melanchthon that if he didn’t get out of bed, he would be excommunicated. While this last example will hardly be included in a manual for counseling, it came in a context of a loving friendship, and produced the desired results.
The same Paul who repeatedly admitted his weakness and anxiety told the Corinthians, “Stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:15). But he did so only after a long explanation of the gospel.
We can’t force others to find strength, nor can we expect quick solutions. Especially, we can’t assume they will bounce back just because we or our cousin have. While we are all in this earthly pilgrimage together, and while sharing our experiences certainly helps, we have to realize we are not all the same and one size doesn’t fit all.
Entering in the sufferings of others is both frightful and painful. It’s frightful because it reminds us of the weakness and frailty of our human condition and the uncertainties and apprehensions we have been successful in hiding.
It’s painful because it forces us to feel the pain that mess is causing. Compassion is a form of suffering (cum patior means “suffering together”). It can’t be exercised at a safe distance. But it’s one of the duties of a Christian community, where "if one member suffers, all suffer together" (1 Cor. 12:26).
If God grants us to be strong enough to stand, it’s to allow us to stretch out our hand to those who feel weak, as Helper did to Christian in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and to direct their eyes, as Elisha did with his servant, to a reality that might have faded out of sight: that God is still our ever-present strength, even when our feelings do their best to deny it.
Because we are body-soul unities, physical and spiritual issues intersect in ways that can't be easily pulled apart.