Why You Can & CAN'T “Do All Things Through Him Who Strengthens” You: Rethinking Phil. 4:13
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” I remember very well using Phil. 4:13 as a high school quarterback. It was my go-to, “can-do” passage, used as part encouragement, part promise, an easily-remembered verse telling me that I was not subject to the limitations of my own meager abilities but could expect help from God himself, if I depended on him. God would give me the ability to do above and beyond.
As American as Apple Pie
That understanding of the passage permeates parts of our Christian subculture in America, especially athletics (from motivational posters, to boxing shorts, to the black under a famous football player’s eyes), but it also “speaks” to moms, and businesspeople, and students, and pastors.
Now, let me be clear. Scripture is full of passages about God helping us in life, and there are passages that speak of God helping people to do extraordinary things. For instance, Ps. 18:28-29, a wonderful encouragement, reads,
“LORD, You light my lamp; my God illuminates my darkness. With You I can attack a barrier, and with my God I can leap over a wall.” (Psalms 18:28–29 HCSB)
Of course, the passage speaks in part of being in battle, but we could apply the thought to other kinds of barriers in life, just as there are various forms of darkness with which we deal on a consistent basis. Such a passage never means, “I can do anything with God’s help.” It is just a fact of life that I will never run a 5-minute mile, or speak 50 different languages, or win an international chess competition. So, in that sense “I can’t do all things through Christ.” But passages like Ps. 18:28-29 do offer encouragement as we face daunting challenges in life; God is with us in our challenges.
What Phil. 4:13 Means
The problem is, however, that Phil. 4:13 should not be used this way, for it has a very different message. Notice the context. Here is my translation of what leads up to our verse, beginning with Phil. 4:11b.
For I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I find myself. I know what it is like to be in very humble circumstances and what it is like to have a wealth of resources. In any and every situation I have learned the secret of not only how to be well fed, but also how to go hungry, not only how to have more than enough, but also how to do without. I am able to do all things with the help of the one enabling me.
Do you see how the sense of verse 13 is shaped by its context? Paul is not speaking about “ability enhancement” but contentment in dealing with a variety of life situations, having a lot or having a little. He writes that resources have varied considerably as he has carried out his ministry, and he is grateful for the Philippians help, but he has learned to be content whatever his resource situation.
What’s the Harm?
I can almost hear an objection coming back at me through my laptop screen, “Well, what’s the harm in reading Phil. 4:13 the way we like to read it, especially since our meaning has some parallel to other places in Scripture?!” Good question. Here’s the harm. When I misuse a passage like Phil. 4:13, I cover up the word of God with cheap veneer of my own or my culture’s making. In short, I miss or mangle what God really is wanting to say to me through the passage, taking God’s eternal word out of play in my life, replacing it with my own very human or cultural impressions. I miss what God is saying to me.
Then How Should We Read and Apply Phil. 4:13?
So what are we to do with Phil. 4:13? Also a good question. Here’s the answer. Be content. Admittedly, this replacement for the misreading noted above doesn’t fit our American sensibilities terribly well, but oh how we need this word from God, whether we struggle with having nothing in our pocket, or money is burning a consumerist hole in our pocket. In fact, if you notice, the contentment about which Paul speaks runs two ways—both when we have too little and when we have far more than we need.
More than likely, all of us have had times when we have struggled with a lack of resources. Perhaps you are in a ministry for which you don’t have the financial or people resources needed to move things forward. Or maybe you are a single mom who is struggling to make ends meet, or a businessperson, who wants to glorify God through your business but keeps bumping up against significant limitations.
Paul models contentment for us. We can learn to be content “with the help of the one enabling” us to do so.
But, interestingly, others of us may struggle with a different form of anxiety the passage addresses, particularly a lack of contentment when we have a superabundance of resources (some of you are thinking, “I wouldn’t mind that temptation!”). Those with too much may feel discontent, restless, because they worry about losing what they have (“what if I am forced to change my lifestyle, or my ministry?”), or about whether they are using their resources in the best way (“should I give to this ministry or that one?”). Abundant resources can be a heavy responsibility and even a burden. But Paul also models contentment for those of us with abundant resources. He would say, "Learn to be content."
So, consider packing away those gym shorts with Phil. 4:13 embroidered on the thigh, and meditate deeply on this wonderful verse over the next couple of weeks. Allow the Lord of life to give you a deep sense of settledness about your resources, whether the cupboards are empty or jammed full. You can do this "through the one who enables" you, and you will find that contentment is a very great gift indeed.