As a young believer, one of my favorite verses was Philippians 4:13:
For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.
I believed that through Christ, I would become a best-selling author, speak to stadium-sized crowds and overcome every obstacle in my way. Maybe you have used that verse to assure yourself that you would have a successful marriage, a winning athletic career, become a billionaire philanthropist, pastor a mega church, overcome every temptation or [fill in the blank].
And maybe like me, you’ve found you are not doing “everything” you desired. Was Paul lying? And a more disturbing question: Is Christ powerless to do “everything”? But here’s the most important question: What is this verse actually promising? To answer that, we need to look at the promise in context.
How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn’t have the chance to help me. Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ,[d] who gives me strength. Even so, you have done well to share with me in my present difficulty (Philippians 4:10-14).
Notice that Paul is referring to being content with “nothing,” an empty stomach and having “little.” What?! Nothing about a successful marriage, a winning athletic career, becoming a billionaire philanthropist, pastoring a mega church, overcoming every temptation or [fill in the blank]? Nope. Simply being content in the state that you find yourself.
We can’t do everything physically
In high school I weighed 115 pounds and had absolutely no athletic skills. So, I was always picked second to the last for teams—and only because the last pick was the kid in the wheelchair. No chance for a Super Bowl ring, gold medal or even a “participant” ribbon. Sigh.
We can’t do everything mentally
In high school I got an A in freshman algebra, a B in sophomore geometry and a C in junior algebra. I was good enough at math to sense a pattern, so never took another math class. The part of the brain that processes higher math apparently never developed for me! I did have a 4.0 average in grad classes in journalism, and in one class I got 10,000 points out of 10,000, so apparently a few parts of my brain function. This is why you never want me to balance your checkbook, but if you need an editor or ghostwriter, I’m your guy.
We can’t do everything in our relationships
There’s that pesky thing called “freewill” that allows holy parents to raise holy terrors heathens and godly people to be married to less-than-godly partners. We can consistently model our faith, we can pray for their spiritual lives, but they still have free choice to embrace or reject our faith. (Here’s an encouraging article for parents of prodigals.) It’s one of the many areas we have to simply turn over to God’s grace and mercy.
We can’t do everything in our careers
We can control excellence in our work, but there are too many variables to guarantee “success.” (Here’s an entire article on that dilemma.) For instance four of my books have won national awards, but as I mentioned, never a spot on the best-seller list.
Timing. Competition. Current events. Co-workers. The economy. Reviews. All these these variable—if not in perfect alignment—can lead to excellence without success. I’m really trying to be content being “critically acclaimed” but commercially ashamed. (Christ has some more work to do on me!)
We simply can’t do “everything”
We all have a God-designed blend of strengths and weaknesses that all the prayers and promise verses won’t change:
You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
as I was woven together in the dark of the womb (Psalm 139:14-16).
So, it’s simply wrong to promise people, “If you believe it, you can achieve it.”
But God can help you become “content” with the marvelous person he created you to be. Paul continues the psalmists theme by describing the church as the Body of Christ—with unique parts to each play vital roles:
But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it (1 Corinthians 12:18).
All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it (1 Corinthians 12:27).
It’s not easy to be content in our ego-centric, success-oriented, sports-obsessed culture. After a lifetime of writing and speaking, I still haven’t earned a spot on the New York Times best-seller list. My largest live audience has been 1,500 at Indiana Wesleyan University. But I have experienced contentment (on good days) that I’m doing what God has designed me to do.
For I can be content through Christ, who gives me strength to resist the world’s values and rejoice in how he is using me right now, right here (Philippians 4:13, loosely paraphrased).
Copyright © 2015 James N. Watkins
I deal with the questions of unfulfilled promises in God, I Don’t Understand.
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