July 22, 2014

I Can Do All Things

by Nathan Busenitz

In today’s post, I would like to briefly consider one of the most well-known and often-quoted verses in the New Testament. In fact, it is one of the most popular verses in American evangelical culture today.

It has been printed on posters and inspirational wall art. A quick internet search reveals that you can buy key chains, rings, buttons, t-shirts, stickers, postcards, bracelets, handbags, and other Christianized trinkets with the words of this verse emblazoned, embroidered, or embossed upon them. This verse even gained some notoriety among college football fans a couple years ago when a championship quarterback sported the verse on the glare-reducing strips he wore under his eyes.all_things_football

But the irony is that, by taking this verse out of context, many people have actually turned it on its head—making it mean the opposite of what it actually means. They have turned it into a slogan of personal empowerment—a declaration of self-achievement, ambition, and accomplishment. For many, this verse has been trivialized into some sort of motivating motto for material prosperity, career advancement, or athletic success.

But in reality it is nothing of the sort.

By now, you may have guessed that the verse I am describing is Philippians 4:13. There, the Apostle Paul writes, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

Now, if we read Philippians 4:13 in isolation, apart from its context, it’s possible to see why so many take it as a declaration of personal empowerment.

Out of context, the “all things” seems like it could refer to whatever someone might want to accomplish—from winning a football game to losing weight to getting a new job to gaining material wealth. Out of context, it is often treated like a spiritual boost of self-confidence that can be applied to any ambition or aspiration in life.

But in context this verse has a very specific, defined meaning—one that most Americans don’t want to hear about, but one that is very important for us to remember as believers.

Out of context, Philippians 4:13 is used as a blank-check promise for whatever is desired. But in context, it is a verse is about contentment. It’s not about your dreams coming true or your goals being met. Rather it’s about being joyful, satisfied, and steadfast even when life is hard and your circumstances seem impossible.

You see, this verse is not about winning the football game; it’s about how you respond when you lose the football game, or get injured for the season, or fail to make the team altogether. It’s not about getting that new job, that new house, or that new outfit; it’s about finding your satisfaction in the job you already have, in the house you already own, and in the wardrobe already hanging in your closet.

This is not a verse about being empowered to change your circumstances; rather, it is a verse about relying on God’s power in order to be content in the midst of circumstances you can’t change.

Consider, for just a moment, the context of Philippians 4:13. Writing to the believers in Philippi, Paul says:

(10) But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity.
(11) Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.
(12) I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.
(13) I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

You can see there, that when the apostle says, I can do all things through Him who strengthens me, he is speaking about contentment. In any circumstance, he had learned to be content by depending on Christ who gave him the strength to persevere in any situation.

And that is a perspective that we are called to emulate. In fact, if you look at verse 9, right before the verses cited above, Paul says:

(9) The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

He tells his readers to follow his example, and then he immediately talks about contentment. Clearly, the attitude that Paul possessed is one that should characterize us as well.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
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  • Bruce

    Thank your for this!! I have been talking about this for years. People DO NOT want to hear it. Misuse of this scripture makes me crazy. Especially from the pulpit. Seriously! What Bible school or seminary are these guys attending? Do they learn anything about inductive study or expositing scripture?

    This is what “TOPICAL” sermons will get you most often. Well meaning people picking a juicy, ear tickling topic then running around scripture to find verses that “support” it.

    And if you dare to share with someone the truth of the verse in context, they look at you like you are from Mars. As if to say “what are you some kill joy?” My answer is “No, I am not some killjoy but rather I want full joy in the truth of scripture rightly divided and properly applied. Why is that increasingly unpopular these days? it just doesn’t tickle right, I guess.

    Sorry for the rant…….. I think.

    Blessings

    • David

      Very good rant, Brother Bruce

  • http://almostreadytogoamish.blogspot.com/ Johnny

    Excellentr message. People that misquote this verse lose track of the fact that this is part of a PRISON epistle, too.

  • http://michaelcoughlin.net/ Michael Coughlin

    Amen. Scripture twisting is the work of the Devil, is it not? That, and it seems more superstitious than anything when I see that.

    • Fibber MaGee

      Good question. I’m gonna go with not.

  • Senorita Daffy

    Thanks so much for this post. I hope those who read it, take the time to truly grasp the meaning of these words.
    There is so much out of context scripture quoting going on these days, it makes my head spin! If those who toss this passage about so casually, actually understood that it means to ENDURE all things, I’m sure we’d hear it quoted a lot less often.

  • http://www.melissacollins.biz/ Melissa Collins

    Great discussion of this wonderful verse! Thanks!

  • http://thecripplegate.com Mike Riccardi

    The church my wife and I came from met in the gym of a Christian school, where the basketball games were played. Philippians 4:13 was printed and spread out on a large banner that hung on the wall. What always made me laugh is that if both teams are from Christian schools, the members of both of those teams are looking at that banner and “claiming the promise” to be able to do all things through Christ who strengthens them. You’ve got one kid thinking, “I can slam dunk over this kid through Christ who strengthens me.” And you’ve got the kid guarding him thinking, “I can block this slam dunk through Christ who strengthens me.” But at the end of every game, one of the teams loses! At least one team could not do all things through Christ who strengthens them!

    Of course that’s foolish. This verse is not a triumphalistic mantra of personal fulfillment. It does not promise us omnipotence in order to fulfill our worldly ambitions. When we read the text in context, it’s plain that Paul’s saying he can experience all of his circumstances — of being well-fed and hunger, of having abundance and suffering need — with contentment.

    Thanks for this post, Nate.

    • Fibber MaGee

      You don’t think that it was possible that some
      were thinking, “no matter what happens tonight, I know that Christ will
      strengthen me”.

      It just seems a bit pessimistic for you Mike.

      • http://thecripplegate.com Mike Riccardi

        I don’t doubt that there were at least some who were thinking that way. I just don’t think that number was very large. I suppose you could call me pessimistic, but given the way that verse is used throughout the sports world, I don’t think I’m out to lunch for being a bit suspicious. :-)

    • Brad

      Hey Mike!

      What’s the name of the Christian school you were referring to?

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  • David Wiggs

    I would even say its not about finding contentment in those things we see as practical everyday situations, I would say its even spiritually deeper than that. Its contentment yes, but as we actually live surrendered lives and live to serve Christ through the gospel. the ALL THINGS is the trials and tribulations of life as you are living for the sake of the call. We can be Christians going to church every week, praying, reading and studying the Bible, and yet we are really not abiding in Christ at all. Bearing fruit, is not personal joy or happiness, it is the fruit of the Spirit, in that, the Spirit provides all that we need as we Live for Christ, sharing His truth in a world that Jesus Himself tells us will Hate us, because they have hated Him first. The American gospel is that God is there for us, that we are loved and blessed, no matter how we might live, of course not in sin, but isn’t not abiding and surrendering our lives completely to Christ, sin? I believe it is, and very few find that narrow path, where heaven and power meet the child of God, where God’s purpose is being played out and God is glorified. No believer is perfect, and I certainly am not, but the Scriptures teach what the Scriptures teach, and we must all be discipled in truth so that we all have a right understanding of spiritual truth and how the Scriptures, in wisdom and knowledge, might actually be applied to our lives, as we set out to bring glory to our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, and not so much focused on our own personal needs. In just a few verses down, the LORD says this: And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:19 Again is it wants or needs according to our personal preferences? Or is it needs according to our needs to go forth and take the gospel to a dying world, as we go out making disciples, and being fisher of men? American Christians have much to learn, and in our culture where even the church has been infiltrated with the lies of Satan through Liberal Progressivism, the love of many are sure to grow cold. We need to be grounded in Truth, be in a church that still holds to the Truth of Scriptures, that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, Word of God, For ALL Scripture is God breathed…..All Scripture [is] given by inspiration of God, and [is] profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 2Timothy 3:16

  • Robert E

    Thank you! Now you need to do an accompanying column on Jer 29:11.

  • http://www.ibfellowship.org/ John Chester

    Wait, are you saying that Paul wasn’t promising me that I could be a Jesus powered Heisman Trophy winner?

  • x

    Nathan,

    great post, and something that characterizes the church today. Your key point is

    “Out of context, Philippians 4:13 is used as a blank-check promise for whatever is desired. But in context, it is a verse is about contentment. It’s not about your dreams coming true or your goals being met. Rather it’s about being joyful, satisfied, and steadfast even when life is hard and your circumstances seem impossible.”

    In my view, the underlying theme that feeds the mis-interpretation of this is our failure to do what the New Testament commands us to do as Christians: deny ourselves, take up our cross, follow Christ, esteem others as more highly than ourselves, consider others’ interests ahead of our own, etc.

    We see with this verse a lot of folk placing the focus on “me” and “what I get out of it” and “what Christ can do for ME” rather than constantly remembering what Christ already has done for me in rescuing my sinful soul and regenerating me to new faith and enabling me to live a life totally devoted to him.

    The former is contrary to a Christ-like attitude and the way we should Christians should be living our lives. I don’t know if this can be summed this up by labelling it “selfishness” or what, but it’s something that is a very practical and dangerous result of our abandonment of Scripture as our only guide.

    All this to say, could the Cripplegate maybe address this in the near future?

    • x

      Sorry, I meant the “selfishness” part, not the “abandonment of Scripture” part, which has been covered multiple times.

  • Dansteve

    I think many Christians have been misled as a result of wrongful understanding of this verse, they began to expect dramatic, positive changes in their lives as a result of keeping Faith in Christ. In the long run, when these expectations aren’t fort coming, they tend to lose their faith. Thanks for giving us the true interpretation of the verse.

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  • Nathaniel Gates

    Well, what in the world am i going to do with these 300 coffee mugs now?

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  • Cameron Walton

    I just want to clarify something. I agree with you that Paul is saying this in the context of contentment and is giving Christ the credit for his and that this means we must be content through Christ who strengthens us. But surely this verse can apply to other circumstances as well. Doesn’t “all things” cover more than contentment. I am definitely not saying this means I can go win any sports match or paint the best painting in history, because I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. I would rather put it as yes, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, but Christ doesn’t strengthen me to do all things. Michael Bentley in his commentary of Philippians says it like this: “He (the ‘he’ he means is Paul) means, I can do everything provided God wants me to do it’. Simply put, what I am asking is when someone is tempted to lust or steal or is timid in sharing the gospel they can use this verse as encouragement knowing that they can do all things through Him who strengthens them and that he will strengthen them for this, because they know it is His will?

    • http://thecripplegate.com Mike Riccardi

      Cameron, I think the point of this post is that we need to interpret Scripture in its context and according to the original author’s intent. It’s definitely true that we can be strengthened by Christ to endure temptation, but when you ask whether we can “use this verse” for that, the question is: Is that what Paul was intending to communicate in this text? I think the context makes clear that Paul’s statement, “I can do all things in Christ,” means “I can endure any circumstance and be content.”

      Now, you might say, in the midst of temptation to lust or steal or to be fearful of sharing the Gospel, that one might turn to this verse to actively pursue their contentment in Christ and thus not in the sinful pleasures promised by lust, theft, and timidity. “I can endure the temptations of sin because of my vital union with Christ who strengthens me to find all my satisfaction in Him, rather than in them.”

      And so, perhaps the final answer to your question is yes, but it’s important to think through the text in a way that is submissive to the author’s intent. We can’t just de-contextualize certain passages of Scripture like this one (see also Jer 29:11; 2 Chr 7:14; etc.), interpret them as if they’re context-less maxims or proverbs that apply universally, and then apply them however we see fit.

      I hope this helps answer your question.

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