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Nobody likes to lose. Winning is fun but losing is hard. In the midst of a challenging feat we might wonder if it’s appropriate to claim Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” After John 3:16, Philippians 4:13 is one of the most-searched verses in the Bible, and is often linked with athletes seeking to inspire victory and strength. But this common application unfortunately misses its real power.
At its core, this verse is talking about a different sort of victory. How do you respond when you face challenges and hardships in life? Do you have victory in such circumstances? Can you have victory through suffering?
Surveying the Context
First, let’s look at the context of Philippians 4:13. Paul is under house arrest, probably in Rome during the reign of Nero, awaiting trial before the Roman Emperor. As he writes, he recognizes that death may be the end point of his imprisonment because the emperor Nero was known to be hostile to Christians (Phil. 1:20–21; 2:17). It is precisely in this context that Paul writes that he learned the secret of being content. He realized that contentment is not directly related to one’s environment or situation.
Our circumstances are constantly changing, but God never changes. Paul was at peace with his circumstances because he didn’t rest his hope on them, but on God. That Paul was able to rejoice while in prison is nothing short of a miraculous gift given supernaturally by the Holy Spirit.
Meaning of Our Victory
What exactly does Paul mean when he says “I can do all things”? The Greek word for “can do” means to “be strong, powerful, able, prevail over.” Despite its common translation, this verb is used 27 other times in the New Testament and is never translated “can do” elsewhere. Paul is not saying that he can do all things through Christ, but rather that he can prevail or have the victory over any circumstance by relying on Christ and his strength.
Paul was at peace with his circumstances because he didn’t rest his hope on them, but on God.
What then does Paul mean by “all things”? Certainly, this cannot mean that Paul thought he could do anything through Christ’s power because the preceding verses (11–12) clarify that he learned to be content “in any and every circumstance.” When Paul writes “all things,” he is specifically referring to all those situations or circumstances he faces—some of them good and some of the extremely difficult.
Means of Our Victory
How was Paul able to be content in whatever situation he was in? Paul’s victory didn’t come through his strength. His secret was he didn’t do it, but Christ did it through him–which means it’s a secret available to all believers. Paul’s victory came through his union with Christ.
Paul’s victory didn’t come through his own strength. His secret was that he didn’t do it, but Christ did it through him.
The spirit of Christ who dwells in believers empowers us to be victorious even in the midst of trials. In fact, the phrase “the one who strengthens” depicts the action as incomplete and indicates a continual strengthening. For example, if we’re not continually communing with God in prayer and reading his Word, our strength will be greatly diminished.
In summary, this verse can be translated or paraphrased this way: “I can have the victory (prevail) over any circumstance (situation) through my union with Christ who continually strengthens me.”
Four Reasons This Verse Matters
1. It applies to all Christians all the time.
Philippians 4:13 is not primarily about the great accomplishments we attempt, such as winning a sporting event or reaching that next milestone in our lives. Those perspectives would only apply to us in a few circumstances—when we decide to really step out in faith and rely on God’s strength to accomplish some big future plan.
But what about the here and now? All of us are in a situation that’s difficult, faith-testing, and overwhelming (if we’re not now we soon will be). It might be health issues, difficulties at work, trouble with a rebellious child, relationship issues in your family, financial stress, or a multitude of other things. It’s in those situations that this verse is meant to speak to us.
2. It’s humbling.
It’s humbling because it reminds us that we are not in control. God is. Paul was simply preaching the gospel as God called him to do and he finds himself in prison. It is humbling to recognize that things will happen to us beyond our control.
The most vivid application of this passage for me came in 2016 when we lost our 18-year-old son, Brandon. God graciously brought this verse to my mind as I wept in my living room after hearing that Brandon was gone. I couldn’t control this circumstance. It wasn’t part of the plan I had for glorifying Jesus with my life and family. But even then, victory was possible, because “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
3. It’s possible.
The contentment that allows us to praise God amid the pain, confusion, and humiliations is something we can learn. In verses 11–12, Paul writes, “I have learned of the secret” of being content. Paul’s learning was not instantaneous. It did not happen overnight or at his conversion. The book of Acts reveals his learning through trial after trial. Contentment, and the joy that comes with it, is not something you are born with, or granted automatically. It’s something that must be learned, most often through difficulties. Your trials are not wasted.
4. It’s Christ-exalting.
Christ is the One who strengthens us in the face of both difficulties and blessings, and Christ is the One who receives the glory. One of my favorite verses is 1 Peter 4:11: “Whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (emphasis mine). God is more glorified when we are content in trials than when we are content with blessings.
Philippians 4:13 isn’t just for Christian superheroes. It’s for every child of God in every situation in life, especially the tough ones. No trial or tragedy is too hard to face, not if you have Jesus. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”