Life gets a bit much at times, and so it is no surprise that Philippians 4:13 has become the Bible verse of choice for cheesy, sunset-laden motivational posters. ‘I can do all things through him who strengthens me,’ says the ESV, and the NIV weighs in with, ‘I can do everything through him who gives me strength.’ As blanket promises go, this one is right up there with R. Kelly’s ‘I believe I can fly’.*
*[Unnecessary aside: His R-ness recently visited our shores. He quite straight-facedly believes that his avian hit song is a ministry of liberation to a down-trodden world. ‘I believe I can fly,’ he sings, ‘I believe I can touch the sky / I think about it every night and day / spread my wings and fly away.’ He claims that it is something of a life’s purpose for him to bring what seems to be the inspirational story of Icarus to the world in order to inspire them to not feel so darned rotten. He duly obliged during the press conference, standing up and bellowing his song without accompaniment. I don’t think our 3rd-world life improved any as a result, but witnessing his loose grip on reality did make me feel happier.]
Philippians 4 is frequently passed around in order to encourage faith, but the way that we use it rarely takes into consideration what Paul meant when he wrote it. As such, we do its intended message a great disservice by consigning the verse to vague motivational speak.
The book of Philippians was written from prison, and the Philippian Christians had recently sent someone to serve Paul and supply his needs. However, Paul had also got wind of some disunity in the church as a result of faction fighting. So, all the way through, Paul sets up examples, whether of Christ or Timothy or himself, of people who have the gospel and the needs of others as their primary concern. It’s a polite, indirect way of rebuking the selfishness and un-gospel-mindedness of infighting.
In chapter 4, Paul means to thank and commend the church for looking after him, but even in this, he aims to point out the incongruity of caring for his gospel mission, while damaging their own gospel living by fighting. This is what verses 10-14 are about. This is the NIV version:
10 I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength. 14 Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles.
Paul has been urging them all the way through to be single-minded and to be willing to think of others ahead of themselves. In verse 9 he specifically tells them to follow his example. Now, in telling them about himself, it stands to reason that this is the kind of example that he wants them to follow. But why this?
Paul seems only to be awkwardly saying that he is not fishing for handouts, but that’s not all he’s doing.
He didn’t deserve to be in prison, but he was. Many people might have been ashamed of having a leader who had been left to rot in jail and who was in grave danger of being executed, but the Philippians were not. They supported him still. Yet, when it came to conflict at home, it seems that the guilty parties were not willing to back down. Perhaps doing so would have meant personal embarrassment or shame, or perhaps they couldn’t be seen to be incorrect. Whatever the reason for their persistent fight, Paul’s modelling of contentment in the material sphere is meant to be applied even to the sphere of ideas, and matters of reputation and shame.
I reckon that we usually confuse contentment and comfort. I think that we might well imagine contentment to be synonymous with ‘middle class’: those who are not rich enough to bankroll their whims, but not poor enough for it to hurt. Of course, Paul is not saying that. For the Christian anyway, contentment is something that transcends circumstances. It doesn’t really matter if you presently have everything or nothing. Contentment in this life is not about achieving the right balance on your balance sheet, or achieving Aristotle’s Golden Mean with your gold. Contentment is found elsewhere, and this ‘elsewhere’ is the subject of our mistaken memory verse.
The word ‘do’ in ‘I can do everything through him who gives me strength’ is more interesting in the original language. It’s a word that can refer to having the strength to defeat something, or it can mean having adequate resources. Paul is probably saying that whether he has a little or a lot, he has everything he needs.
And why? Because he’s become a stoic? Because he’s learned to meditate away his desires? No. He says that he has everything that he needs (literally) in the one who gives him strength. It’s because Paul’s existence was lived in Christ that he put so little stock in the mod cons. Paul could be a total failure and be content with it because he lived his life for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of others, and with a total grasp of the hope that is waiting for him. He lived so completely in the knowledge that his citizenship is in heaven that it didn’t really matter to him how much of a success he was on Earth.
So, to the Philippians who were scrapping over their reputations, even to the point of bringing Christ’s body into disrepute, Paul points out that they ought to be content to suffer shame and loss now, as long as it means that their citizenship in heaven is preserved. Their reputation here can be much or little; they can be presidential or the village idiot. They have everything they need if they are found in Christ.
To us, we do everything we can to secure our personal comfort. We have whole quasi-Christian ministries dedicated to making The Most Successful You®. We do everything we can to save face, and even more to get famous. But I wonder if we really expend as much energy as we should concerning ourselves with our heavenly citizenship, and living for the gospel?
‘I can do everything through him’ is not a promise that we can trounce every obstacle or come back from the direst circumstances. ‘I believe I can fly’ is for that. It means that being in Christ dominates your horizons. It means that you’ll suffer even deprivation, loss, and shame (and that you’ll not let the good times go to your head!) because the gospel is what drives you. Why don’t we stick that on a poster?