“I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13)
It’s a verse we all know, a verse that quarterback Tim Tebow inscribed in his eye black, one that has been engraved on thousands of items of jewelry and printed on countless items of Christian merchandising. But does it mean what most people presume it means? For many people this verse (and its slight variant “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” NKJV, etc.) has become a kind of Christian mantra, a spiritual guarantee that whatever we do will succeed if we act in faith.
The truth is that Philippians 4:13 does not really say or mean anything of the kind. But what it really does say and mean can be infinitely more encouraging.
As with any biblical verse, “context is king.” To understand what Paul had in mind with these words, we must look at the context in which he wrote them:
“for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13 ESV).
The context shows us immediately that Paul was not talking about success in doing things, but about success in dealing with things – the ability to accept and enjoy or endure (whichever is appropriate) whatever life may throw at us.
The underlying Greek in which Paul wrote Philippians confirms this meaning. The Greek does not literally say “I can do all things” – the word “do” does not appear in the verse at all. Rather, the words mean “I have strength for all things” – in other words, “I can survive, deal with, handle, be content with, all things.”
The apostle tells us that he had fully experienced the positive and negative aspects of life – “every circumstance” – and he had learned that through the strength God gave him, he could successfully live through them all.
This is important. Paul tells us he could not only survive the bad things with God’s help, but also the good things of life. Why would we need help in surviving the good things? Simply put, the scriptures show us that both prosperity and poverty can be snares (Proverbs 30:8-9). Although poverty can leave us bitter and even lead to stealing, prosperity can encourage complacency, self-reliance and pride. But Paul’s words show that with God’s help we can meet whatever circumstances we find ourselves in with a right attitude that does not distance us in some way from God.
As such, Philippians 4:13 has nothing to do with being able to accomplish goals or other things we may want to do in life. God certainly can help us with such things if it is his will, but Paul’s point does not relate to that fact. Far more importantly, Paul tells us that God can help us succeed in things that are far more vital than physical accomplishments - the things Paul was talking about. That is why the NIV translates this verse: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (emphasis added).
Remember, too, that the apostle penned these words from a prison cell near the end of his life – hardly a position of success and accomplishment in physical terms. Nevertheless, Paul had learned that whether he found himself in a palace or a prison cell, he could be content in the knowledge that God would help him to deal with it. For Paul, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” was not about performing well or fulfilling goals at the physical level, but about achieving the things in life that matter the most. Philippians 4:13 is not about what we can accomplish with God’s help, but what God, through his help, can accomplish in us.