October 27, 2011

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 and Heisman trophy winner sported the verse on the glare-reducing strips he wore under his eyes.

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

Posts Twitter

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

    Amen!

  • Matt

    Great post. So another way of saying this verse might be “I can do all things [that I do] through Him who strengthens me.”?

  • http://www.cathrynhasek.com Cathryn Hasek

    I hope Tim Tebow knows this and explains it this way to his teammates and others…God’s word and name is not to be exploited but exhalted.

    • guest

      If you know anything about Tim Tebow, then you know he gives God the glory for every accomplishment in his life.

      • Sdhaf

        and takes scripture of context

  • Mike Weaks

    A good reminder, Nathan. Taking words out of their context promotes unfortunate errors. When I stand back seeing the Gospel of God as a whole, the intent appears clearer. Your reminder to understand contextually Phil. 4:13 “I can do all things…” makes me think of Romans 6 where Paul asks, “Did you not know…” This leads me to think that our preaching and teaching may have gaps.
    Phil. 4:13 also reminds me of Gal 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” As long as we are keeping Gal.2:20 as a reference to Phil.4:13 we will do well.
    In Christ

  • Creighton Ring

    Someone with a South African accent once wrote: “If the water on the one side of the bridge is flowing North to South, and the water on the other side of the bridge is flowing North to South, then it is a reasonable starting point to assume the water beneath the bridge is flowing in exactly the same direction.” Thank you for the blitz on that passage Nathan. You gents are a great team!

  • Richard

    I fail to understand. Tebow writes a reference to a verse for all the world to see and it is out of context? It’s just a reference to a verse. Maybe the focus should be placed elsewhere when we utilize our blogs as rock piles to stand on top and omnisciently pontificate to the masses.

    Rather, drop the rocks while becoming an encourager of Romans 1:16. Would you rather Tebow remain silent in his given arena of influence and mimic the world around him?

    Nathan, we expect better from someone of your standing. Just who/what are you standing upon regarding this post?

    • http://thecripplegate.com Jesse Johnson

      I get what you are saying, but you do have to grant that “i can do all things…” means “suffer for the gospel in a Mediteranian prison” more than it means “hit a baseball farther than a spaceship” right?

    • Jordan Standridge

      If you re-read the post instead of just lookig at the picture, you will find that nowhere does the writer criticize Tebow for writing the verse on his face, all he does is say that the verse gained noteriety by being on his cheek-bones. We will have to ask Tebow what he thinks about the verse. The problem Nate is addressing is that many people don’t understand this verse. My teacher in high school made people run laps around the building for saying the words I can’t, one time this five foot kid said ” I wish I could dunk a basketball but I can’t” she heard him and made him run ten laps and told him to repeat Philippians 4:13 as he was running.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Richard,

      Thanks for your comment. I apologize if you interpreted today’s post as an attack on Tim Tebow’s character. It is not intended to be.

      I do not know Tebow personally. But everything I’ve read about him (including the article to which the picture is linked) indicates that he is an upstanding young man whose evangelical commitment seems sincere.

      The picture of Tebow is intended to illustrate just how popular it has become in our culture to reference Philippians 4:13. It is probably the most-cited Bible reference (especially in the world of athletics) outside of John 3:16.

      My fear is that it is often misinterpreted. Hence, today’s post.

      Thanks again for your feedback,
      Nathan

  • Phil

    Nathan: Indeed you’ve isolated the context in which Paul used that phrase. But it does not, however, necessarily follow that application that Paul’s application in this context is therefore the only scope of application for the principle he cites. Paul is famous for his premise-after-the-consequences writing style, in which he makes many points and then concludes with the premise/justification for the point(s) just made. In this case, Paul could just have easily used Phil. 4:13 as an introductory principle, then made the application to the scope of topic at hand. Instead, as he often did, he merely swapped the two. He speaks of specific circumstances, but then closes with a larger truth using the more broad “all things” (not “these things”) language.

    Finally, in love, I would like to “hope all things” when it comes to our brother in Christ, Tim Tebow. We do not know why, exactly, he features that verse so prominently, but we do know for fact that our brother is being attacked and besmirched for the sake of Christ. Our faith in Christ is meant to be personal, but never private, as the world expects us to keep it. Tim Tebow has crossed that line and the pundits, scoffers and mockers are making him pay for being a bit too openly Christian — something many American Christians should consider. Maybe, in the face of the media bashing and besmirching for the name of Christ, he might be appealing to Phil 4:13 to witness to the fact that whether he’s praised or bashed, wins or loses, he knows his identity — and strength — comes not from humanistic endeavor but Christ within him as a believer? Yes, he might be using it as a kitschy buzzphrase, but from what we know of him, I hope better than that. Thus I would encourage us as brothers not to join the public/secular judgements against him unless absolutely unnecessary and founded on provable knowledge of his personal and private motivations.

  • http://thecripplegate.com Jesse Johnson

    Nate. You are just a hater.

  • http://thecripplegate.com Jesse Johnson

    Hey, Aren’t you a Broncos fan? Doesn’t the 4th quarter of the Dolphins game vindicate the verse?

    • Anonymous

      Yes, it’s true. I’m an avid Broncos fan–which means that no one is cheering more for Tim Tebow right now than I am.

      Our losing record gives me the opportunity to practice the true meaning of Php. 4:13.

  • Anonymous

    Haha. It’s hilarious that you merely used Tibow as an example of how the verse can be mis-quoted and in come the rebuke bombs. True interpretation trumps honorable motives. Thank you for using this as an opportunity to instruct.

    “Maybe the focus should be placed elsewhere when we utilize our blogs as rock piles to stand on top and omnisciently pontificate to the masses”…Really?!

  • Anonymous

    So timely! I just wrote a post about how the phrase “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” is not found in the Bible and that it’s misleading people to believe they are the ones that can handle the situation in the first place. We are not self-sufficient and God gives us more than we can handle all the time. If he didn’t, we wouldn’t need Jesus. Anyways, loved this! Thank you!
    http://wimberlys.blogspot.com/2011/10/god-does-give-us-more-than-we-can.html

  • mark

    Good article Nathan. This topic creates quite the tension for us all being that is “learned” in the crucible of daily living. So guess we could say that contentment needs models? Maybe that is one reason its so out of “context” in America? Especially with verse 9 in view.
    I think that Tebow’s public handling of the beginnings of his NFL career especially this year has shown his understanding is deeper than just some letters under his eyes when he had a whole university promoting him. God bless those godly parents.

  • Pingback: Can you do ALL things? | Jesus Apathy

  • Pingback: A La Carte (10/27) | My Blog

  • Brent Johnson

    I always wondered: If there are christians on both teams, which one is God going to honor the all things with? We are so culturalized that we can’t even see the forest anymore. I bet some christians locked up in China have a pretty good handle on this verse. And I love football.

  • Noah

    I don’t know how much more Nathan could have bent over backwards to not make this about Tebow, besides not putting up a picture of Tebow. So if this post was about Tebow, then Nathan did a terrible job of making his point explicit. But if it wasn’t about Tebow, rather a post about what Philippians 4:13 means in its context and that how Christians in the US use the verse as an encouragement to be all they can be, then I think Nathan succeeded.

    The more I think about it, some of the comments make Nathan’s point for him. Some readers don’t take into account Nathan’s intent as the author, much like some readers don’t take into account Paul’s intent as the human author of Philippians 4:13, so in the end the post takes on a meaning that it never intended to say.

    • http://mriccardi.blogspot.com Mike Riccardi

      The more I think about it, some of the comments make Nathan’s point for him. Some readers don’t take into account Nathan’s intent as the author, much like some readers don’t take into account Paul’s intent as the human author of Philippians 4:13, so in the end the post takes on a meaning that it never intended to say.

      Bingo.

  • Bill Combs

    The NIV2011 does a good job of trying to clarify the situation: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength”

    • TJM

      I like how Martyn Lloyd Jones has the verse translated in his book on Spiritual Depression the chapter called The Fine Cure page 290. “I am strong for all things in the One who constantly infuses strength into me”

  • Pingback: Worth Reading–October 28, 2011 « Gospel Encouragement For Everyday Life

  • Bill

    I think we all could be said to be guilty of taking scripture out of context at times. However, the above example of taking scripture out of context is not Tim Tebow’s. Its the authors “imagined” scenario. Unless someone here has spoken with Mr. Tebow about his intent and discovered a clear misuse of the text, to assign it to him carte blanche is nothing short of judging his intent. My son wrote this verse on the inside of his all star baseball hat because he knows that he is only a human being; capable of striking a batter out, and also of giving up a game winning home run. In whatever circumstance he finds himself in, this verse reminds him to be content and thankful for the gifts God has given him and the opportunities he has to use them for His glory.
    Does anyone on this blog know this is not the case with Tebow, or any other athlete, blue collar worker, president, soldier, homeschooling mother of 6 that doesn’t write this verse down or memorize it to remind them of this very thing?
    Great point to make regarding the text. Just be careful not to assume that athletes don’t know more than yourself about the meaning of contentment in every circumstance.

    • http://mriccardi.blogspot.com Mike Riccardi

      Bill, click here.

  • Karl Heitman

    Clearly, this is NOT an attack on Tebow. This is a clear reminder of the unfortunate commonality of people ignoring the context of any given passage. So, please, some need to stop doing what you’re accusing Nate of doing: judging prematurely!

  • Daffyhearted

    I just want to add my “AMEN” here and thank you for sharing the truth!

  • Pingback: Context is king…. « Northside Baptist Church

  • Pingback: Don’t take a great verse out of context « Strengthened by Grace

  • http://na-dache.blogspot.com Matthew Carroll

    The Philippians 4:13 reference is emblazoned all over the place here in Brazil. I’ll paste here a link to a photo in my facebook of a car being raffled off with the verse written on the windshield. I think here the verse means, “I can do all things, including win the lottery, through him who gives me strength:
    https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150141016151093.336270.540876092&type=1&l=d7323297f3

    • Anonymous

      sadly that’s so true, Brazilian evangelicals love that verse! Pentecostal/charismatics and all the prosperity and blasphemous word of faith use it a lot!

  • Kerri

    I wholeheartedly agree that verses are often taken out of context, both by believers and non-believers. Some verses just have a fabulous ring by themselves, but lose their appeal when cradled by the entire passage.
    As far as Tebow, I have to say I found myself bristling a little and I think it was the fact that a least three times athletic success and winning at football were mentioned as things not encompassed by this verse, making it APPEAR that you might have been making a pointed statement about Tebow’s intent. My husband and I were talking yesterday about not being able to remember a player so polarizing in recent years. He is either loved or hated, lauded or lambasted, and not knowing you personally and just reading your writing for the first time, I had to wonder which direction you were headed. It’s true that you don’t directly say that you question him, but you also don’t clear the air the other way, so I can see where people may have read into it.
    They, like me, are probably tired of seeing a young man with integrity get beat down, despite his athletic success, while those who simply don’t care what their reputation is, are celebrated for their athletic success, despite their character and actions.
    I’m glad to read in the comments that that wasn’t your underlying intent. Thanks for a solid reminder to keep things in context.

  • Shalane Walters

    I would like to see a post on Jeremiah 29:11.

  • Pingback: Hip Mormons, Cashflow, All Things, Economic Models, Steve Jobs the Mathematician, The Government Can, and Don’t Become a Scientist « 81 Inches

  • Pingback: Tudo posso. Tudo o quê?! | Conexão Conselho Biblico