Recently I was reading a few articles that gave advice to tourists. These articles were written for people who were visiting America for the first time. Tourists from Japan, Russia, and a number of others were given advice on how to navigate our culture. It is comical and insightful to see an outsider’s view of us. You begin to understand that you have a culture. One thing that was mentioned in each of these articles was that Americans are excessively positive and happy. This is one of the things that stick out most to those who look at us: We are super positive all the time.
I began to think how this impacts our reading of Scripture. I’m sure any culture takes Scripture out of context. Americans are experts though on taking it out of context and giving it a super positive and inspirational interpretation.
One of the most inspiring is “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Put it on a coffee mug. Put in on a T-shirt. Tattoo it on your body. Put the quote on one of those inspirational posters. The message is "you can do anything you set your mind to!" You can follow your dreams because Christ will strengthen you. You can put it on football posters, superhero posters, jumping in the air triumphantly posters, weight lifting posters, and of course “standing on the edge of a cliff” posters. One meme that I came across said, “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something when the Bible says you can do all things through Christ.”
Is that what the point of the verse is? Is it all about positive thinking and dream chasing? Here is the context of this famous verse:
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. (Philippians 4:10-13 ESV)
This is about contentment. Paul discovered the secret to being content in every circumstance. He knows how to face anything that comes at him, whether it is the worst of times or the best of times. It is not about triumphant living. It is not a mantra that will enable you to follow your dreams. The passage doesn’t match the tone of an inspirational poster. Paul talks about being content when he is brought low and when he is hungry and in need.
If we wanted to be accurate we could still make some posters though. One poster could have someone pulling their pockets inside out with a couple moths fluttering out. I CAN DO ALL THINGS! Another poster could have someone getting last place in a race. I CAN DO ALL THINGS! One poster could have a picture of someone face down crying on a pillow. I CAN DO ALL THINGS! Another poster could have someone looking in their cupboard only to find one can of peas. I CAN DO ALL THINGS!
This is good news for us. We may fulfill our dreams in life and we may have epic mountaintop experiences, but the truth is that these things don’t always last, and usually won’t. We have ups and downs. We have good times and bad times. If we think this verse is only telling us to chase our dreams, then when we fail we may think that either we haven’t trusted enough or haven’t been strengthened enough.
It is good news because your life is full of ups and downs. That is all of our experience. Paul says he found the secret to facing the good and the bad. That secret is Jesus. This verse is for your failures and your successes. This verse is for when you fall on your face and when you are on the mountaintop. This verse is for when you hit and jackpot and when your finances are a mess. Jesus is with you in the good and bad. He is there to strengthen you and give you contentment. You have Jesus no matter what you face. Jesus is better than the mountaintop experiences. Jesus is better than your triumphs. We have Jesus in the good and the bad.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I can fail through Christ who strengthens me. I can be broke through Christ who strengthens me. I can suffer through Christ who strengthens me. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.