Do you get most of your Bible verses from Facebook posts surrounded by sparkling glitter or pink roses? Perhaps you attend church and the only scripture you hear during the week is the one read before the sermon. Or maybe you go through a morning “quiet time,” reading a daily devotional with verses that don’t really connect, but the personal stories that follow encourage you.
Ah, and then there are folks who see a meme containing scripture and eagerly repost it on social media because it seems to reinforce their political views. One such example: when politicians were duking it out over the border wall several years ago, I saw posts encouraging the U.S. to raise barriers because ancient Israelite cities did the same. “It was biblical.” Pastor Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, even preached a sermon in which he said, “God instructed Nehemiah to build a wall around Jerusalem to protect its citizens from enemy attack. You see, God is not against building walls!” And yet those walls fell twice in the course of Hebrew history.
I don’t mean this in a finger-wagging sort of way, but lots of us misuse the scripture. I have. I bet you have, too. I don’t mean we misuse it in a nefarious manner (though that has been done), but we tend to cherish a pet interpretation of a specific verse and just go with it without giving it a second thought.
Get Out of The Shallow End
It’s imperative that we get out of the shallow end of Bible-skimming and plunge into the depths of Bible study. We do that by studying the context of the verse. What were the circumstances surrounding the author while penning the scripture? What was the author’s intent? Who was the audience? What was going on in that part of the world at that time? What does a seemingly innocuous word or phrase mean in the original language? If we ignore all of these principles, the Bible can mean whatever we want it to mean. And we don’t have to earn PhDs to dig deep, either. There are plenty of biblical resources out there that are comprehensible. Two of my favorites are the Blueletter Bible and Bible Gateway.
I’d like to devote the next several blogposts to passages that are regularly misapplied. Let’s start with Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Do You Lift, Bruh? Jesus Can Spot You
This verse has nothing to do with Jesus helping us to deadlift a Buick, land a profitable business deal, or clinch a championship match. When the Apostle Paul wrote this between 60 – 62 AD, he was awaiting trial. Scholars debate whether he was in Rome, Caesarea or Ephesus, but wherever he was, he was fairly certain his execution was around the corner. But Paul wasn’t crying out for an angel to kick down the dungeon door. In fact, if you read the verses right before Philippians 4:13, he wrote that he had learned the secret of contentment: that he can draw on the strength of Christ in all circumstances, good or bad. In the end, Paul was less concerned about his own well-being than continuing to proclaim the Good News:
“Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear” (Phil. 1:12-14).
Philippians 4:13 in Real Time
Not too long ago, I was talking to a colleague in a church where I served, long ago, as a wet-behind-the-ears associate pastor. I mentioned a woman’s name who had lost her husband during that time, wondering if she was still a member. Right at that moment, the woman walked in and asked, “Do you remember me?” Did I ever! I was transported to the early 90s, when I got the call that her husband had come home for lunch and died of a heart attack. I rushed over, friends and family members milling around, grief pressing down like a heavy weight. At one point, I met the new widow in the kitchen and asked if I could pray with her. After I finished praying, she looked up at the ceiling with tear-glazed eyes and whispered, “God is so good.”
I was stunned. This woman had just lost her beloved husband, the father of her children! How could she give praise at this time?
Because of the principle that Paul taught in Philippians 4:13. This woman didn’t need platitudes or false hope; she needed strength and I believe she received it when she acknowledged the goodness of God in this most trying time.
The New International Version of the Bible translates the verse this way: “I can do all of this through Him who strengthens me” (italics mine). The “this” refers to Paul’s unjust punishment and suffering. He didn’t need a little spiritual push over the finish line of a personal project; he needed an outpouring of divine strength as he hunkered in a jail cell, the specter of death hanging over him like a razor-sharp sword. He neither succumbed to a pity party nor looked forward to health and wealth if he were released. The world would not rule his heart – only Christ, the source of his strength and hope.
Christ – Our Magical Wingman?
No, Philippians 4:13 does not teach that we can attain whatever we want because Christ is our magical wingman. To think so is wildly unrealistic, for none of us can accomplish everything we desire. All of us – rich and poor, powerful and ordinary — experience loss, setback and disappointment. What Paul does mean is that when we are spent, Christ has His goodness to give. When earthly resources run out, the Holy Spirit is available to lend us divine strength. God is ready to pick us up when, as the Psalmist wrote, we are poured out like water, our bones are out of joint, and our hearts melts like wax (Psalm 22:14).
This is why Paul could write so triumphantly, “… for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).