Can we really do all things through Him who strengthens us?
What Christian isn't familiar with one of the New Testament's most famous comfort verses?
"I can do all things through Him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:13)
It is good to be reminded that it's His strength and not our strength which propels us along in sanctification. It is good to be reminded that He is our all, and that all is possible.
However too many people misunderstand and misuse the verse. It does not mean I can attain whatever desire I have through Jesus. And it doesn't mean Jesus plops all things or all strength down into us fully formed and ripe for use.
Let's back up a little and take a look at what came before that verse. There is more to it than what many Christians of today take the verse to mean.
Paul said several times that he learned contentment. Learned it. He had to work at contentment, and learn the skill of practicing contentment over his long road of personal tribulation.
The two verses which precede the all things of verse 13 are:
"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." [emphasis mine].
What Paul was learning is the power of Christ as the daily means of sanctification as he strove to holiness, and ultimately, contentment in all circumstances.
Paul had to consciously strive toward contentment through constant practice of cultivating it through reliance on God's provision and promise. And he is not talking of self-sufficiency here, but of a diminishment of worldly desires as he strove to do all things God would have Him do in the name of Jesus.
Paul had many trials and difficulties. Paul isn't saying that Jesus plopped down a supernatural contentment to his heart as he took a deep breath and relied on Him to do all things through Him. Not at all. As a matter of fact, Paul admits to dissatisfaction covetousness brings, in Romans 7:8. Through all his varied circumstances, Paul is saying, he had the opportunity to practice being content in the circumstances he found himself in, because those circumstances are divorced from earthly measures of contentment and joy. He had to learn it. This indicates an active participation on the part of the Christian.
Whenever Paul was low or high, had plenty or hunger, abundance or need, didn't matter, because Christ was strengthening him in love, growth, joy and the other treasures we hold dear. If we divorce our joy or contentment from worldly things, what remains is Christ! Through Christ, all things are possible! Paul learned that. It took him a while and he had to work at it. But what glory for the Savior when we learn it.
So be careful what you are really saying when you say "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." Are you working at learning how to do all things, apart from our flesh and distinct from the baggage of worldly wants? No matter your circumstances?
Phil Johnson preached on it recently, and this little note is a summary of what I took away from his sermon. I found his sermon exposition to be tremendously enlightening and inspiring. For a full explanation of what that verse means, I encourage you to take a listen and /or look at the transcript.
How to Find Contentment in a World of Discontent
Pastor Johnson ends his sermon this way:
"By the way, verse 13 contrasts wonderfully with Jesus' statement in John 15:5: "Apart from me you can do nothing." But "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." If the boundaries for "all things" that you seek to accomplish are set by the express commands of God and the righteous example of Christ, then there truly is no limit to what you can do through His power. That is the secret to true contentment. It's not really a complex mystery. But the reason it is so difficult to learn is that it entails the mortification of our worldly lusts, our carnal ambitions, our selfish pride, and our ungodly attitudes.
"Hard? Yes, it's a lifelong pursuit. But it is by no means impossible. "[We] can do all things through him who strengthens [us]."'