I haven’t been part of a social circle for a while now where people just randomly toss out of context Scripture verses into the conversation, but the other night I was reminded of the trend. We were watching Last Man Standing, and a couple of the Duck Dynasty guys were making a guest appearance. Suddenly, random Bible verses started getting flung into the script. It was kind of weird.
But I was not surprised that one of the verses was everyone’s favorite: Philippians 4:13.
Don’t know it? The version most people quote goes like this: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? So inspiring! So motivating! And in some ways, it’s theologically true as a stand-alone verse.
I can resist sin through Christ who strengthens me, even sin that I’ve cherished for years.
I can love my roommate, my spouse, my kids, my parents, my neighbors, my co-workers through Christ who strengthens me, even when I’m hangry and irritable and they’re pushing all my buttons.
I can make decisions that are wise and upright through Christ who strengthens me, even when the wise and upright option is really hard.
I can do the work God calls me to do through Christ who strengthens me, even though I do it imperfectly.
But so often, this verse is used as a motivation to do something that will get someone ahead in life because they are not content with where they are. The verse actually becomes about me somehow making myself perfect instead of about Christ in me. It’s very ironic, considering the context of the verse.
Knowing the context helps us to apply this verse in our lives as it was intended. So what’s the context? It comes at the end of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi, a letter all about joy which he is writing from prison. He says:
I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 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. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Did you get it? The verse is about being content, whether life is full of abundance or you’re walking through a wilderness. Being content in both plenty and want is what Paul is saying he can do through Christ who gives him strength.
Sometimes I think being content is the hardest life-skill of all. I scroll through my Facebook feed (way too often), and I see people’s gorgeous vacation pictures, and I see people’s pictures of their beautiful babies growing up, and I see people’s pictures of their work successes, and it can be so easy to let my spirit well up with self-pity and discontentment with my life.
I’m willing to bet you have your own list of comparisons.
Yet I can say with Paul in this season of my life that I both “know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.” We can’t take vacations right now, and the Lord hasn’t seen fit to give us babies right now, and work successes seem far away for us right now… but we have a safe and lovely home, healthy food on our table, loving families, a happy marriage.
We are in need, but we also have plenty.
So at what point will l finally rest, knowing that I can be content in Christ who gives me strength for each day’s joys and challenges?
I don’t think it’s coincidence that these thoughts about contentment flow out of Paul’s thoughts from the previous two paragraphs (also often divorced from their context and made into stand-alone verses).
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Resting in contentment comes from lots of thanks-giving and mind-disciplining, resulting in God’s peace as we learn to trust Him.
But in some ways, those are just tips and tricks. They are helpful – necessary, perhaps, to living a content life. But lasting contentment comes as we experience the power punch of this whole passage:
The Lord is near. …The God of peace will be with you.
Discontentment doesn’t disappear through tips and tricks. Discontentment is arrested by acknowledging the glorious, peaceful presence of God Himself.
Fixing our eyes on Him naturally leads to rejoicing. Thinking about what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy naturally flows out of seeing Him because HE is all those things, and any idea or reality that is all those things originates with Him.
Even if I didn’t have a safe and lovely home, food on my table, a loving family, or a happy marriage (after all, the Apostle Paul is single and writing this from prison), I could still be content because I have HIM: The glorious, life-giving, loving, sustaining God of the universe.
So. Looking to the Lord, I can be content as He strengthens me through His beautiful, powerful, peaceful presence. And from there, I can do anything He calls me to do.
* By the way, I chose this picture because that peacock is unbelievably beautiful… but did you look at its legs and feet?? Kinda leathery and creepy-looking. (Sorry, animal lovers.) All kinds of lessons implied here…