We weak people frequently need to pray for strength. “Oh Father, please give me strength for ___” is a wonderful prayer. It’s a necessary prayer, and it’s a God-honoring prayer because it recognizes the true source of our strength (Exodus 15:2).
What Are We Really Asking For?
But when we ask God for strength, what are we asking for? Are we asking for the strength that God wants to give, or are we asking for the strength that we want to have?
The reason this is important to ask is because the two may not be the same. Highest on God’s agenda for us is strengthening our faith (Hebrews 11:6, Galatians 2:20). Highest on our agenda is frequently accomplishing something necessary or noble, or escaping affliction or humiliation. These may not be wrong desires, but they may be the wrong priorities.
When this is the case, our conception of the strength we need differs from God’s. When we pray for strength, we may imagine the answer looking like increased capacities to accomplish or escape. But the strength that God supplies (1 Peter 4:11) is often increased capacities to trust his promises, which might require dying to our envisioned accomplishment or enduring what we wish to escape.
When our conceptions collide with God’s, we are tempted to grow frustrated with God and lose heart in prayer (Luke 18:1). Because we ask for strength and what we receive, it seems to us, is less strength. In fact, things get worse. Our weaknesses are heightened, not diminished. But what’s really happening here is not God’s negligence or indifference to our prayers, but a conflict between our expectations and God’s intentions.
However, once we realize that the strength that God is working to supply us is the best, most joyful and hope-giving strength we can possibly have, it will change the way we pray for strength and change our understanding of God’s answers.
When I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong?
The biblical pattern of God strengthening his saints is this: God chooses a sinful, weak person to be his redeemed saint; God further weakens this saint through circumstantial and/or physical adversity; The saint is forced to trust God’s promises; God proves himself faithful to his promises; The saint’s faith is strengthened and hope abounds because his/her faith doesn’t rest on the wisdom of men but on the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:5).
This pattern is woven all through the Bible. As soon as you see it, you see it everywhere. Perhaps the text that most clearly demonstrates this pattern is what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:7–10:
 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, 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.
That is a strange statement: “when I am weak, then I am strong.” What did Paul mean? He meant that through the loving discipline of God’s appointed thorn — his weakening agent — Paul was forced to “rely not on [himself] but on God who raises the dead” and set his hope fully on God (2 Corinthians 1:9–10). Paul came to understand that this weakening agent became a strengthening agent in the hand of God.
God changed Paul’s understanding, which strengthened his faith, which fueled his hope.
How God Loves to Strengthen Us
When God begins to answer our prayer for strength, often the first thing he does is help us unlearn our wrong understandings. Experiencing the failure of these wrong understandings might initially cause us confusion, discouragement, or depression. But through the process of unlearning and re-learning, God supplies us the “strength to comprehend” his fathomless love and wise purposes (Ephesians 3:18–19).
An accurate understanding of God’s love and purposes then increases our faith. We begin to increasingly “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7) because we have a deeper understanding that God’s promises are more trustworthy than our perceptions (Proverbs 3:5). We begin to rely more on God than on ourselves (2 Corinthians 1:9). This is the strength that God wants to supply in answer to our prayers because it is the showcase of his strength (“my power is made perfect in weakness”).
“God loves to answer our prayers with the strength that causes us to abound in faith-fueled hope.”
As the strength of our faith grows, so does hope in our souls. When we rely less on ourselves and more on God who raises the dead, and when we are increasingly confident that God is for us, so nothing can ultimately stand against us (Romans 8:31), what happens is that “the God of hope [fills us] with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit [we] may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).
God loves to answer our prayers with the strength that causes us to abound in faith-fueled hope.
Pray for the Strength that God Supplies
God loves when you pray for strength. And he promises to answer you:
Fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10, emphasis added).
So, pray with confidence. And pray for the strength that God supplies. And keep your eyes open for his answers. They may not look like your expectations. But you can be sure that even when he answers with a weakening agent, God is working to strengthen your understanding, strengthen your faith, and strengthen your hope in him.