The Problem with the Ultimate Bumper Sticker Scripture

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Philippians 4:12B-13

I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

CONSIDER THIS

If ever there were a verse of the bible that screamed out, “Put me on a bumper sticker!” it is Philippians 4:13. We have mostly seen it in this framing: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (NKJV).

It’s the favorite verse of athletes everywhere, those who won the state championship and those who didn’t. It’s the mantra of success-seekers in every industry. It’s the Norman Vincent Peale Power of Positive Thinking power verse. Yes, my friends, Philippians 4:13 is the ultimate I-think-I-can-Little-Engine-That-Could biblical secret sauce verse of all verses in the history of verses.

I don’t want to rain on anyone’s Super Bowl parade, but all of this is a gigantic adventure in missing the point of this text. It’s a good moment to remember the words of Bible Jedi Knight Dr. Ben Witherington III (quoting D. A. Carson), who says, “A text without a context is merely a pretext for a proof-text” (i.e., whatever you want it to mean). Let’s remember the context:

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. (v. 12) 

The problem with our North American successories approach is the emphasis on, “I can do all things.” Paul’s emphasis decisively falls on “through Christ who strengthens me.” Remember how Paul summed up his bio for the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20a).

To be “crucified with Christ” means the “I can do all things” part of Philippians 4:13 takes on a decidedly different posture. It doesn’t mean, “I think I can.” It means, rather, “I know I can’t.” It does not mean I can accomplish anything I set my mind to as long as Jesus is helping me. It means I can persevere and endure and, not only that, but thrive and overcome every obstacle thrown in the way of the gospel because I know the secret: Christ in me. It means a bank account flush with cash and an overdrawn checkbook are the same thing where Jesus is involved. Full or empty, plenty or in need, on top of the world or under the jail—they are all the same address because the address is Jesus.

The truth? I can’t do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I can do all things he asks me to do and commands me to do and wants me to do because he lives in me, because “to live is Christ.” I can make it through the darkest night and endure the hardest losses and suffer the gravest injustices—even to the point of losing my life—because “to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Jesus is my strength, and my life, and my all. He is “my rock, my fortress and my deliverer . . . my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Ps. 18:2). He is the secret to his own will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

Paul shows us what it looks like when a person unreservedly abandons themselves to Jesus. It is the rule, not the exception. The outcome, every single time someone does this, is glory to God.

THE PRAYER

Abba Father, we thank you for your Son, Jesus, who shows us what it looks like to live in the perfect union of love with you. Teach us this way of abandoning ourselves to Jesus in love. We have no hope of finding it lest you lead us. We want to be yours completely, come what may. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

THE QUESTIONS

  1. How do you relate to this pushback I am giving the cultural interpretation of Philippians 4:13?
  2. Do you see how the Christian faith gets pushed into self-improvement categories and even life-enhancement approaches? How is this a distraction to the essential message of the gospel?
  3. How do you relate to Paul’s idea of contentment in today’s text? Are plenty and want the same thing for you? How are you growing in this?

For the Awakening,
J.D. Walt
Sower-in-Chief
seedbed.com

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Farmer. Poet. Theologian. Jurist. Publisher. Seedbed's Sower-in-Chief.

1 COMMENT

  1. This lesson, for me, sounds very similar to what Luther referred to as the theology of the cross versus the theology of glory. Or as other theologians have called it: an over realized eschatology; the bringing to the present, future promised blessings by bypassing the pain of the cross. I personally see it as the result of allowing the culture to enlighten us rather than us (the Church) giving the light of Christ to the world. I believe the root cause of getting this idea all messed up is the fact that we inadvertently allow our faith practices to be influenced more by our experiences than God’s Word. I seek to live in Christ alone. I find it to be a long progressive process, the work of the Holy Spirit.

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