Jeremy Sarber / The Bible Readers Podcast

What the Bible says about strength (a brief Bible study for men)

The book of Joshua tells us the story of God calling a man to do what seems impossible.

In the first chapter, God appoints Joshua to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land despite being outmanned, under-equipped, and often overwhelmed. To be candid, Joshua’s situation is far removed from any of the circumstances of my life. I’ve never had to cross a swelling, mile-wide river. I’ve never led an army into battle. God has never sent me to march around the city of my enemies with an expectation that the walls will just fall down.

Even so, I think we all share something in common with Joshua’s experiences. We all face the same struggles of heart. At times we all feel ill-equipped to do what God has called us to do whether at home, or at work, or in the church. I suppose we all have moments of fear, doubt, and temptation. There are times when we feel confused and fall on our knees before God. There are times when we become frustrated and turn away from God. Surely, I’m not alone.

Let me share a personal detail about myself. I love to look at my wife. Is that weird? When she’s sitting across the table from me, when she’s on the other end of the couch, when she’s asleep, I really enjoy just looking at her. To me, she is the embodiment of God’s grace in my life. From the beginning, she has been a tremendous blessing to me, one that I don’t deserve. When I look at her, I’m reminded of God’s grace. It makes me happy, and it makes me thankful. But occasionally, it makes me feel inadequate.

Men, we are leaders

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25-27)

As a husband, God has given me the weighty responsibility of loving my wife as deeply and profoundly as Christ loved the church. My primary obligation is to guide her in such a way that she becomes increasingly sanctified, increasingly conformed to the image of Christ. But some days I feel as though I’m barely accomplishing that myself. When I think about trying to lead her, I feel overwhelmed and inadequate.

I’m also a pastor. I’m not going to tell you that being a pastor is harder than any other job, but it does have its particular stresses. Hebrews 13:17 is continuously running through my mind: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” Every word I speak and every action I take is under the watchful eye of God. I am not only responsible for my own soul, but also the souls of many others. That is the burden of every leader.

Whether you’re a husband, father, employer, Boy Scout leader, or civil servant, you are in a position of leadership. Even if you don’t think of your role as one of a leader, every man in the church is what Paul called “ambassadors for Christ” (2Co 5:20). As God is reconciling people to himself, Paul says, “God [is] making his appeal through us.” At the very least, we are leaders of the lost. Furthermore, the Bible gives us all the responsibility to disciple others in the church. In one capacity or another, every man in the church holds a leadership position so every man can relate to Joshua’s struggles.

The foundation of strength

What did God tell Joshua when he called him to take the place of Moses and lead the people of Israel? Joshua chapter 1, starting with verse 5 says:

“I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.

“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. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. 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 1:5-9)

God told Joshua to be strong and courageous. He told Joshua to rely on his Word for guidance and success. He told Joshua not to be frightened or dismayed. Why? How? Joshua would never be alone. God promised, “I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. The Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” With that in mind, Joshua would have no reason to be scared or distressed. God’s promises and his presence would serve as the foundation of Joshua’s strength and courage, and the same is true for us.

Leaders are strong-ish

Right now you could buy any one of hundreds of thousands of books on leadership from Amazon. You could take a plethora of online courses that will teach you about effective leadership. I know of some famous preachers who spend more time writing and speaking about the principles of leadership than they do the gospel. If you want leadership training, it’s readily available to you.

I’ve read a handful of books and listened to a few lectures on leadership. Most of them will identify the characteristics of a leader. Most of them will include strength on that list. They say a good leader must be a strong leader. That’s what God told Joshua. “Be strong and courageous.” I’ve also noticed, however, that the secular world often has a different idea of what constitutes strength than the Bible.

In the political realm, strength is assessed by one’s ability to outmaneuver his opponents. Whoever can make the best deals, call in the biggest favors, and manipulate popular opinion proves himself to be the strongest candidate. In the business world, strength is determined by dollars and cents. It seems to follow a survival-of-the-fittest model. The strong will dominate the market while the weak will fade into bankruptcy and oblivion.

Have you ever noticed how the Bible has a way of turning convention on its head? I can only imagine what people thought when they first heard Jesus say, “The last will be first, and the first last” (Mt 20:16). How is that even possible? The first are first, right? The last are last? “No,” Jesus says, “it only appears that the first are first and the last are last. In all reality, those who seem to be first are, in fact, last, and vice versa.”

Paul addressed the unconventionality of God in 1 Corinthians 1. He rhetorically asked, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1Co 1:20). He said:

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. (1 Corinthians 1:26-27)

According to his divine purpose, God takes conventionality and turns it upside down. God does the same with leadership.

The definition of strength

What makes a strong leader? According to the dictionary, a strong person is “able to exert great bodily or muscular power.” In a battle between, let’s say, a young shepherd boy named, David, armed with nothing more than a stick, a sling, and five smooth stones, and a heavily equipped, well-trained giant named, Goliath, who does the world claim is stronger? They say Goliath, of course. But who won the battle?

The dictionary also states that a strong person is “especially able, competent, or powerful in a specific field or respect.” I think that disqualifies a stuttering, nervous man by the name of Moses. “They will not believe me or listen to my voice,” Moses told God (Ex 4:1). “I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue” (Ex 4:10). He wasn’t exactly what we’d call “especially able, competent, or powerful.”

The dictionary also says that someone of strength is “powerful in influence, authority, resources, or means of prevailing or succeeding; aggressive; willful.” That sounds about right. Isn’t that what you think of when you think of a strong leader, someone who is powerful, authoritative, and maybe even aggressive?

In Mark 10, Jesus had different advice for the apostles whom he was training to become leaders. He said:

“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44)

Once again, conventionality gets turned on its head. According to Christ, if you want to be a great leader, you have to become a humble servant. You don’t claw your way to the top; you dig your way to the bottom.

As we think about what it means to be strong, we must be willing to set aside conventional wisdom and our standard definitions. The Bible has a much different prescription for strength. We see that in the life and leadership of Joshua.

Overly confident?

Please go with me to Joshua 7. On the surface, this chapter may seem like a strange place to study strength. It appears to show us the exact opposite of strength. Here we have a story of Israel’s defeat. It highlights the weaknesses of both Israel and Joshua. If we look closely, though, we see that this event teaches us everything we need to know about strength. Let me show you.

Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is near Beth-aven, east of Bethel, and said to them, “Go up and spy out the land.” And the men went up and spied out Ai.

And they returned to Joshua and said to him, “Do not have all the people go up, but let about two or three thousand men go up and attack Ai. Do not make the whole people toil up there, for they are few.” (Joshua 7:2-3)

At this point in the story, I imagine both Joshua and the people of Israel were feeling quite confident. In the previous chapter, they defeated the much greater city of Jericho without using a single weapon. The small city of Ai will be a piece of cake, they thought. The spies went ahead to check it out, and it seemed ripe for the taking. They concluded that it wouldn’t even be necessary to send the whole army. They could conquer Ai with maybe seven percent of their soldiers. Joshua 4 tells us that Israel had “40,000 [men] ready for war” (Jos 4:13). The spies said, “We don’t need to send that many. Two or three thousand will do.”

By the way, the name, Ai, means ruin. I don’t know why anyone would call their city, Ruin, but I’m sure that only made Joshua even more confident. God promised them the land. They safely crossed the Jordan River by way of a miracle. They defeated Jericho without losing a single man. How could they possibly lose to Ai? Ai was significantly smaller than Jericho, and based on their name, they seemed destined for failure.

When things don’t make sense

But look what happened:

So about three thousand men went up there from the people. And they fled before the men of Ai, and the men of Ai killed about thirty-six of their men and chased them before the gate as far as Shebarim and struck them at the descent. And the hearts of the people melted and became as water. (Joshua 7:4-5)

That is not what anyone expected. The details of the battle are not given to us, but Israel suffered a humiliating and confusing blow. Nothing about it made sense.

Chances are, we’ve all been there. We were doing our very best to love and support our wives, raise our children to fear God and obey his Word, and work our jobs with thankful hearts to the glory of God when suddenly calamity struck. It came out of nowhere and sent us spiraling into an inexplicable tailspin. We can’t help but wonder, What did I do wrong?

In some cases, the answer could be nothing. You may be suffering because you’ve done everything right. Think of Job who was “blameless and upright” (Job 1:1). Do you realize that it was God who turned Satan’s attention to Job? He asked Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” (Job 1:8). Then, he essentially handed Job over to Satan to suffer.

Joshua’s weakness

Even if we know that’s true, we still struggle through the trials of life often questioning God and doubting his promises. Joshua did.

Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell to the earth on his face before the ark of the Lord until the evening, he and the elders of Israel. And they put dust on their heads. And Joshua said, “Alas, O Lord God, why have you brought this people over the Jordan at all, to give us into the hands of the Amorites, to destroy us? Would that we had been content to dwell beyond the Jordan! O Lord, what can I say, when Israel has turned their backs before their enemies! For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it and will surround us and cut off our name from the earth. And what will you do for your great name?” (Joshua 7:6-9)

Bible commentators debate over Joshua’s response here. Some say that he was sincerely heartbroken. They say that his primary concern was for God’s reputation in the world. If God couldn’t fulfill his promises to even his chosen people, then his great name would be sullied throughout the earth. Others say that Joshua was defiant. They say he was angry and complaining. He does sound a bit like the Israelites in the wilderness when he says, “We had been content to dwell beyond the Jordan!” In other words, “We were better off before we entered the Promised Land.”

Personal experience tells me that the truth probably lies somewhere in between. I don’t know about you, but when an unexpected event shakes my foundation and disrupts the flow of my life, I’m usually filled with a whirlwind of emotions. I’m sad. I’m angry. I turn to God in prayer, but I also experience doubts about his promises. I look to God for guidance while simultaneously venting my frustrations over where he’s led me.

Men, we aren’t perfect

In short, I don’t believe Joshua responded appropriately here, but I will also say this about it: His response was honest. His words and actions were a raw reaction to the situation. Do you remember what I said before? We can all relate to Joshua’s struggles of heart even if we can’t relate to his circumstances. You’ve been here. As a man and leader, you know you’re supposed to be strong, but you can’t altogether avoid these moments of weakness.

I suffer from migraine headaches. They’re miserable. I try not to hinder my wife when I get one. She’ll ask, “What can I do for you?” And I’ll say, “Nothing.” It’s true. There’s not really anything she can do. I just have to take some medicine and wait for it to pass. Mostly, I don’t want her to worry about me. She might as well do whatever it is she was going to do rather than sit by my side while I sleep.

There was one time, however, that I got a migraine while I was working at the church. Danae, my wife, was trying to reach on the phone, but I wasn’t responding. I was passed out on one of the pews. So she drove to the church to check on me. When she got there, she found me asleep on the pew with a puddle of vomit on the floor in front of me. I am sure that it was a pitiful, not to mention disgusting sight.

I’m not one of these so-called manly men who refuses to show weakness. At the same time, I want to be a source of strength for my wife and my church. Inevitably, though, there are moments when my weaknesses are exposed, and that’s okay. I’m not perfect. You’re not perfect. Joshua wasn’t perfect. The greatest husbands, fathers, men, and leaders throughout history were not perfect.

The godly leader’s priority

Getting back to our story in Joshua 7, we find out that it wasn’t a mistake by Joshua that led to Israel’s defeat. It was, however, Joshua’s responsibility to take care of it.

The Lord said to Joshua, “Get up! Why have you fallen on your face? Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings. Therefore the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies. They turn their backs before their enemies, because they have become devoted for destruction. I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you. Get up! Consecrate the people and say, ‘Consecrate yourselves—'” (Joshua 7:10-13)

It is not the leader’s role to make excuses. Concerning godly leadership, men, we have one job above all others: leading our wives, our children, our churches, our communities, and even our nation to godliness. Specifically, everything we say and do should point those under our influence to Jesus Christ and his gospel. Why? Because the fundamental problem that plagues all of us is sin, and Jesus Christ alone provides the remedy.

Notice what happened in the case of Israel. Jumping back to verse 1, we discover that a single man was responsible for God’s anger against Israel. In Joshua 6, Joshua told the people before entering the city of Jericho, “Keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction, lest when you have devoted them you take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel a thing for destruction and bring trouble upon it” (Jos 6:18). A man by the name of Achan didn’t listen.

We read his confession in verse 20:

“Truly I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel, and this is what I did: when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath.” (Joshua 7:20-21)

Achan willfully disobeyed the commandment of God.

Get up and consecrate

What does God tell Joshua, the leader of Israel, to do?

First, he said, “Get up!” It was time to take action. No, it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience. Joshua was already suffering a loss and the humiliation of defeat. He was struggling with doubts. What he needed to do next would not be pleasant, but he was called to be Israel’s leader. It was time to get on his feet and take action.

Second, God alerted Joshua to the problem of sin and said, “Consecrate the people.” What does that mean? To consecrate is to sanctify or separate. Achan had not acted as a chosen person of God separated from the world. He acted in greed and rebellion against God. As a result, God had essentially removed himself from Israel’s battle against Ai. Furthermore, he warned, “I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you.”

The remedy for Achan’s sin was to (1) remove the sin and (2) turn back to God. Arthur Pink once said:

We are ever prone to regard sin lightly, to gloss over its hideousness, to make excuses for it. But the more we study and ponder God’s abhorrence of sin and his frightful vengeance upon it, the more likely are we to realize its heinousness.

Charles Spurgeon said:

Look to the cross, and hate your sin, for sin nailed your Well-Beloved to the tree. Look up to the cross, and you will kill sin, for the strength of Jesus’ love will make you strong to put down your tendencies to sin.

Saved through weakness

When I said that Joshua was in for an unpleasant experience here, we see just how dreadful it was:

And Joshua said, “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord brings trouble on you today.”

And all Israel stoned him with stones. They burned them with fire and stoned them with stones. And they raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from his burning anger. (Joshua 7:25-26)

Romans 6 tells us, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 6:23). Apart from the grace of God and Christ’s atoning work, our fate would be the same as Achan. We would have nothing in our futures but death. That is why our priority must be leading people away from sin to Christ.

You’ll notice that Paul refers to eternal life as a free gift. We do not earn eternal life by doing enough good works to please God. As we see in this story, even one sin condemns us. The very essence of salvation is our dependence on God. In other words, we are not saved by our strength; we are saved through our weakness, and so was Israel.

Strength only through weakness

Watch what happens next in Joshua 8:

And the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not fear and do not be dismayed. Take all the fighting men with you, and arise, go up to Ai. See, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, and his people, his city, and his land. And you shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king. Only its spoil and its livestock you shall take as plunder for yourselves. Lay an ambush against the city, behind it.” (Joshua 8:1-2)

This time around, Israel would be victorious. Not only would they defeat Ai just as they had Jericho, but God even gave them permission to take the spoils for themselves. Once the entire nation was willing to turn to God, believe, trust, and obey him, he granted them victory. They couldn’t take the city by themselves. Without submissive dependence on God, victory was impossible.

What do we learn about strength in this story? In regards to Joshua, it wasn’t until after he proved his weakness that God showed him the solution. As for Israel, it wasn’t until after they proved themselves failures that God made them successful. Neither Joshua nor Israel had strength in and of themselves. Ultimately, God was their strength.

What the Bible says about strength

One of my favorite passages is found in 2 Corinthians 12. That is where Paul said:

A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

To borrow another expression from Paul, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Php 4:13).

We all struggle with shortcomings. We are all sinners by nature and practice, but God calls us to be strong. How? We are strong only through him. We are made strong by identifying and acknowledging our weaknesses. We are made strong by confessing our sins and turning to Christ. We are made strong by relying on God’s will and his Word more than our own plans and schemes. We are made strong by depending on God’s strength.

It may be unconventional, but that’s how the Bible defines strength. Do you want to be more than a so-called man’s man? Do you want to be a godly man? Then, get up, as God told Joshua. Take a proactive role in leading your family, your friends, your co-workers, or whoever else you can away from sin to Christ and godliness. Fall on your knees each day, looking to God for strength. When you stumble, avoid the temptation to doubt. Confess your faults, repent, consecrate yourself, and let God show you the abundance of his grace.

(I preached this message at Fellowship Baptist Church on March 18, 2017, during their Annual Men’s Conference.)