Viral Verses Read Wrong
Dr. James Emery White
- 2018 Nov 26
A few months ago, in light of its 25th anniversary, the online Scripture resource Bible Gateway revealed its five most searched Bible verses. The most searched, John 3:16, probably wouldn’t surprise. Nor would the other four: Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you…”), Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things…”), Psalm 23:4 (“Even though I walk through the darkest valley…”) and Romans 8:28 (“And we know that in all things God works for the good…”).
What is interesting about the most viral verses being tweeted, hashtagged, shared, favorited, bookmarked or highlighted – whether through Bible Gateway, YouVersion, or any other source – is that the reason they are going viral has little to do with the actual meaning of the verse itself.
Take Philippians 4:13 as an example: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (NIV).
It’s easy to see why this would go viral. If you want a “name it and claim it” verse that you can name and claim for almost anything, this is it. It tells you that you can do anything with Christ on your side because you’ll have His strength. Which means nothing is impossible; nothing is insurmountable. You can do anything and everything through Christ who strengthens you. And the idea is that He can and will strengthen you.
You can overcome that obstacle.
You can climb to new heights.
You can embrace your destiny.
God said you can, so you can!
So do you want to: Secure that job? Find that soulmate? Make more money? Get that house? Land that deal? Get that part?
No problem. You can accomplish all things through Christ.
But is that what it’s saying?
Paul wrote the letter to the church at Philippi while imprisoned in chains in Rome. The section of the letter that contains its most viral verse was an interesting one. Paul was not only in prison, but he wasn’t doing well physically. The Philippians knew that he wasn't doing well physically and Paul knew they were concerned about this, so in this section, he addresses that concern:
I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been 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 everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:10-13, NIV)
The context is about finding contentment in Christ independent of circumstance, particularly when those circumstances include suffering. It’s not about the ability to succeed, gain accomplishment, break through a barrier, finish a race or win a game. It’s about finding strength in Christ to be content in the midst of hellish circumstances; it’s about getting through times of persecution.
So what is Philippians 4:13 really about? It’s about the opposite of what it’s often used for. Because most of the time, Philippians 4:13 is whipped out to expect or even force a change in a situation. But Paul used it to accept the situation, to find strength to endure the situation and to be content despite the situation.
A few years ago, Jonathan Merritt insightfully wrote on the misunderstandings surrounding this very popular verse, noting that Paul isn’t telling people they should dream bigger dreams. He is reminding them that they can endure the crushing feeling of defeat if and when those dreams aren’t realized. He’s not encouraging Christ followers to go out and conquer the world. He’s reminding them that they can press on when the world conquers them.
I think most of us, myself included, are much more driven by the “if onlys.” If only I had that, if only I could do this, if only I could go there, if only I could be with that person, then I could be happy. But what Paul wrote in Philippians is about living more deeply than that.
He didn’t live a life of the “if onlys,” he lived a life of the “as only.” Meaning, “as only” someone in a relationship with Christ can.
And that is what Philippians 4:13 is about. And if that is what is kept in mind, then yes,
… it deserves to go viral.
James Emery White
Anugrah Kumar, “Bible Gateway Lists Top 10 Searches Among 14 Billion Views in 25 Years,” The Christian Post, August 2, 2018, read online.
Jonathan Merritt, “Philipians 4:13: How Many Christians Misuse the Iconic Verse,” Religion News Service, January 16, 2014, read online.
For more on this check out the “Viral Verses” series at ChurchAndCulture.org given by James Emery White HERE.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.