A man walks to a bar. In full view of the bartender, the man proceeds to chug down an entire bottle of extra toxic drain cleaner. The bartender picks up the phone to call 911 and the poison control center, but the man assures the bartender that he’ll be OK. Quite perplexed, the bartender asks why. The man explains that he is a Christian, and he believes in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” He further explains that he has faith enough to believe that God will not permit the drain cleaner to harm him. The bartender replies, “I am a Christian too … and you’re completely crazy.” Which man is right?
OK … this is a really far-fetched example. But it forces us to ask an important interpretive question: How should the Christian correctly apply Philippians 4:13? Even before we approach the actual text of Philippians 4:13, there are two incorrect views of the Bible verse that must be immediately debunked.
First, there is the “omnipotence” view of Philippians 4:13. If have enough faith, Christ can empower me to do it. Conversely, the reason that I can’t do things is that I don’t have enough faith. For example, this view would argue that – if I have enough faith – I can prevent myself from getting cancer, jump off the roof without being harmed and obtain vast sums of treasure and pirate booty. Of course, this view is absolutely absurd. The principal reason that this is absurd is that man would be able to attain the divine attribute of omnipotence (read: all-powerful). This is an impossibility. Faith doesn’t make you omnipotent … Only God is omnipotent (Isaiah 14:24-27; Isaiah 46:10-11; Matthew 19:26; Ephesians 1:11). Man will never become omnipotent (Isaiah 40:25-26).
Even if having enough faith granted you some sort of wacky supernatural ability, could you really manipulate God into doing whatever you want (if you have enough faith)? What about things that are self-serving? Like giving me an A+ on a test without studying? Like skipping out on work for two hours without the boss noticing? Like winning the lottery? Like sprouting wings and flying like a bird? Like making random people dance the watusi while singing Lana Del Rey songs? Nope. Whenever God has steps into human history to do miraculous things, it has been to advance His kingdom and not serve petty human desires (Exodus 9:16; Isaiah 48:11; Ezekiel 20:2-44; Malachi 1:11; John 17:24).
Or for that matter … What about things that are blatantly evil? If I have enough faith, can I steal all the gold from Fort Knox? Can I run horrible internet and phone scams about Nigerian princes on the elderly? Can I murder whomever I want and get away from it? Can download all of the pornography ever created for free? Can’t I just “sin it up” if I have enough faith? Certainly, God would not grant believers with “superpowers” to live even more sinful lives. God is principally concerned with the greatness of His name and His glory – not ours. He desires for us to mortify (read: kill) our sin daily and not continue in our sin (Romans 8:1-11).
Second, there is the “motivational speaker” view of Philippians 4:13. The emphasis of this interpretation is the word “I.” The interpretation hinges on the notion that you can achieve all of your hopes and dreams because Jesus really wants them to happen. This approach is the Christian self-esteem equivalent of chanting “I can do it! … I can really, really do it!” You know the scenario. Whenever you have that really hard test that you’ve been pulling an “all-nighter” for … Or whenever you’re got that work meeting or speaking engagement that you’re dreading … One of your Christian friends slips you the sweet and touching little card or note with Philippians 4:13 on it. Usually this greeting card is accompanied with “Let the weak say ‘I am strong!’” or “Be strong and courageous” as an accompanying verse. I recently read one greeting card where one hamster is trying to coax another hamster to swim by exclaiming Philippians 4:13. Another greeting card (and I swear I am not making this up) features a cat afraid to walk in the snow with Philippians 4:13 as the subtext. Wow. We must wary of trivializing the power of the cross into a sappy self-help slogan. The source of the Christians’ strength should never get blurry or confused. The emphasis must be “Christ” and not “I.”
The proper view of Philippians 4:13 comes from (SURPRISE!) taking the verse in context. So here’s the entire passage (Philippians 4:10-20):
 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.  Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble.  And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only.  Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again.  Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit.  I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.  And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.  To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen. – Philippians 4:10-20 ESV
Part of the purpose of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is extremely evident in this passage. Paul has been imprisoned, and he is writing to thank the Philippian church for gifts that they have given to him. The church has blessed Paul not only financially but also with the service of his fellow believer, Epaphroditus. While Paul is appreciative for these gifts and is joyous about the Philippian church’s obedience and generosity, he uses his life situation to drive home an important point for all believers. Even in this time of imprisonment, hunger and need, Paul states in verse 11: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”
What a challenge to modern believers! Could you be content in any life situation for the sake of the gospel call? The reason that all of this trauma has happened to Paul is that he is on mission for Christ – preaching the gospel message throughout the world. Paul has been rejected. Paul has been run out of virtually every town he has visited. Paul has been stoned and left for dead. Paul has been shipwrecked. Paul has been falsely imprisoned. Would you be willing to endure scorn, mocking, rejection, physical harm and outright torture for the sake of the gospel? Paul did. Not only that … Paul found contentment in the midst of this suffering for the sake of Christ.
Paul’s testimony reminds me of a video called “Shafia’s Story” produced by Voice of the Martyrs. The video recounts the testimony of a young Christian woman in Pakistan. She is falsely imprisoned for believing the gospel. Her brother is brutally executed for his faith. She is raped for 4 months while imprisoned. Her family is sold into slavery to pay for her release from prison. Yet she finds peace and forgiveness in the midst of her labors. In light of Paul, Shafia and so many other persons persecuted for the sake of the gospel around the world, it really puts a different spin on verse 11: “I have learned … to be content.”
Of course, Paul states here that he has learned to be content. The ability to become content in any life situation doesn’t occur quickly and spontaneously for believers. The contentment comes from learning and experiencing that God does – in fact – carry us through our various troubles as we run the race with endurance. We learn that God does walk alongside of us in the midst of our troubles. He never abandons or forsakes us (Psalm 34:18; Psalm 147:3; Habakkuk 3:19).
The most important point that Paul makes is the famous (infamous?) verse 13. The source of the believer’s contentment is Christ. Paul does not base his contentment on his material wealth or life situation … He bases his contentment on whether he has Christ. And the hope of Christ can never be taken away. Regardless of what happens in our life, our God – who is the source of our strength and hope – never changes and is ever-present. Therefore, we can find contentment in either abundance or need, because the hope of Jesus Christ can never be abated or damaged.
What is the source of your contentment? If your job was taken away, would you still be content? How about your family? How about your car? Your home? Your possessions?Could anything on this earth be taken away that would make you discontented? Job had all these things happen and was still content in praising the Lord. Job proclaimed: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). We should learn likewise. If no one can steal Christ from us, no one should be able to steal our true joy.
As I am writing this blog, the ceiling of my dining room has caved in. A leaky pipe has damaged several portions of my house. After an initial complete freak out like a spazoid, I called in some contractors to do the work. We wound up talking about Christ, kids and Bible commentaries with the contractors working on our house. We bought pizza for everyone and had great gospel-centered conversations with them. The day that my ceiling caved in turned into an awesome blessing from God that I will never forget. I was reminded again that stuff is just stuff … the gospel is what really matters. And – regardless of how much the final bill ends up being – I’m fully content and satisfied in Christ.
The more I live this life … The more I am learning to be content. All because of my Jesus who strengthens me.