“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation. . .I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Php 4:11–13)
I can do all things. . .
The latter part of this verse has been used as a motivation for Christians of all stripes in their endeavours to accomplish all sorts of things. I am old enough to remember when boxer Evander Holyfield had “Php 4:13” printed on his shorts for his bout with Mike Tyson (which Holyfield won). And anyone who follows American football (and possibly many who don’t) will be aware of the name Tim Tebow, a fine young man who lives his very public witness for Jesus in the NFL arena, in ways including putting Scripture references such as Php 4:13 on his “Eye Black.”
I need to be clear that it is not my intention here to oppose these sorts of applications of this verse. However, I do want to highlight what this saying actually appears to mean in the context of the book of Philippians, a meaning which need not tether the Holy Spirit’s application of the verse to situations beyond its context, but must surely inform it. Paul, the letter’s human author, is in prison—and not for the first time. In ancient times, prison did not merely entail confinement—the curtailment of certain freedoms, but also physical suffering. Since a prison sentence was considered more of an actual punishment, rather than simply a protection for the rest of society, it was important that there be this component of suffering. In more extreme cases, this involved the ongoing use of torture. The place of confinement was typically (though not always) a place without natural light—at times without any light. Sanitation was non-existent, and in many cases the meals and medical needs of the prisoner were not provided for. If they were to eat, or if they needed treatment of some kind, somebody outside the prison needed to provide for them. Prisoners were often chained hand and foot, were at times suspended from the walls, at times placed in stocks (hands feet and head placed through holes in a beam in order to keep the body in an unnatural position). In short, a normal and reasonable degree of comfort was usually impossible to achieve. The situation was calculated to produce a sense of hopelessness; to break the spirit of the prisoner.
When Paul says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” he is declaring in faith that he can endure his present suffering. He has confidence that whatever befalls him, his spirit will not be broken, and that he will continue to rejoice (a key word in Philippians) and speak of God’s goodness and grace to anyone who will listen. Even in the prison. He is declaring that God’s purposes for his life are not limited just because his physical body is confined to a dungeon. He can pray. He can rejoice. He can write. It is important to realise what Paul is applying this principle of “doing all things through Christ” to in order to see more clearly what he is not applying it to. Obviously, the thing that Paul would have wanted most, along with any prisoner would have been to get out of prison. But if he meant by his famous declaration what many today take him to mean, he would not have been in that prison for more than about five minutes. “I can do all things. . .” would surely have extended to finding a way out of the prison, which was Paul’s most pressing human need, and one that he would have been painfully conscious of every minute of every day of his incarceration. But he does not mean that. He appeals for help to Christ’s strength, not to change his present situation as if his own comfort were the most important thing, but to endure it for God’s glory. “I can do all things” says Paul—even this—“through Christ who strengthens me.”
Can I do all things?
So can we do all things through Christ’s strength? Yes. Absolutely. All of the things (and only those things) that Christ intends for us to do. What we cannot do is appropriate Christ’s power over all things in order to do anything that we might want to do. And what we should not do is to use Philippians 4:13 as some kind of magical incantation to be spoken over whatever difficulty we might encounter—as if God is not ok with taking us along a narrow and difficult path—and thus avoid any deeper work God may wish to do in and through us. Are you experiencing financial lack? “I can do all things” may mean simply believing God for more. But it certainly also mean trusting God that he may have a purpose in the lack. Are you experiencing physical suffering? “I can do all things” may mean trusting God to “get up, take up your mat and walk.” But it certainly means trusting his goodness, even though crippled on the mat until he so bids you. Are you experiencing relationship breakdown? “I can do all things” may mean go ahead and ‘fix it’ with the wisdom Christ provides. But it may also mean trusting God if he chooses to take a longer and more tortuous path to restoration than the one you might have preferred.
So I can do all things through Christ’s strength. As long as all the things that I choose to do flow out of my cultivated intimacy with His heart, my total trust in his character and my absolute surrender to his purposes. Anything I do beyond this, I do in my own strength. And that is not a place where I want to be.
Thick black horizontal lines painted under a player’s eyes which are said to literally “draw light away” from the eyes in order to help a player see the ball better.
 This was precisely the type of imprisonment that Paul and Silas had experienced when they had first gone to Philippi, the time when, no doubt, the Philippian Church was established. Philippians was probably written during Paul’s Roman captivity, a period during which Paul (at times) enjoyed better treatment. Nevertheless, he refers several times in Chapter 1 to his ‘chains’ and to his ‘suffering,’ so it is safe to assume that the level of discomfort that he was experiencing ensured that his status, treatment, and condition as a prisoner were never far from his mind.