Although all Scripture is God-breathed and useful, there are a handful of verses we use so much that they have become famous. John 3:16 is at the top of the list, followed closely by Philippians 4:13—“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” The popularity of John 3:16 makes perfect sense; it is the gospel of Jesus Christ in a nutshell. But why do we like Philippians 4:13 so much? I think we are drawn to it because, on the surface, it sounds a whole lot like the American dream, but with a Christian twist. While it is certainly a useful verse, I fear that we often miss its full application or even use it wrongly.
Growing up in the United States, we are bred to believe that we can accomplish anything we want, that all of our goals and dreams are within reach. We like the idea that we can do anything or everything, and at a glance, Philippians 4:13 seems to support that idea—“I can do all things.” But did Paul really mean that as long as we rely on Christ’s strength we can do anything? Is he suggesting that we can become CEO of a multibillion-dollar company, or win the Boston Marathon, or cure cancer if we do it for Christ? The verses preceding Philippians 4:13 help us clarify the “all,” and in doing so, rein in the blank check we’re tempted to write in our minds.
What It Really Means
Looking back at verse 11, we see that Paul is really talking about how he has “learned in whatever situation. . . . to be content.” He continues in verse 12, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” In context, it seems that “all things” refers to all manner of life circumstances we encounter, not all goals that we set for ourselves. While the American dream tells us that finding happiness requires continually striving for more, not settling until we are the best and have the most, Paul tells us that satisfaction has nothing to do with our circumstances. Whether life was going really well or really poorly, with Christ’s strength, Paul learned to to be content.
We tend to pull this verse out when we feel defeated, when we are hopeless, when we don’t know how we can bear up anymore. And those are certainly appropriate times to remember and meditate upon this truth. Paul is writing in the context of being “brought low” and “facing hunger and need.” So, by all means, be encouraged in the midst of struggle that you can be content and bear it well because Christ strengthens you. But don’t stop there.
For Good Times Too
By saying that he can do “all things,” Paul is also showing us that we need Christ’s strength to be content in the good times. This sounds a little odd at first. How hard is it to be content when everything is going well? Maybe harder than we think. Notice Paul’s words in verse 12: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound.” The fact that we need to know how to abound implies that there is a process, a right way to go about it. But do we actually stop to consider the way we walk through a season of abundance? It is easy in those times to rely on ourselves and our abilities. It is easy in those times to relish our earthly comforts and put our hope in them. It is easy in those times to covet because our neighbor’s season of plenty is a bit more plentiful than ours. It is easy in those times to fall into discontent.
Because when we get plenty of everything the world tells us is satisfying, we realize that the world has been lying to us. Things don’t satisfy, and having an abundance of things doesn’t change that fact. And that principle is not limited to possessions: neither power, nor fame, nor position, nor connections will ultimately satisfy. So we circle back to Paul’s idea that we need to “know how to abound,” that we need Christ’s strength to be content in abundance. We need Christ’s strength to see that we hope in the creator of our abilities, not in our accomplishments. We need Christ’s strength to see that we rejoice in our provider, not in our possessions. We need Christ’s strength to order our hearts and minds daily so that we can push away the lies of the American dream and replace them with the truths of Scripture and say with the psalmist, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Ps. 73:15).
Growing up in the United States affords us many blessings and advantages, not the least of which is abundant access to God’s Word. However, the mindset of the American dream may actually be a disadvantage in living the Christian life. If our basic framework for living a successful life is built on maximizing our own efforts and abilities in order to secure a comfortable standard of living, we have missed the mark. As Paul teaches in Philippians 4, we live well when we live in reliance on Christ’s strength, not ours. We live well when we realize that contentment in this life can be found regardless of our standard of living. To abound well, we need to “not be conformed to this world” and the empty dreams it offers, “but be transformed by the renewal of [our] minds” (Rom. 12:2).
May our minds recall the words of Philippians 4:13 in all manner of circumstances, so that we might live contented lives in all seasons drawing on the abundant strength of our all-sufficient Lord.