“I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” So goes a well known verse from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi.
It’s well known… but often used out of context. You might find it on the back of a t-shirt for a sports team. You might hear it quoted to someone about to attempt the [humanly] impossible, perhaps a sport beyond their physical capabilities, perhaps aiming for a position beyond their qualifications, perhaps something else equally unlikely.
Let’s learn what it really means.
Christ’s strength, God’s power, is certainly almighty. God has the attribute of omnipotence, and can do whatever He wants to do.
But he has not promised that He will strengthen me to throw a football across the field, that He will give me strength to play in the NBA, or that He will immediately place me in the CEO position of a lucrative company.
As always, context is key when interpreting a verse.
Philippians 4:13 is one small part of a decent sized letter to a specific church. In the letter, Paul explains that his imprisonment, rather than hindering the spread of the good news of Christ, has actually advanced it. He tells the church he wants them to spread the gospel by living in unity with one another through their humility, to imitate and obey Christ and names good examples of men they know who are doing just that. He urges them to trust in Christ alone, rather than adding so-called meritorious works to their salvation like certain false teachers were doing. He names a couple of ladies who aren’t getting along, enlists others to help them, and he also takes time to thank them for supporting him with a financial gift.
It is at this point that we find Philippians 4:13. Paul was glad for their gift. But he did not just want to thank them, he also wanted to tell them the awesome secret God had taught him. There were times Paul could have used a financial gift, but he didn’t have it. There were times he had plenty. There was a temptation present in both times: a nagging discontentment threatened Paul on those situations. Yet, Paul could say, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” (4:11). He knew how to be brought low, and how to overflow; how to be full, and how to be hungry; how to have plenty and how to be in need (4:12). And in all these pendulum swings, he had learned how to be content.
When you’re in need, you can be discontent because you have a need. Will my need be met? Where’s the money coming from? How will I pay this bill? Who is going to help me with this thing I can’t do?
When you have plenty, you can be discontent in spite of apparently having no needs. Will something happen to my investments? Will someone rob me? What’s going to go wrong? How can I get more? What am I worth today? Will it be enough for a good retirement?
We have a tendency to locate our contentment in our circumstances, or circumstances we wish existed. Instead of trusting in circumstances, which can change, we need to find contentment in the unchanging character of God and our relationship with Him in Christ.
Paul evidently didn’t always know how to be content “in all things,” but he learned. That’s what he meant when he said he could do all things through Christ Who strengthens him. He had learned to be content in all things, all situations. Now that is something humanly impossible! But it is something that Christ can strengthen you to do. He’s not promised to make you throw a football to the moon or give you superpowers, but He offers His divine power to help you do the most important thing you can’t do, and that is to find yourself completely happy and satisfied in Him. Time to learn.
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