“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13)
This is one of the most quoted passages in the Bible, and is used by Christians regularly. It’s the go to encouragement statement for sports teams entering a Championship game, students about to take an exam, people entering job interviews, and the like. Since Christ is the provider of strength for believers, the passage becomes their motivating validation that surely they will conquer whatever trials lay ahead of them. It is the driving force for those needing a victory, and on top of that, looks great on a bumper sticker. It all sounds peachy, right?
Here’s the problem…
What about the several times people have prayed this passage but didn’t get the job?
What about the competing teams who reflect on this passage before the game?
If Christ guaranteed victory for both, how can only one be the champion?
Is Christ a liar if I fail my exam?
How does one “do all things through Christ who strengthens them” when they still don’t have the money they need at the end of the day?
Philippians 4:13 has been taken out of context more times than not, and with how often the passage is quoted, the context being brought to light is way past due. In order to do that, we need to first ask the question,
What is Paul really saying in his letter to the Philippians?
The book of Philippians was one of Paul’s prison letters, meaning it was written while he was under house arrest during his time in Rome. The Romans were well known for their persecution of the church, so Paul was left uncertain on whether or not he would be executed by them. Paul was imprisoned for interfering with the economy spreading the good news of Jesus being the Messiah. This was shortly after Paul had planted the church in the city of Philippi. So the book of Philippians is a letter written by Paul to a house church he planted in Philippi while being held prisoner in Rome. Paul’s intentions for writing were to thank the church for their support (1:1-11), update them with his current predicament (1:12-30), encourage them to be unified with one another (2:1-18), and most importantly, to experience the joy found in Christ alone together (3:1-4:20).
How is it then that Paul can say, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” when he is being unjustly imprisoned and uncertain on whether or not he’ll be executed? Why on earth is he writing a letter to this church in Philippi just to tell them he’s joyful? Is he delusional or just naïve to the severity of his circumstance? It doesn’t really sound like he can do all things at all. If anything, it sounds like his predicament puts him in the exact opposite position of being remotely victorious. This conundrum raises another question;
What does Paul mean by “all things”
If “all things” means “every task and trial we face” then Paul must’ve been off his rocker, because we know that wasn’t true for him at the time of his imprisonment, and certainly isn’t true for us. Let’s consider the verses preceding Philippians 4:13…
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. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 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.
As you can see, Paul’s concern is not with “coming out on top” for every difficulty life throws his way. As he states in verse 11, “…for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content”. Paul’s idea of “all things” is not limited to what our perceptions of victory, success, or accomplishing are in regards to all things. Paul is encouraging the Philippians to seek the joy that is can only be found in Christ, because it is impossible to do so when they are consumed with things going according to their expectations. When we read Philippians 4:13, we should consider the translation less of an ambiguous motivational verse, and shift our focus to being content in Christ. Rely on the encouragement Paul is writing to be content in all circumstances, not on a motivational quote. If we want to do the text justice, we must consider the context of Paul’s writing. Once we do, the interpretation of the verse would be more along the lines of, “I can find contentment in all of life’s circumstances, good or bad, because it is through Christ and his grace I am given the strength to do so.”
How should we apply Paul’s understanding of being content today?
Or more practically, let’s consider the current event of the election; how should this verse effect a believer’s response to the election results?
Whether you were rooting for Trump, Hilary, Gary Johnson, or hoping Ralph Nader would somehow end up on the ballot, this passage holds a lot of value in how we approach both current and future results of presidential elections for one reason: contentment. Let me be clear, I am not saying everyone needs to be okay with Trump as president. What I am saying is that you do have the ability to control your emotional response to the election despite its results. You can choose the path that seeks contentment in any circumstance. The underlying beauty of Philippians 4:13 is that no matter what side of the political fence you fall on, you can still find peace and joy in Christ, and be content with where you are as an individual in life. By choosing to be content, you are choosing to find joy in Christ and NOT in the country’s political shift. If you are against Trump and his policies, great! You have the freedom to act on them and you should do so! If you are for Trump and his policies, then that’s great too! You have just as much freedom to act on those as well! Whether the election has made you happy or further discouraged you, Christ remains the faithful provider of strength. By grace alone we are given direct access to him, and through him we can be content and joyful in all circumstances; especially when we really just don’t want to.