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Misquoting Scripture: I Can Do All Things


Have you ever had the experience of assuming you knew something, only to be shocked to realize that you had it all wrong?

How many of you have seen the movie The Sixth Sense?  I had that exact experience when I saw that movie.  Now, I would give you a spoiler alert here, because I am going to ruin the movie for you if you haven’t seen it.  But it came out 17 years ago, so you have had your shot.

The movie is about a boy who sees dead people.  Throughout the movie, Haley Joel Osment’s character, Cole, sees and talks to dead people.  The other main character, Dr. Crowe, played by Bruce Willis, is a psychologist who  talks with him about his fears and this ability of his through most of the movie.  But then in the famous twist at the end, we realize that Dr. Crowe is one of the dead people.  And all of us are shocked.

Except that we should have known it all along.  We see Dr. Crowe getting shot in the beginning of the movie.  We know that Haley Joel Osment sees dead people… Heck, that’s in the trailer! The truth is there all along, but we still build up this other reality for the whole movie – that Crowe is alive and taking to Osment about all the other dead people – that we fail to see what is right in front of us.  We want to believe that Dr. Crowe is alive – it’s Bruce Willis, after all – and so that is what we believe.

I think we do the same thing with Scripture.  Have you ever remembered a piece of Scripture, assume you know what it’s about, live a good chunk of your life based on this assumption, only to then go back and actually read it, and realize that it isn’t about that thing at all?  The true meaning is there all the time, but you want to believe something different about it.

Today’s Scripture verse is a great example of that dynamic.  “I can do all things.”  I think a lot of us think that it is about this one thing, assuming and living our lives according to that assumption, only to realize that it’s been about something else all along.

Let me demonstrate with an example.  One summer, while I was in college, I served as a Christian camp counselor in the middle of the humid hills of western Kentucky.  After about a week of cheap camp food, one of the other counselors and I decided that we needed to get healthy.  He had more experience in high school sports than I did, so he developed our summer training program.  We would get up in the mornings, before the campers stirred, and conduct our training regimen.  Wind sprints.  Burpees.  Sit-ups.  It was hard work, especially on weary legs.  But we had a mantra that got us through every workout: the words of Philippians 4.13: “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.”  We could push ourselves through another set of burpees or that last half uphill mile…why?

Because the Bible said so!

“I can do all things!” it says in Philippians 4.13.  Clearly that includes a couple more push-ups, right?  For us, Philippians 4.13 became this verse of self-sufficiency.  Because of our faith, we can achieve whatever we want!

This is an incredibly powerful message in our world today.  I remember when I was a kid, I read that verse and thought that meant that I could do cool Jedi tricks, like changing people’s minds or levitating my brother.  But at some level, we never grow out of that desire to accomplish amazing and unbelievable things!  So, whether it is that commercial during the Olympics, or the signature on the back page of our yearbooks, or the latest Taylor Swift acceptance speech, we are fed a steady stream of “follow your dreams!” messages. Taken by itself, Philippians 4.13 is like the high school graduation speech of the Bible.  It is this message of hard work and self-sufficiency.  “Follow your dreams!  You can accomplish whatever you put your mind to.  Whatever you want to achieve, Jesus will give you the strength and the power and the ability to do it!  I can do all things!”

The message is so pervasive that it creeps into our churches as well.  The Prosperity Gospel preachers you see on TV are basically telling you that God wants you do have all that the culture tells you that you want.

But here’s the bad news.  The message of self-sufficiency is a dead end.  There comes a day when something tells us that this life of following our dreams is not, well, sufficient.  We look in the mirror, and see how little we have accomplished, and wonder what went wrong.  We never made it on American Idol, or hit the game-winning home run, or even accomplished what the neighbor next door did.  We open our Facebook feed and everyone is going on more expensive vacations than we are, getting better jobs than we are, and looking infinitely more beautiful than we are.  And the reality of insufficiency, of unmet expectations, false assumptions hits us squarely between the eyes that I cannot do all things.  At least not in the way that the high school graduation speeches, or the TV preachers tell us we can.  Which means according to the Prosperity Gospel model, that we are a failure in God’s eyes, too, when we don’t have everything that we think that we want.  Now we have failed to live up to God’s expectations!  Self-sufficiency ends in insufficiency, every time.

But here’s the good news for us this morning.  The assumption of self-sufficiency that we read into Philippians 4.13 is not what it is actually about.  Not by a long shot.  Let’s actually read the passage this morning, and then look at what it might be saying to us:

I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress. You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.

To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.

(Philippians 4.10-20)

When you read the whole thing, you’ll realize that it isn’t about self-sufficiency at all.  Most of the Bible isn’t, by the way.  Moses wasn’t a strong enough communicator.  Abraham was too old.  David was too small – and really kind of a jerk.  Mary was a poor peasant girl.  And Paul, from today’s passage, was short, physically unhealthy, and a blowhard, to be honest.  And he writes this passage from prison.  None of them the picture of self-sufficiency.  After all, if Paul could do all things, maybe one of them would be to leave prison?

Which is why Paul isn’t talking about that at all!   His message is not one of self-sufficiency, but of Christ-sufficiency.  “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.”  It becomes clear that his message is that God will care for us, in plenty or in want.  Paul was straddling a line with this passage, wanting to be thankful to the Philippians for the financial gift that they had sent him, but not wanting it to interfere with his overall message of contentment, of joy in all circumstances.  The loudest message that he wanted them to hear is that he trusts God:

  • Philippians 4.13 is not a verse about following your dreams. It is a verse about trusting God, even when your dreams have turned into nightmares.
  • Philippians 4.13 is not about power or fame or fortune. It is a verse about following God instead of these worldly goals.
  • Philippians 4.13 is not a verse about achievement. It is a passage about contentment.

And while we think its message is over here, assuming he is talking about self-sufficiency, the reality is that the whole time, he has been talking about something else.  Contentment.  Even in Paul’s day, it was a counter-cultural message.  Paul here is likely following the rhetorical style of the famous Cynic philosopher Diogenes.  Diogenes was known for, among other things, his practice of “defacing the currency.”  Just like if we took out our currency – say a twenty dollar bill – and set fire to it, we would be defacing our currency.  But what Diogenes seems to have meant by that is that there comes a time when we need to take a stand against the cultural paradigms that surround us, symbolically rejecting and challenging the broken values of our culture.  Diogenes did just that, disrupting the current cultural values and living without wealth or protection.

And Paul mirrors him.  He, too, defaces the currency – rejects the message of self-sufficiency and replaces it with a message of the sufficiency of Christ.  His message was not a message of independence and inner strength.  It was instead a message of dependence and trust on God’s providential care.

And just like Paul, listening to the philosophers of his day, it is time for us to “deface the currency,” to reject the current paradigm of “follow your dreams.”

Like Diogenes, like Paul, we can stand against the values of our culture, the misreading of Philippians 4.13, the high school graduation speech-ification of the Scriptures, and live a life of reliance upon Christ.  Trust that God will take care of you!  The point of the verse is not what you can do.  It is about what God will do for you.  A better translation is “I can be content in all things, through him who strengthens me.”

Now, that doesn’t mean that we can impose that reliance to others.  We ought not tell people at the food pantry, “Look, Paul says that poverty is just fine, so stop whining about not having enough to eat,” while we get in our nice cars and drive to our nice homes.  Paul was not doing that.  In fact, elsewhere in the book he reminds the Philippians to care for those in need.  This message of contentment is one that we must adopt ourselves, not impose on others.

What it does mean is that we begin to live life content with what we have.  In plenty or in want.  With or without.  May it be so with us!  May people look to our lives and see our trust!  That we live with the knowledge that God has given us what we need.  In plenty and in want, God cares for us.  When we don’t have the house as big as we want, or the car as new as we want, or the job as ideal as we want, may we be examples of contentment.  In light of a world enslaved to the paradigm of self-sufficiency and self-power, let us announce with our lives that there is something different about us.  The good news of Paul’s worldview of Christ-sufficiency and the good news of Christ-sufficiency in our world shows to the world God is caring for us and for them, in plenty and in want.  And that is cooler, even than being able to levitate things across the room.  That is holy power.

And it is a power that changes us.  The hymn How Can I Keep from Singing is powerful example of the way that one author chose to witness to this power.  Read/sing/meditate on these words, as a way to understand afresh that that power is a gift for us as well.

My life flows on in endless song;

Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn

That hails a new creation;
Thro’ all the tumult and the strife

I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—

How can I keep from singing?
What tho’ my joys and comforts die?

The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What tho’ the darkness gather round?

Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,

How can I keep from singing?
I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;

I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,

Since first I learned to love it,
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,

A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his—

How can I keep from singing?


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