Joshua 1:9 is repeated a lot this time of year. Along with Jeremiah 29:1 and Philippians 4:13, Joshua is also taken out of context to encourage graduates to follow their dreams and give glory to God.
Sometimes repeating this verse can be more damaging than beneficial. What happens when I am weak and my courage is gone? What happens when I am frightened and dismayed? Strength of will, character, and body is not something that can be commanded; and neither is courage. No one has ever been comforted by the words "you do not have to be afraid" when face to face with terror. Moreover, I find the idea that "God is with us" removes our fear ridiculous. Whenever I watch a scary movie with my wife my presence is comfort but it does not take away her fear.
This command that God makes without context is patronizing. Joshua is being told to be courageous because he has seen what God can do with his own eyes. He was born a slave and saw YHWH defeat Egypt, open the Red Sea, give them the covenant, lead them as pillar of fire by night and cloud by day, and all the other miracles and wonders that happened in the wilderness.
If most people are honest (especially most graduates), they have not seen God work in these kinds of miraculous ways. And when a person has not seen miracles it is impossible to command them to be strong, courageous, fearless, and dauntless. Because, as I said, you cannot command these feelings.
I am grateful that I can say I have seen the hand of God work in my life. There have been many times when the command given to Joshua encourages me. But then, there are other days, when my courage fails and disillusionment ravages me. I never doubt God's presence, but presence is not enough when you are going through the thick of your mental battles. I am comforted, but not relieved. Similar to a mourner being comforted by a friend.
A while back I was talking to a friend. And he was telling me about how he lacked the strength to overcome his sin. I was lost for words because I understand how mentally and spiritually draining sin addictions can be. Advice that trivializes the struggle may sound pious but it is seldom helpful. I had decided that the best response should be silence and presence. To sit quietly and mourn with my friend and offer accountability (Lamentations 3:27-28).
When suddenly, these words came out of my mouth, "it is not we who need to be strong. It is God who needs to be strong. It is not you who needs to be strong. It is God who needs to be strong."
Although the words came out of my lips, I did not feel like they were mine. They came to me as a gift. My friend's eyes widened, my eyes watered, and we both sat in silence. A truth so simple, yet often forgotten.
Seek the Lord and his strength;
seek his presence continually!—1 Chronicles 16:11
Lord, be my strength.