This familiar verse has been used in popular songs, encouragement cards, and often quoted by Christians to remind themselves they have the power through Christ to do all things. But what does this verse really mean in its context? In this new column, JANELLE YEO studies different Bible verses that are commonly misunderstood and sheds new light on them.
“Oh God, I am serving you as a leader in Dance ministry, I co-lead two youth cell groups and stay connected with them throughout the week, I teach tuition, make efforts to spend time with my family, and on top of all that, I have my CCA commitments in school and am studying Sociology with tons of reading and writing. Lord, I want to be good testimony to everyone around me by excelling in every area. You said I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me; so I claim your promise. Lord, strengthen me so that I can achieve all these and more for your glory. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
Sounds familiar? Perhaps, that is you too. Being a student in Singapore, we are typically wired to do more, achieve more. And growing up in church, it doesn’t help that adults often remind us to do well in order to be a good testimony to those around us. While this heart of instilling a spirit of excellence is not wrong, the reason of being a good testimony more often than not becomes an excuse, a pretense for our real motivation – to protect our pride and foster a (false) sense of fulfillment. Because if we truly want to be a good testimony for Christ, then shouldn’t the focus be more on our character and not our achievements? Shouldn’t it be focused more on others and not the self? So we aim to accomplish all these and claim Philippians 4:13, believing that God will help us attain our personal mission. But is this how the verse ought to be used? Let’s take a closer look and explore the letter further:
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 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. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:10-13, emphasis mine.)
THE BIG PICTURE
Kay Arthur, co-founder of Precept Ministries International, aptly summed up the four chapters as having joy in suffering. A quick google on the main message of Phililppians will also result in similar ideas such as “hope beyond suffering”, “joy in persecution”, and “true joy”. Well, you get the idea. At the heart of it, the epistle shows believers how and what it means to persevere in faith.
Writing from prison in Rome, Paul began his letter by sharing a testimony of how God had used his imprisonment for his glory. Instead of being chained to the guards, the guards were the ones chained to Paul as they were forced to hear the gospel whenever Paul preached! Now these guards were not just any other guards. These were palace guards, elite soldiers trained to be bodyguards for the Roman emperor. The influence and power they held at the time of Paul’s writing was so significant that they could affect who becomes the next emperor. Now, why did Paul choose to open his letter with this testimony? Was it to comfort the worried believers in Philippi? Not exactly. Paul’s main message, framing the rest of his letter, was this: Everything bad that had happened to him turned out to be good for the furtherance of the gospel (1:12). Whether he was beat up, imprisoned, or falsely accused, he recognised that all these only caused more people to believe in Jesus. These sufferings were turned around for the greater good. As such, Paul could fiercely and boldly rejoice in his hardship. It is in this setting that Paul wrote the famous Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” But what exactly does “all” encompass?
NO MATTER WHAT
Here in his closing, Paul thanked the Philippian church for their generosity in providing for his basic needs (4:10-16). At the same time, he also affirmed and highlighted to them that this was less about helping him survive than it was about sharing in his work for the gospel. By supporting Paul’s need, they were partaking in his missionary journey. They helped propel the gospel through their giving. But while he was appreciative of their support, his point was that these were, while needed, unnecessary because he had learned to endure all sorts of situations (4:11-13). Whether he was hungry or full, having little or plenty, experiencing comfort or suffering, for the sake of the gospel, he could overcome them all through Christ who strengthened him by teaching him contentment. This is what the “all” refers to – material and physical needs as Paul surrendered himself to the will of God.
Many a time, this verse is used as a blanket promise that focuses on what God can do for the individual. Instead of emphasising on Christ, emphasis is placed on “I” and “me”. It is a self-seeking prayer. Lord, help me. Lord, strengthen me. Lord, surely you can do this for me. Lord, do that for me. Me, me, me, me, me. But that is not how our relationship with Jesus ought to be. It is crucial to understand that God’s power to strengthen and provide falls subset to his will, not ours.
JOY IN OBEDIENCE
How then should we apply Philippians 4:13 to our modern day lives? What suffering can there be for us as we obey God’s will for our lives? I think of Dr Tam Wai Jia, a humanitarian doctor who recently left for Africa in obedience to God’s call to serve the helpless there. To be clear, she was given the option to work from home. After all, this would make more sense given that she has two young daughters. Yet, God spoke clearly to Dr Tam to get ready for the difficult journey of being on the ground to serve those in dire need and by doing so, show Christ to others whether in Africa or back home in Singapore. Like Paul, I’d imagine she would aptly pray Philippians 4:13, asking God to strengthen her as she deals with problems in getting accessible healthcare to the villages, or as she struggles with homesickness, being all alone without her family in Africa, or as she wrestles with the uncomfortable living conditions there.
But not all of us are Pauls or Dr Tams. God has given each and everyone of us a specific role to play in carrying out his will. Partaking in God’s work may not always mean frontline business. Remember the church in Philippi? They recognised the significance of supporting Paul in his needs. By providing him with aid, they play a part in sharing the gospel too. Perhaps your role is a role of support. Is there a missionary or a mission organisation you can support today? Or is there a neighbourhood outreach programme you can get involved in? Whatever God’s will is for you in the furtherance of his kingdom, be sure that obstacles are bound to happen. And when they do happen, I pray that you can overcome all these through Christ who strengthens you.