Question 1 from the Prosperity quiz: Does “I can do all things through Christ” mean there is no limit to what I can do, or, “I can do all things through Christ” means it is possible to be content in all circumstances.
Before we melt down the golden calf text of the Prosperity message, allow me to give a little background to Philippians 4:13. Prisons in St. Paul’s day were nothing like modern jailhouses. They were small, dirty, and often carved into the side of a mountain. Because Paul is writing the Philippians epistle while in such a prison, we would expect complaints, grumbling, and formal requests for an early release. Verse ten ought to shock us. “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly.” Rejoicing? Greatly?
The Prosperity Screechers say: “If you are suffering, you can’t be happy until God gives you health.” Paul says: “Though I suffer, I am happy.” Paul is in prison and thriving. He’s not jaded but joyful. It has probably been years between gifts from the church in Philippi, yet he is still faring well.
This joy comes from a heart of contentment. This is something Paul learned by experience, for humans are not naturally content. When an infant is hungry, he doesn’t say to mama, “You finish what you are doing. I’ll just play on my own for a while.” The child screams until he gets what he wants. A content person is one whose happiness remains the same when the circumstances change. Paul was content in “whatever situation.”
Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs said discontentment comes when desires and circumstances are not equal, like the man who can walk more comfortably with two short legs than the man with one long leg and one short. Molly has cancer. She has lost her joy. The problem is that her desire (to have a healthy body) is greater than her circumstance (an unhealthy body). She has one long leg and one short leg. Selma can’t have children and the sorrow is overwhelming. Discontent abounds. How will the joy return? The prosperity crowd says the only way is for God to heal Molly and to give Selma a child.
But true contentment comes when we accept what God has given us and our desires match our circumstances. No matter the condition, Paul has “learned in whatever situation” to be content. His desires will match the circumstances. This comes from a deep trust in the sovereignty of God. Paul’s joy also comes from his flexibility (v.12). He can bend one way or the other. He contrasts three items, one side easy (“abound”, “plenty”, “abundance”) and the other side difficult (“low”, “hunger”, “need”). Paul has learned to succeed in both.
When the funds are coming in, he thanks God and when they are low, he changes his desires and expectations according to God’s will at that moment. This is where we see a great difference between Paul and the ministers of money. They often speak to a poor audience–those in poor circumstances—or, to keep the metaphor, those with shorts legs. What these clerics are doing is lengthening one leg (the desire for worldly pleasures) and then standing back and watching them struggle to walk. They are fostering discontentment.
Paul now reaches the climax of his confession in verse 13. The apostle can thrive and find joy and contentment in whatever circumstance because he depends upon Christ for his strength, not the allurements of this world. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” “I can do all things…”, that is, “I can be joyful and happy and content in all circumstances, whether in a palace or in prison, whether by frigate or by foot, whether in isolation or population.” How? It can be done through–on the basis of–Christ the strengthener.
Burroughs in The Rare Jewel said that the man who seeks contentment from worldly things is like the craving stomach that seeks satisfaction by sucking in the wind, then concluding that he is dissatisfied because he did not take in enough wind. But this man is dissatisfied because the wind is not suitable for a craving stomach. Why are we discontent?
O poor deluded man! It is not because you do not have enough [worldly comforts], but because it is not the thing that is proportional to the immortal soul that God has given you.
Is there another passage in Scripture that is more frequently misquoted than verse 13? Many interpret this to mean that when Christ was empowering Paul, he could do whatever he wanted. He had no limits.
Within his section on logical errors in Exegetical Fallacies, Don Carson calls this interpretation an unwarranted associative jump, professor speak for baloney. In the phrase “all things” (panta), “things” is absent in the Greek and supplied by the translator, so it is up to the reader to decide what “all” is referring to. Certainly it must be qualified in some way, as Paul is not saying that women can turn sand to gold or men can have babies in the power of Christ.
Recently a young Prosperity pastor was cutting his teeth in our sleepy village before moving on to the big money in Cape Town. He used this verse to teach that any of the villagers could become medical doctors without any formal education or qualifications because, after all, “I can do all things through Christ”.
When Paul says “all things”, he is saying that he can do all these things” (the things just mentioned) through Christ. “All things” is all the circumstances life can throw at us. We can handle both fullness and hunger equally well. This ability comes from the aptitude of Another. Paul’s ability does not come from the things outside in the world but from Christ who lives within.