What Makes a “Strong Woman” Strong?

“This book is great for girls because it has strong female characters.”

“Vote for her—she’s a strong woman who will fight for your interests.”

“At this college, we prepare strong, independent women for their careers.”

“Strong woman” is a phrase heard often these days, and because I admire both words and women, I’ve been paying attention. It’s used in politics, on campuses, in the media, and even by little girls who know at a very early age to describe themselves as “strong.” It’s made me think about what strong actually means—what is the implication when people say “strong woman”?

The tone used when saying “strong woman,” especially in politics, often sounds as if the speaker is correcting a common misconception that women are generally weak or dependent by virtue of their gender, and that the “strong woman” is an exceptional, out-of-the-ordinary woman. But do people actually view most women—“ordinary” women—as weak? Or even worse, is this the way most women view themselves?

I don’t believe so. I grew up at the height of “women’s lib” in the ’70s, and it’s never occurred to me to think of myself as weak because I’m female. I can’t remember a time when I was ever perceived that way by others, either.

So I wonder sometimes what others’ reactions are to hearing that someone is a “strong woman.” I’ll be honest about my reaction: it grates on my ears. Why is that? Because every time I hear it, my brain has the same reflexive response:

Do I even know any women who are not strong?

But then, maybe my definition and the world’s definition of “strong women” are not the same.

When I think of strong women, I don’t think of how loud or opinionated they are, how much money they make, how well they can get by on their own, how high they’ve climbed the ladder of success, or how much public influence they have. I don’t even think of their independence or robust self-confidence or outspokenness on today’s issues. It’s not that I think these are bad things. I just don’t necessarily equate them with strength, either in women or in men.

Instead, when I think of strong women, I think of average, everyday women throughout history whose lives were far more difficult, in so many ways, than ours are today. I also think of women I know in my own life who’ve faced medical issues, abuse, financial problems, isolation, or emotional trauma. Or the women I know who’ve endured grief, loss, or disappointment beyond imagining. As well as the countless women who simply persevere day after day, faithfully serving their families, their communities, and their God through a lifetime of sacrifice and selflessness. All without fanfare, accolades, or applause. Women who are running with endurance the race that is set before them (Hebrews 12:1) with determination and grace. In my eyes, these are “strong women.” And they are not rare; they are legion.

I think the vast majority of women (and men) fall into the category of doing what needs to be done without much recognition; holding heartfelt opinions but not a megaphone; accomplishing “small tasks as if they were great and noble”; and maintaining “a long obedience in the same direction” (thank you, Eugene Peterson, for my most-quoted book title ever).

Where does that kind of strength come from, anyway? Where do you get the kind of strength you need for the long haul, for decades of struggles, difficulties, stressors, and setbacks—the inevitable challenges of life?

I’m pretty sure that the world doesn’t have the right answer to this question. It tells us, through the media, education, books, movies, music, and more that strength comes from within ourselves. That if you just dig deep enough and believe in yourself, you can find the strength you need to change your life and change the world.

That might work in the short term, but it’s not a sustainable proposition.

We can all rely on our own strength for limited amounts of time. We can “dig deep” and do impressive things in the short term. But long-term, true strength, the strength that carries you through the deepest, darkest valleys of life and across the endless, tedious deserts of life—not just over the highest mountains of life—that kind of strength comes from One who can make you much stronger than you could ever be on your own.

And the God who gives this strength sees both strength and weakness in ways that the world will never understand:

He uses weak people (that’s very often you and me) to accomplish his purposes: “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 1:27)

He uses our weaknesses to draw attention and glory not to us, but to himself: “But [God] 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 12:8-10)

Even in our deepest despair, God’s promises restore and strengthen us: “My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word!” (Psalm 119:28)

In the midst of our weariness, he calls us to trust in him (not in ourselves), and be refreshed: “He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:29-31)

We are all “strong.” We are all “weak.”

It’s such a soul-quieting relief that God already knows about our weaknesses and we never have to pretend with him. We never have to claim to be, or try to be, “strong women” (or men) around Jesus. We can rest in the assurance that the joy of the Lord is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10)—it is not through our own doing.

God-given strength, the strength that sees us through our day-to-day, average lives, isn’t what the world is talking about when it talks about “strong women.” The strength that God gives isn’t the same kind of “strength” that the world loves to see in its superheroes, its politicians, and its celebrities.

There’s real pressure, especially for younger women, especially at this time and place in history, to be “strong” in noticeable, world-pleasing ways. But in truth, it’s not possible to live up to what the world says is “strong” on a lifelong, consistent basis.

Thankfully, God has never expected that from us.

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1, 2)

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