Philippians 4:13: A Statement of Empowerment or Dependence?

I don’t have a lot of memories of my parents embarrassing me when I was a kid, but one in particular stands out. I was probably about 10-years-old (give or take a year or so) and playing baseball for the local little league. My team was in a big game, and it had gone into extra innings. I was standing in right-field, waiting for the next pitch, when all of a sudden I heard my mom’s voice screaming, “You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you!”

I can laugh about it now, but at the time, I was mortified. Being an introvert, I don’t particularly like the spotlight under normal circumstances. But when all eyes are on you because of a crazy lady shouting Bible verses, it’s a special kind of misery. Suffice it to say that I never again gave her trouble about not paying attention at one of my sporting events. In fact, from then on, I was happy to look over in her direction and see her reading a book instead of watching the game.

But while I was embarrassed that my mom was attaching that verse to my performance on the baseball field for me, applying Philippians 4:13 to a sporting event or other accomplishment or aspiration is hardly a novel concept. Somehow Paul’s declaration that he could do all things through Him who gave him strength has been transformed into a personal missions statement promoting self-empowerment and a “can do” attitude that belies Paul’s original meaning.

flying superhero cartoon

Contrary to the way we use them, when Paul wrote those words, he had no intention of making an absolute statement like a parent telling his child that he can be anything he wants to be when he grows up. He wasn’t making himself, or any Christian, out to be some superhero able to leap tall buildings in a single bound or even to physically overcome obstacles that were put in his way. Instead, he was speaking to specific circumstances in a specific context. The two verses immediately preceding v. 13 read:

“…I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:13 is not a statement of self-sufficiency and personal empowerment. It’s not a slogan for one to attach to personal aspirations, relying on God to fulfill a supposed “promise” that you can do anything you put your mind to. To interpret the verse in that fashion is to rob it of its true power and comfort.

Instead, Paul wrote the verse as a declaration that in Jesus he had found all sufficiency. Paul was poor and was dealing with real physical need, including hunger. In fact, in verse 14, he tells the Philippians, “you have done well to share with me in my affliction” (emphasis mine). He was thankful that this group of believers had sent him financial support to help ease this burden, but he was assuring them that even if they hadn’t, he would still be content because he had Jesus, and therefore he had need for nothing else. This was why he could go on to assert with confidence that “my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (4:19).

Philippians 4:13 is a great verse, and Christians are right to claim it as their own and to interpret it as a sure promise that they can rely on. But it needs to be interpreted and applied in its original context. Paul was not promising that all your goals and aspirations are achievable. He was declaring that when they fall by the wayside, you’ll find that Jesus is all you need. He was echoing the words of Christ that when he said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). It’s in times of pain and suffering, of need and want, of hunger and thirst, that you can stand up and shout, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me!” … You just might want to refrain from doing so at your sons baseball game. :)

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