Christians find great comfort and encouragement in these words, recorded by the Apostle Paul:
“I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”
— Philippians 4:13 (KJV)
“I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”
— Philippians 4:13 (NIV)
However, faithful readers may be both surprised and disappointed to learn that I, in fact, cannot “do all things” as this verse suggests. For instance. I cannot run faster than a speeding bullet. I am not more powerful than a locomotive. I cannot leap tall buildings in a single bound. So, while “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” may make a good sound bite, evidence suggests that it doesn’t actually promise that I can be a superhero.
While you may be comforted and perhaps even encouraged by the fact that I haven’t been granted super-abilities, we’re left to wonder what exactly Paul meant when he wrote about being able to to all things if he didn’t really mean that we could do all things.
Perhaps Paul was referring only to himself. That is, perhaps Paul meant that he could do all things, but that you and I cannot. After all, Paul was involved in many supernatural events, including surviving death by stoning and restoring a young man killed in a fall from a third story window to life.
However, when we look at the context of Paul’s striking statement, we see a different picture.
“… for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 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. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”
— Philippians 4:11-13 (NIV)
Rather than talking about having powers like Superman, Paul is talking about something nearly as rare and elusive: contentment. Contentment is the quality of being satisfied (though not necessarily complacent) with our situation in life. Paul said that he had learned the secret of being content in every situation.
How would you fill in this blank? “If only I had ____________, then I’d be content.”
- A nice car?
- A nice house?
- Better health?
- Just a little more money?
- A better relationship with my wife, husband, children, parents, boyfriend, girlfriend?
- Something else?
According to Paul, the answer isn’t in any of these things or people. Instead, the secret of contentment is finding satisfaction in Jesus, who provides strength to deal with everything in life — both the good (living in plenty) and the bad (living in need).
He wasn’t relying on Jesus to make him faster than a speeding bullet. Instead, he was relying on Jesus for the ability to face and deal with every situation of life. Thus, he can “do” (literally, “have strength for”) all kinds of things.
The Life Application Bible notes put it this way:
“Can we really do everything? The power we receive in union with Christ is sufficient to do his will and to face the challenges that arise from our commitment to doing it. He does not grant us superhuman ability to accomplish anything we can imagine without regard to his interests. As we contend for the faith, we will face troubles, pressures, and trials. As they come, ask Christ to strengthen you.”
— Life Application Study Bible
The IVP New Testament Commentary puts it this way:
“Here is a much-used sentence from Paul that is often taken out of context and thus abused. While everything seems to be all-embracing and is often applied to one’s activities (especially those that are personally demanding—athletics, learning to drive and the like), in context it refers primarily to living in want or plenty. Paul finds Christ sufficient in times of bounty as well as in times of need! Thus, rather than being a christianized version of the Stoic ideal, this passage points up the absolute Christ-centeredness of Paul’s whole life. He is a man in Christ. As such he takes what Christ brings. If it means “plenty,” he is a man in Christ, and that alone; if it means “want,” he is still a man in Christ, and he accepts deprivation as part of his understanding of discipleship.”
— IVP New Testament Commentary
However, just as Superman could be rendered helpless by Kryptonite, contentment may turn into discontentment when exposed to:
- selfish desires
Knowing that the secret of contentment comes through Christ, though, helps us avoid the pitfall of thinking that more “stuff” is what we really need.