Some Bible verses seem to integrate themselves into culture. You will hear them quoted, (sometimes misquoted), by politicians, athletes and famous stars. In my opinion, no verse, (except maybe Romans 8:28), has become more a part of mainstream American culture today than Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” And what a great verse it is! If people with little knowledge about the Bible were going to randomly open it up and choose a verse for encouragement, this would be it. But is the popular use and understanding of this verse correct? Therefore, my hope is to unpack how this verse is generally used and understood by the masses and then try and unpack what Paul is really try to tell us.
At first glance, it appears this verse is much loved by even those outside the Church because it is about dream chasing. And if there is anything Americans love more than arguing, it is chasing dreams. Using a “self-centered exegesis” may help us unpack why this verse has gained so much notoriety among Americans today, (note- the following is NOT good exegesis).
First, notice the subject I. This verse is about me. I am the center of what is happening in my universe and therefore the focus of this verse is rightly on me. Next, I see that I can DO. Well I have many things I like to do and want to do. So how can the Bible/God help me do what I really want to do? Well, according to this verse, I can do ALL THINGS! How amazing is that? I can pursue everything I ever wanted because the Bible tells me to. And not only that, God is going to help me. Jesus is going to help me win the big game, get the job promotion, and gain the fame and fortune I deserve, (because it IS all about me, right). So to sum up, this verse says because I am super important, God is going to give me the strength and help to pursue and achieve my biggest goals and dreams. Praise God!
While that is how we often hear people use this verse, what is Paul really telling us? Do our pop stars and professional athletes have a proper exegesis of this text? Quick answer- no they do not. The problem is that if you start with a self-centered or man-centered view of Scripture, you will always twist beautiful Gospel truths into selfishness. So what is Philippians 4:13 really saying? Well if you look back at even just the previous verse, (looking at more context is even better, but for the purposes of this short post, even just looking at the previous verse will suffice), you see what Paul is leading into. “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.” (Philippians 4:12).
Paul isn’t telling us to pursue our hopes and dreams and that God is going to bless us as we go. Instead, Paul is showing that God, in His love and mercy, will help us properly navigate the lows and highs of life to glorify Him. Philippians 4:13 isn’t about me, it’s about Him! It’s all about how His strength helps me navigate the tough circumstances in life when I am prone to lose faith and doubt Him. It’s also about how His strength will help me to avoid the arrogance, pride and complacency that often comes during the highs. That I truly can do ALL THINGS in life, (such as face the temptations associated with lows and highs), because God is good and He will keep me and draw me to himself.
This is such an amazing verse that sadly has been misinterpreted for many years and thus for many, it has lost some of its amazing power. Let us not avoid this verse and the amazing truths in it because some have misappropriated it for their own gain. Let us also not fall into the popular exegesis of our day that tries to make the Bible, Jesus, God and faith about me, (sadly, a lot of modern worship music has fallen for this trap). Instead, let us see what a gift it is that our Lord would help us through the highs and lows of life to honor, glorify and experience Him. Praise God that I can do all things through him that strengthens me!