Recently I wrote about how well-meaning people sometimes try to use a bible verse to comfort or reassure Karen or me, while she is doing cancer treatments and I am trying not to feel helpless or sorry for myself. These people want to be supportive, and who wouldn’t think that a favorite exhortation or encouragement from the bible would be appreciated? Well, in principle this is a great idea – the Word of God is an awesome place to find support or advice in trying times; but what usually happens is the person will take some verse out of context, or misappropriate a promise or command that was not intended for what they are doing with it. Being who I am (a word geek with an acquired taste for exegesis and hermeneutics – not one to trifle with when bible quotes start flying), I call these “Inigo Montoya moments”, after the character from one of my favorite films, The Princess Bride. Here is a clip of the classic scene:
Evangelism centers on the idea that the whole world needs to hear the Gospel of Jesus, so they may be saved. This is in fact one of our assignments as His followers remaining on earth until He returns, but…my heart is broken for those people in the world who have heard the Word, but they either heard it wrong, or someone interpreted it for them incorrectly, and they just accepted it without checking for themselves. Given that I now have a platform to help combat misinformation, I have decided to periodically take one of these misused Scriptures, look at it in its proper context, and figure out what it really says; if it’s not appropriate to that application, I will try to suggest a better passage instead. I shall call these The Inigo Files, in homage to both the movie, and to my secret passion, The X-Files, because I want to believe…
In this installment we will examine a classically misused verse: Philippians 4:13. Here’s a typical scenario – a friend at church will notice I seem kind of down, and will ask how I’m doing. I will answer that I’m struggling with trying to balance my responsibilities at home against my tendency to
compulsively volunteer over-commit be involved in many activities. (I refuse to confirm or deny whether any of these actual events actually happened or not.) Friend will make sympathetic sounds; tell me about all the commitments she is currently holding up (since nothing soothes more than shame, right?); and then drop this on me:
“Remember, the bible says, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’ Just pray for strength, and God will help you accomplish everything you want!”
Really? Anything? To borrow an extreme example from a pastor friend who used it in a great sermon on Philippians 4: Does that mean that I can, through Christ who strengthens me, finally do a 360-degree tomahawk slam dunk like Michael Jordan, even though I’m 5’8″ with bad ankles, if I just pray hard enough? In a word, no…and while that is a pretty specific misuse, it does illustrate my point – this verse gets co-opted to justify almost anything and everything that someone wants to do, by appealing to the idea that being a Christian gives us some mystical access to success in any endeavor; the power of God is on our side, how can we fail?
How, indeed? Well, for starters, we can fail by reading only one verse. As the famous quote says, “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” So our first step to determine the meaning of a verse is to see it in its larger context. Here is the entire relevant passage, Phil 4:10-13 from the NKJV:
But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
The Apostle Paul is closing out his letter to the church at Philippi, taking a moment to give thanks to God for the way He has used them to supply his needs while in prison in Rome. Paul makes it a point of instruction to tell them that he was not suffering for the lack of support, because he has learned to trust that God will always provide for his needs…so there is no reason to be worried, or unsatisfied with what we have – whatever we have is what God wants us to have, and His strength is promised to make up for any deficiency. This echoes the words of Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, when He tells us not to worry about the necessities of life, because God preserves and provides for those who seek after Him. Paul, in verse twelve, spells out specifically what things he is able to do, by the strength of Christ living within him, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, a gift promised to all who follow Jesus. This becomes even more clear if we see this passage in a different translation, the NIV, which renders the Greek more accurately. Here is verse 13 in that version (emphasis mine):
I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.
So, what Paul is teaching is that the power of Christ is the means by which he can trust and believe that God will provide enough for his needs; this faith frees him from some of the greatest temptations we face – greed, envy, bitterness, resentment; and what a great gift this is! But a promise that Jesus will help me live like Jesus is not going to dunk that ball…or fix my schedule, either. So what passage (remember, never read just a verse!) should Friend be holding out to me in my time of need? Here’s one from Colossians 3 that really helped me learn how to prioritize my time and commitments. I would love to hear what others have to say, so post yours in the comments below, I promise to respond to every one!
23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
When I weigh the various opportunities and obligations before me in light of how they serve the Kingdom, it gets much easier to say Yes, or No, as required to allow sufficient effort and attention to a few things, rather than a flurry of distracted activity that actually does very little, and costs the heart so much. This is an accurate, effective, and Christ-honoring use of Scripture, which is why we have it in the first place; I am humbled and honored by the calling He has placed on me to help combat false doctrines and errant teachings, that He may be known as He knows us – in Spirit and in truth. I hope you, Dear Reader, find value in what I do here, and if so, please share what you learn with those around you – we all need a little more truth in our lives, and a little more Jesus, too.
Following hard after Him,