In an earlier post I mentioned that we live in a day and time that thrives on Bumper Sticker Theology: if it’s quotable and can fit on a coffee mug, we love it.
No verse fits that description more than Philippians 4:13.
It’s slightly different depending on the translation, but most people quote this verse as ” I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”
Oh, the ways this verse has been used! We have seen it just about everywhere and even the youngest Christians know this verse. Athletes, singers, and other Christian celebrities often cite this verse as a means to explain how their hard work and perseverance has paid off and that it was Christ’s strength that enabled them to get to where they are today. While that may be true, this verse does not fit with that notion. There are other verses in Scripture that do testify to the fact that we can do nothing without Christ, but Philippians 4:13 isn’t one of them. People simply use this verse to express that idea, but they have unknowingly separated it from what it really means. The way it is used today often implies that, thanks to Jesus, we are basically Superman.
So, what does it mean? As always, let’s look at the context.
The letter to the Philippians was written by the Apostle Paul from a Roman prison. You wouldn’t know it by reading it, but Paul is in chains and his life expectancy has grown uncertain. In this letter, he gives great encouragement and instruction to one of his most beloved churches. He is truthful about his hardships, but nevertheless his tone is one of joy and gladness. Let’s see what he was talking about in chapter 4, starting with verse 10:
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.- Philippians 4:10-13
By backing up three verses, our verse in question once again takes on a different meaning. Paul isn’t saying that he can do whatever he puts his mind to because Christ gives him strength. Rather, when you look carefully at his statements, he is saying that he can make it through whatever situation he finds himself in. Paul is content with the state of his life, because he knows the One who has guided him there. He has learned this in moments of joy and moments of pain. He can be full, or starving. Rich or poor. Safe, or in danger. Healthy or sick. Paul can make it through “any and every circumstance” because he can do all things through Him who gives strength.
Do you see it, now? This isn’t a verse for doing well on exams, or being successful at life. No, this verse is for the circumstances and situations in that life so often brings. So how, in this context, should this verse be used?
My unsaved family hates my Christianity and fights me every way they can (I can do all things through him who strengthens me).
Someone very dear to me has passed away (I can do all things through him who strengthens me).
The professors at my school target me because I am a Christian (I can do all things through him who strengthens me).
Those statements above reflect the difficult times in life, where you know that there’s nothing you can do about your situation but push on. They aren’t moments of temptation or accomplishment. Instead, they are moments of endurance. This verse helps us realize that whatever situation we’re in, we can make it. We can learn to be content, no matter what circumstance we face. This verse tells us the kind of situation we can make it through.
We can do all things through Him who strengthens us.