The Lie of Being Strong

These past few weeks or so, several of my friends have been hit with really hard news and family situations. Reading their status updates on Facebook is heartbreaking and at best, I can post an encouraging prayer or comment. (Not that my friends are actually looking to us to write the perfect comment that would solve all their pain and suffering. If only it could be so easy.)

Of course, being the nosy person that I am, I also read other people’s comments and encouragements. Inevitably, person after person wrote for my friends to “Be Strong” or “You’re Strong” or some variant of “God doesn’t give you things you can’t handle.” The first few just piqued my annoyance. But comment after comment in the same vein started to piss me off.

Why? Because they’re lies. Insidious, invidious lies.

Obviously, people aren’t writing these types of comments to be assholes or unhelpful. They mean them to be encouraging – and perhaps the comments are even taken as encouragement. This is not a diss on the kind and well-meaning people. This is a tirade against the lie.

My friends, if you are suffering, you don’t have to be strong. You don’t have to be a rock or have everything handled or under control. You don’t have to be anything you are not currently.

If you are overwhelmed, be overwhelmed. If you are weak, be weak. If you are spent, be spent. If you are grieving, grieve. If you are furious, be furious. If you are afraid, be afraid.

You have complete freedom to be whatever you are at this very moment. And if in fifteen minutes, how you feel changes – then you have complete freedom to be that as well.

Forgive me if that seems obvious. This is a particular area in which I get riled up about.

You see, it makes me incredibly angry when people who are suffering are told that they can handle things because God wouldn’t give them anything they couldn’t take. (A side note: This post is not to argue the existence or absence of God or address the topic of theodicy. You don’t have to agree with my worldview in order to understand my logical framework within my worldview.)

The idea that God only gives us things we can handle is complete and utter horseshit.

God promises us many things in the Bible; not once does He promise that He only gives us things we can handle.

Things happen to us (whether or not God allows it to happen or actively makes it happen to us is actually beside the point) and many times, we are completely unprepared and ill-equipped. When these things happen to us, they can either push us closer to or further away from God. And when well-meaning Christians tell us that we are strong or we can handle it, they are actually pushing us further and further away from God.

Why? Because if we are feeling weak but then are told that we’re supposed to be able to handle the pain it only adds to our burden. We feel pressure then to act as if everything is okay or be immediately healed when the truth is far from it. We put up a façade and hide from even God because we must be dropping the ball or are spiritually inert if we can’t get our act together.

It’s simply not true.

I get it. After all, 99.9% of the time, the only way out is through. And often, the way to do that is through gritted teeth, digging deep, and putting one foot in front of the other.

But persevering and being needy are not mutually exclusive.

You see, I believe in a good, merciful, and redemptive God. A God who repeatedly offers comfort for the weak. And when people tell us to “be strong,” we miss out on that comfort because we are too busy pretending to not need it. And before we can run to God, we first have to admit we are in need.

Now, I realize that this post is woefully simplistic and barely scratches the surface on the problem of pain and sound reasoning. That’s okay. I’m not really interested in that. Besides, there are far more in depth essays, books, etc. out there by far more talented people. I just want to be a reminder.

God can handle anything we throw at Him. He is neither surprised or flummoxed. God is more than enough for us in our pain. His grace is sufficient.

I Don’t Like You and It’s OK

When I was in college, I was very involved with an on-campus Christian group called InterVarsity. They were really big on this thing called “intentionality” (a totally made up word, but whatever) and used that as a basis for ministry. Basically, it was to intentionally befriend certain people who were open to being influenced and then pursue the hell out of them without it seeming like you’re stalking.

So, if I chose you to focus on, I would invite you to events, eat with you, hang out with you, go do stuff you liked to do but I would personally rather eat nails than do, etc. It seems kinda creepy and yucky and fake, but if you think about it, that’s how most friendships work anyway. Sometimes, it’s serendipitous and things just gel and you naturally want to hang out all the time and do stuff together, and in college, that’s really easy to do and seem natural and spontaneous. But in the real world, outside of the lovely bubble that is endless free time, it doesn’t work that way at all. To be friends once you start working or have a family, that takes a lot of effort. At least one person in the friendship must go out of their way to initiate and “pursue” a relationship with the other person. Otherwise, the friendship stalls, doesn’t deepen, and sometimes, withers and dies.

The group was also big on “reconciliation” and any time there was conflict, negative feelings, or weird interactions, we were encouraged to reconcile with each other. That involved having long conversations resolving issues both big and small. Of course, since I was crazy and overly dramatic in college (Hapa Papa would interject at this point and question the use of “was” in this instance as he maintains that it is still an ongoing situation), this meant I was constantly reconciling with people.

Furthermore, I took it to mean (and I’m pretty sure that’s not how the leaders of IV thought to interpret it) that if I didn’t like someone, that was something I needed to work on. In other words, if I didn’t like someone, I should be even more intentional (not to mention more reconciling) with the people in question. So, I would often feel terrible over not liking a person and try to force a friendship.

It took awhile, but after college, I gradually gave myself permission to dislike people. I slowly realized that it was utterly stupid to try and force chemistry with people. If I didn’t like someone, who the fuck cares? (Keep in mind, I absolutely do NOT think that IV told me that I couldn’t dislike people. That was just my own weird application of intentionality and reconciliation.)

Nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to like people – not even to like God. (And quite frankly, I often don’t. *Looks nervously upwards.*) After all, according to Jesus, we are first to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Deut. 6:5) Then, we are to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) (Matt. 22:37-40, NIV) It says nothing about like. (Or “like like,” for that matter. Yes, I am permanently a thirteen year old girl.)

Once I gave myself permission to not like a person, I realized I, in fact, disliked a LOT of people! (Ok, not a lot, but a lot more than I had originally anticipated being that I thought myself quite the easy-going and friendly person. Again, Hapa Papa would vehemently disagree with this personal assessment. Does the man even like me at all? Or does he know me a little too uncomfortably well? Marriage is really harsh on a person’s delusions.)

More importantly, I realized it was okay to dislike people. More than okay. Perfectly normal and valid. After all, you cannot help the way you feel. You can, however, help the way you act. So I decided to change my philosophy since I obviously disliked people anyway regardless of whether or not I thought it was acceptable. I decided that I didn’t have to like someone. I just had to love them.

I started to feel much better.

Not only was I more authentic in my feelings and no longer in denial, I could also move forward and better interact with people I didn’t actually like because I saw the situation as it was versus what I fabricated in my mind. In this case, it was a little easier to love a person once I knew I didn’t like a person. Sounds totally ass-backwards, doesn’t it?

Here’s why: when I actually like a person, it is very easy to be nice to them. You know, by being civil, showing interest in their lives, their comments, their whatever. The socially acceptable ways of behavior flows naturally and beautifully. It is lovely. But when I dislike a person, it is extremely difficult for me to behave. So when I was operating under the misunderstanding that I liked someone, I was constantly frustrated when behaving well was incredibly hard and didn’t happen naturally. But once I realized I actually disliked them, I could now approach the person and intentionally be good. (A sad commentary on my character, I realize.) Also, I could avoid them like the plague.

So what did I mean by having to love someone? I hate to be cliché, but I will have to resort to the classic 1 Corinthians 13 version of love:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

– 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NIV

I most often hear this passage at weddings and as much as I find it useful to apply in my marriage (though often unsuccessfully since I am quite impatient, always self-seeking, and definitely full of Hulk Smash anger), it also comes in handy for forcing myself to behave like a good human being to people I don’t actually like very much should my strategy of “avoid at all cost” not be applicable.

Anyhow, I realize I have digressed quite a bit. But my whole point is merely to say that I am glad I figured out it was okay to dislike people and not have to fake friendships anymore. I’m glad I no longer have to waste time torturing myself over a feeling. I’m grateful that I am not commanded to like people and only to love them. I realize that love, as defined by 1 Corinthians, is quite a tall order. But let me just say that it is considerably harder to force a feeling. Much easier to have a straight forward course of action (even if the acts themselves are difficult). At least one is more plausible than the other.