Can I Do 'All Things'? Examining Phil. 4:13
Shawn McEvoyShawn McEvoy is the Director of Editorial for Salem Web Network.
- 2008 Aug 15
After John 3:16, Genesis 1:1, John 1:1, and maybe Romans 8:28, the following verse might be one of the most well-known, most-beloved, and most oft-quoted in all scripture:
"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13, nkjv).
Surely many of us could share a time this verse has been an encouragement or a help, or another time where we’ve used it to admonish others. I can remember being a camp counselor and shouting this verse as support to youth too nervous to navigate our high ropes course. “You can do it, Sally! The Bible says you can!”
But later on I would reflect: "Is that what this verse means? That we can push ourselves to physical feats or worldly accomplishments? Can it really mean that? Then how do people who don't know Christ navigate these ropes and the obstacles of achievement?" Did I really need Jesus in order to climb those trees and zoom down that zip line?
Furthermore, I’ve always wondered, what does “do” refer to in this verse anyway? It’s a bit of a vague verb if you think about it. Dictionary.com lists several possible meanings for “do” that kind of fall into two different groups – groups that come close to echoing two different ways of understanding this oft-quoted (and sometimes mis-quoted?) verse:
Group A) To: perform, execute, accomplish, render, approve, bring into being
Group B) To: serve, suffice, give
We'll come back to those.
We'll come back to those.
One of Steven Curtis Chapman’s greatest ballads goes:
I can do all things
Through Christ, who gives me strength.
But sometimes I wonder what He
Can do through me.
No great success to show,
No glory on my own;
Yet in my weakness He is there
To let me know…
His strength is perfect
When our strength is gone;
He’ll carry us
When we can’t
Raised in His power,
The weak become strong.
His strength is perfect,
His strength is perfect.
Notice what Chapman does here. How does the song start? (With our verse, Phil. 4:13. Specifically, "I can do all things..."). How does it end? ("His strength is perfect"). Goes from “I” to “Him,” a telling progression, perhaps.
Now, let’s work backwards and take a fresh look at Phil. 4:13 in context. If we begin reading in Phil. 4:10…
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. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. (NIV)
So… Paul's word "do", in context, lends itself much more to Column B of definitions above. In fact, the Commentary Critical says the literal Greek meaning here is "I have strength for all things"; so we can add words like “endure, survive, deal with, handle, be content in, etc.,” to Column B.
And consider Gil's Exposition of the Bible on the phrase "I can do all things":
[It] must not be understood in the greatest latitude, and without any limitation; for the apostle was not omnipotent, either in himself, or by the power of Christ; nor could he do all things that Christ could do; but it must be restrained to the subject matter treated of: the sense is, that he could be content in every state, and could know how to behave himself in adversity and prosperity, amidst both poverty and plenty; yea, it may be extended to all the duties incumbent on him both as a Christian and as an apostle, as to exercise a conscience void of offence towards God and men; to take the care of all the churches; to labour more abundantly than others in preaching the Gospel; and to bear all afflictions, reproaches, and persecutions for the sake of it; yea, he could willingly and cheerfully endure the most cruel and torturing death for the sake of Christ: all these things he could do, not in his own strength, for no man was more conscious of his own weakness than he was, or knew more of the impotency of human nature; and therefore always directed others to be strong in the Lord, and in, the power of his might, and in the grace that is in Christ, on which he himself always depended, and by which he did what he did.
I can’t help but wonder what, if anything, this does for those of us who have always used this verse as a platitudinal confidence booster. Speaking for myself, as a younger Christian I might have felt like one of my primary weapons or favorite toys had just been cruelly yanked away from me, and I might be feeling a little defensive. When I was a fundamentalist, legalistic Christian, I would have taken smug joy in telling younger Christians how contextually wrong they were. Currently, I'm coming to find I have very little to do with any of it. I simply lay back. In fact, the song we quoted says, “no glory on my own.”
But if that’s true, why is "Do All Things” still an important concept for Christian living (if indeed it is)?
Here’s what I would contend:
If we can get to the point of accepting/being content in/enduring anything, that means we are totally dependant upon God for our needs…. And when we become dependant upon God for our needs, they no longer become our primary concern. Anyone remember from Psych 101 Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs?
At the base of the pyramid is the Physiological (food, water); then Safety/shelter; Belonging/love/acceptance; Esteem; self-actualization/personal growth). According to Maslow, it’s only after the lower levels are taken care of that we are free to exist in this plane.
My wife Valerie said something once that really put this idea into a new light for me.
Val explained (in a much more appropriate way for a 3-year-old than I am about to) that if we trust God to provide for us, take care of us, and direct our paths, while we focus on keeping His commandments and loving others (i.e. “doing”), instead of the other way around, or the world’s way, then we’re set. It’s how God wanted things done.
This totally jives with "doing" God's word and seeking to have his righteousness FIRST. Notice how it totally flips the pyramid upside down! That’s what being able to “do all things through Christ” does! Instead of "self-actualization" at the top, Christians can come to “God-actualization,” if you will, involving ministry/outreach, repentance, study, love, and then see their more basic needs met.
Now, what does that look like when really and truly played out in life? Can it be done? Here's a recent, very real, very inhumanly possible example of what "doing all things through Christ" means...
There's nothing wrong with Phil. 4:13 giving you encouragement when you feel inadequate. In fact, that idea is even broached in one of the follow-up devotionals I've posted below. But ask yourself: what have you come through in life that you could never have "done" except for that same strength that led Jesus to be able to live sinlessly and carry through with a brutal sacrifice He could have called upon angels to stop?
Let me leave you with this perhaps-disquieting thought... If the meaning here is, as the Commentary suggests, "I have strength for all things," consider whether "all things" involves stuff we’d normally try to avoid – problems, suffering, trials, tribulations, and all manner of troubles that cause you to NEED that strength? Could it be that’s where God wants you for His greatest glory to show His perfect strength? After all, Paul was in prison when he wrote these famous words. Think about that this weekend. And hopefully, I'll still have a fledgling blog audience next week...
Follow-Up Devotionals and Questions
A. Power Point Devotional, by Pastor Jack Graham
1. Read Nehemiah 10:29
2. Read devotional text:
I wanted to revisit this verse today, because it has a powerful truth we must not fail to see. As the people of God, we need to be separate from and live differently than the world. There needs to be something clearly different about us as we live our daily lives.
After the Israelites vowed to always follow and remember the Lord, they made vows to live life differently than the people around them. Nehemiah and the people of
In the same way, Christ calls His followers to live sanctified lives, set apart from the unsaved world.
But there’s more to being set apart for Christ than just refraining from certain activities. Too many Christians are known for what they don’t do instead of for their love, compassion, and service to others.
Sometimes we become so focused on avoiding things that displease God that we forget to do the things that please Him.
Being separate from the world is a call to live such holy, blameless, and God-honoring lives that people are drawn to Christ as they see Him in us. Separation is not keeping away from the rest of society, but an active, decisive process by which we make a positive impact on the world around us.
If your desire is to live a set-apart life for Christ, I commend you. Now let me ask you, are you making an impact for Him in your world? Commit yourself today to be a positive, attractive influence for Christ!
CHRISTIANS SHOULD BE KNOWN FOR WHAT THEY DO, NOT JUST WHAT THEY AVOID!
3. Do you ever get too caught up in the "don'ts" of Christianity? Which ones?
4. Do you think Paul in Philippians 4:13 is making any statement by only mentioning what he CAN do (which is all things)?
5. How do we live set apart from the world, holy and blameless, and still remain in it? What do you think the "active, decisive process" that Jack Graham alludes to is?
1. Read John 13:1-15
2. Read devotional text:
Here we see the beautiful place of humility the Son of God took before His own disciples.
In the Asian culture, it is difficult to even grasp this kind of event taking place! A master stooping down to wash his servants’ feet?! Only slaves do that! Yet here we see the Creator of the universe, the Lord of lords and the King of kings who became the Son of Man, bending down to wash the dusty feet of His disciples.
Everywhere you travel across this world, you will find people driven to exalt themselves, some in a blatant manner and some in subtle ways, but all somehow driven to be recognized and known. But in John 13, we see the exact opposite happening. The One who, above all else, should be exalted, here is stooping low.
And not low before powerful kings and rulers, but before ordinary men— His own disciples—men rough around the edges, feet worn and dusty from days of travel. All for one reason: “I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15, emphasis mine).
In the early years of my serving the Lord, I struggled with this inner desire to be recognized and esteemed, as I’m sure many of us do, even in Christian service. However, this should really have no place in the life of the child of God. When we behold Christ and realize the example He has given us, our lives and our pride should immediately bow—not just because of what was done, but because of who did it! If the Son of God could humble Himself before His disciples, how can I not humble myself in dealing with my brothers and sisters?
Every situation that comes in our lives in which we feel that inner urge to fight for our way needs to be seen as an instrument of God to shape us into a humble servant. As we choose to bow low, just like Jesus, we begin to mirror Him. And each day becomes more and more, “He must increase . . . I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Consider the position that 1 Peter 5:5–6 (NIV) tells us to take: “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” Oftentimes when we read this verse, we think the part that says, “He will lift you up” automatically means positions, titles, degrees or recognition. But this is far from what Christ meant. Humility cannot be used as a stepping stone to personal promotion. It is a dangerous thing for those in the Lord’s service to live with the secret desire to be recognized, feel important, “climb the ladder” or be esteemed and rewarded by men.
Humility allows Christ’s life to be perfected in us. But pride, the opposite of humility, works death in us. To be exalted, honored and recognized was the desire of Lucifer. He was not content with what God had chosen for him so he decided to exalt himself: “I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God” (Isaiah 14: 13). Because of this Lucifer fell, rejected by God because of the pride in his heart. All sin originated in pride and self-exaltation. But our salvation originated in Christ humbling Himself by His death on the cross.
Philippians 2:3–4 tells us, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” How does that translate into our lives? We can say with our lips, “I am small,” but in our minds we are big. We have our education, our position and our possessions. We can look at someone and say, “This person is more important than I am” all we want. But we must live that out, demonstrating humility, if we are to be changed. In dealing with others, it helps if we realize that we could be in another’s situation. If it weren’t for the grace of God, that beggar on the street could be me.
In the late 1960s when I was in Rajasthan, we would hire three-wheel rickshaw taxis to get us around. The passengers would sit on the back seat with their luggage, while the rickshaw driver would sit on the front seat and peddle. For two hours of peddling, a driver would commonly receive about 10 rupees (equivalent to about 20 U.S. cents).
One day, I was riding in a rickshaw on my way to a meeting. It was the middle of summer, and the heat was overwhelming. As I sat in the back seat of the rickshaw, I watched my driver. He was an old man, all skin and bones, the veins in his neck bulging from the strain and the heat. He had no shirt on, and sweat poured down his body. “This is terrible!” I thought to myself. Here was this old man peddling so hard to get me up this huge hill, in the middle of the summer heat. Certainly I had much more strength than he. I said to myself, “If it were not for the grace of God, I would be doing this job.”
So I told the driver to stop the rickshaw. He quit peddling and, concerned he had done something wrong, asked, “What happened?” I said, “Nothing is wrong. I just want you to give me the handlebars and you go and sit on the back.” He couldn’t believe it! I got on the front seat of that rickshaw and peddled the rest of the way. When I got to my destination, I gave him a Gospel tract and paid him more money than he deserved. The man was blown away by what he had witnessed and experienced.
Truth is, I never could have done something like that if I thought I was better than that man. It is only in seeing Christ’s humility and esteeming others better than myself that I am able to love my fellow man and walk humbly with him. As we embrace these opportunities, the sweet love of Jesus flows out of our lives, drawing all men to Him.
Again and again, as the disciples traveled with Jesus, they saw His humility, His tears and His gentleness. Anyone could approach Him; there was no high-mindedness in His response to anyone. From the worst in the society to the most refined in the community, all could approach Him. He who knew their every sin and flaw still embraced them. Each was treated with dignity and compassion. This is the humility of Christ. And He did this so that we might do as He has done.
3. How are we driven in our culture to exalt ourselves? Do you think that might be something we're only able to NOT do through Christ who gives us strength?
4. Have you ever washed anyone else's nappy feet, either literally or figuratively? Does the idea repulse you?
5. Can you think of any metaphorical "rickshaw" in your own life where you could (through Christ's strength) reverse the roles?
C. "Living Below our Potential" by Neil Anderson
1. Read Galatians 5:17
2. Read devotional text:
Are you stymied in your growth because of feelings of inferiority? To whom or to what are you inferior? You are a child of God seated with Christ in the heavenlies (Ephesians 2:6). Do you feel insecure? Your God will never leave you nor forsake you (Hebrews 13:5). Inadequate? You can do all things through Christ (Philippians 4:13). Guilty? There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1). Worried? God has offered to trade His peace for your anxiety (Philippians 4:6, 7; 1 Peter 5:7; John 14:27). Doubt? God provides wisdom for the asking (James 1:5).
Why is there often such great disparity between these two kinds of Christians: spiritual and fleshly? Why are so many believers living so far below their potential in Christ? Why are so few of us enjoying the abundant, productive life we have already inherited?
Part of the answer is related to the process of growth and maturity as the individual believer appropriates and applies his spiritual identity to his day-to-day experience. And yet there are countless numbers of Christians who have been born again for years -- even decades -- and have yet to experience significant measures of victory over sin and the flesh, a victory which is their inheritance in Christ.
Another part of the answer is due to our ignorance of how the kingdom of darkness is impacting our progress toward maturity. We have a living, personal enemy -- Satan -- who actively attempts to block our attempts to grow into maturity as God's children. We must know how to stand against him. Paul wrote about Satan: "We are not ignorant of his schemes" (2 Corinthians 2:11).
Perhaps Paul and the Corinthians weren't ignorant, but a lot of Christians today surely are. We live as though Satan and his dark realm don't exist. And our naivete in this area is exacting a crippling toll from our freedom in Christ.
Prayer: Dear Lord, I stand against Satan's schemes to pollute my life with deeds of sin and the flesh. I embrace my inheritance as a child of God today.
3. If you feel comfortable, share some ways in which you feel you might be living below your potential in the
4. How does
5. He concludes with prayer that we would embrace our inheritance as God's children. What difference would it make if you did that?