On the dangers of ‘keeping strong’

This is something that has been rolling around in the back of my mind for awhile now. I’ve wanted to write about it but I tend to try and steer clear of potentially controversial topics. Any way, tonight I thought I would grab the bull by the horns so to speak.

We’ve all heard it, and I’d bet my ukulele (which happens to be of very high value to me) that at least some of us have said it, to some one at some stage of our lives. That evasive and not-always-helpful phrase: ‘Keep strong’.

You know the story. Someone you know is going through something terrible, a horrible illness, the loss of a loved one, a tough time at work, struggling with exams…. there are some really rough waters that life sometimes requires we sail through. These are tough situations, and sometimes we won’t know what that person is feeling, because we won’t have been through the same thing, or anything remotely similar, and so we chicken out and go with the first thing that comes to mind, or the only thing we know to say; ‘Just keep strong’. And we think it’s encouraging and uplifting. Well I’d like to argue that sometimes… sometimes it’s the exact opposite.

I’ve caught myself saying that exact phrase, followed by some very remorseful deeper thinking and regret for having said it, way too many times. Do I have ANY idea what I’m asking that person to do when I say ‘just keep strong’. The answer? No.
Do I have any idea what they are going through at that exact moment? What thoughts are running, like untameable water through their minds? Do I understand the numbness that comes with utter helplessness? Well, in some ways I do. But I understand it specific to MY circumstances, not to theirs. And I probably will never understand their exact circumstances, so who am I to tell them to ‘keep strong’ when I don’t know what I’m asking them to do?

Let me use an illustration, as I feel I’m not making myself very clear.
A little family has watched their Dad fight cancer for a long time. At his funeral people are hugging the kids, offering words of comfort, and time after time those words are ‘Just keep strong’, ‘Keep strong hey’, ‘you just gotta keep strong’ and other versions of the same thing. Now think about this. When someone is going through something as life shattering as this, how helpful do you think the words ‘keep strong’ are going to be?

When I was 14 my mom got really really sick. And it was touch and go for awhile. It involved a long time in hospital, an airlift from our home town to another country where there was better healthcare and a lot of missed school for my brothers and I. I am so very thankful to God that he spared her life and she is so well and around today. But in those weeks of uncertainty and confusion, the last thing little 14 year old me wanted to hear was ‘keep strong’. I NEEDED someone to tell me ‘It’s ok to cry kid’, or ‘you know you don’t have to be strong hey? That’s what we’re here for’

A few years later I watched family friends go through the loss of a son and a brother, and I read post after post on Facebook encouraging them to keep strong. I was encouraged by the way people rallied around them, but I was disheartened by the lack of ‘WE will be strong, because we know you CAN’T right now’.

Having watched ‘be strong’ being thrown out way too flippantly and carelessly, I’ve made a promise with myself not to use that phrase. From now on I will think about what I am going to say. This is so much easier said than done. Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking it’s easy to come up with things to say in situations like this.

One of my favourite verses comes from Exodus 14:14 and it says ‘The LORD will FIGHT FOR YOU, you need only be still’ (emphasis mine). How glorious is this verse? It says nothing about me being strong and EVERYTHING about God being strong. None of this relies on me. I may be going through the worst experience of my life, and the only thing that needs to be strong is my hold on Jesus, He will do the rest.

I reckon one of the reasons God puts us in other’s lives is not to encourage them to be strong when they go through something as terrible as this, but to CARRY them, so that they can be weak. We are the ones that need to be strong. We shouldn’t be telling the person to keep strong, we should be telling ourselves, and each other, and everyone who is rallying around this person, or family, or couple. ‘Keep strong’ is OUR battle cry, not theirs. It’s OK for them to be weak, in fact sometimes, they need to be allowed to feel the emotion of what’s just happened. Telling them to keep strong leaves no room for that. Telling them that WE will be strong for them so that they can be weak, leaves so much room for that.

But most importantly, telling them that God will FIGHT for them, that HE is the ultimate support structure and an indestructible wall to hold them up, allows them the space to FEEL the situation, and to surrender it to God. Telling them to keep strong puts too much emphasis on their ability to fix or change the situation, which is dangerous, because ultimately as humans, we are failures, and we will never be able to fix ourselves. Only God can do that. And only God can truly be their strength. And ours.