The traditional definition of lithospheric strength is derived from the differential stresses required to form brittle and ductile structures at a constant strain rate. This definition is based on dissipative brittle and ductile deformation and does not take into account the ability of the lithosphere to store elastic strain. Here we show the important role of elasticity in controlling the long-term behavior of the lithosphere. This is particularly evident when describing deformation in a thermodynamic framework, which differentiates between stored (Helmholtz free energy) and dissipative (entropy) energy potentials. In our model calculations we stretch a continental lithosphere with a wide range of crustal thickness (30a??60 km) and heat flow (50a??80 mW/m2) at a constant velocity. We show that the Helmholtz free energy, which in our simple calculation describes the energy stored elastically, converges for all models within a 25 range, while the dissipated energy varies over an order of magnitude. This variation stems from complex patterns in the local strain distributions of the different models, which together operate to minimize the Helmholtz free energy. This energy minimization is a fundamental material behaviour of the lithosphere, which in our simple case is defined by its elastic properties. We conclude from this result that elasticity (more generally Helmholtz free energy) is an important regulator of the long-term geological strength of the lithosphere.