I joined Crossfit once. I lasted about 3 months. I’ll call it a fad. There I was, lifting barbells and lying on a dirty floor doing more sit ups and push ups then I ever thought possible. I can’t say that I enjoyed it much, but I will give the program credit: It was very challenging. There was more than one occasion when I would psych myself up and more as a joke than anything, quote Philippians 4:13: I-Can-Do-All-Things-Through-Christ-Who-Strengthens-Me….Ahhhhhhhh! I nearly died on so many occasions. Like me, you’ve probably quoted or heard Phil 4:13 quoted somewhere, although it was likely out of context. So what does this verse actually mean? What was Paul saying when he wrote that he could do all things through the strength he received from Christ? I don’t think he was thinking about finishing his push up set…
10 How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn’t have the chance to help me. 11 Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have.12 I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. 13 For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.
This passage is from the letter Paul writes to the Philippian Church while he is in prison in Rome. Paul has a close relationship with this church. He’s writing to friends. He has just received the financial support that the Philippians had promised him after it was apparently delayed for some time. They had an agreement very similar to what we would understand today as formal missionary support. Not casual giving, but a formal promise to give financial support as Paul did his missionary work. Then Paul finds himself imprisoned without a reason. When this letter is written he has already been in prison for about two years in Caesarea before he appealed to Caesar and was taken to Rome. So this is in his third or forth year of prison circumstances that he writes that he has learned the “secret” of living in every situation. It’s also important for us to understand that the prison Paul has experienced is not similar to what we understand today. Roman prison was a place that people were sent, not as punishment, but rather as a holding place for trial. Once judged they would typically be put to death, fined or released. The Romans didn’t find prison to be an economical system for the empire to support, so when people were placed there they would often die while awaiting trial, even after short periods of time. What it usually meant to be thrown in prison was literally a dungeon with no light, sanitation, food or clothes. The only way you could survive was if you had family or friends bringing you aid. Since Paul was a Roman citizen he was not kept like this the entire time, but regardless of where he was being held, he was responsible for his own provision, yet unable to work. Rome was about 830 miles away from Philippi, so it’s no wonder it took a while for their support to reach Paul. We see in verse 10 that Paul seems to have wondered if they forgot about him. It was considered shameful to be associated with anyone is prison, so it shows the depth of their love and honor for Paul to show themselves faithful to him personally during this time in his ministry.
I think it’s safe to say that Paul understood what it meant to suffer hardships. Prison doesn’t even seem to be the worst of what he went through in his ministry. He writes in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27: …I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. 24 Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. 26 I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. 27 I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. Yet after all of these trials he can say that he is content with whatever he has because he has Christ. He has come to the conclusion that even when he has absolutely nothing, because he still has Christ, he has everything. This is challenging to me.
Most of us have lost a friendship at one time or another, but have you ever had your friends literally try to kill you? Probably not. Have you spent years in a dungeon-like prison and instead of questioning God, decided to worship Him and write of His amazing love in letters to others? Have you been stoned? Beaten with whips? Shipwrecked? No? Me neither. Yet through these extreme situations Paul has a greater faith and love for Jesus then those of us who on our worst day haven’t even faced anything remotely similar. We are even quick in marriage vows to commit to better or worse although deep down we all believe that “worse” only happens to other people.
Anytime I’ve gone without food, it’s because I chose to do so. But what if I had no food for the day out of lack, not choice? Would I still believe God is my provider; That He is good and that I “lack nothing” because I have Christ? Here’s some questions to meditate on:
Do I love Jesus because of his provision or because He first loved me enough to give his life for mine?
Is my love for Him as unconditional as His is for me?
Is He the source of the storm or with me in the storm?
I think these are crucial revelations to grasp. Without “right believing” on these points Christ will never be our “secret” through the extremes of life. We will forget him in the great times and abandon him in the challenging ones.
I believe Paul teaches us that contentment is something that we have to learn and cultivate. Paul is obviously not talking about feeling happy…it’s something deeper. He’s talking about joy that is so deep that it’s disconnected from circumstance. A joy sourced outside of ourselves, only received through Christ. Most scholars would say joy is the main theme of this letter. The words “joy” or “rejoice” are commanded 16 times, more than any other topic in Philippians. It’s as though Paul is saying we can actually choose joy and therefore contentment. It doesn’t come to us naturally. In fact, it’s a known statistic that those who have the most are typically the least content. This is something many of us could stand to cultivate more of, but how? Many of us have not had lives including extreme highs and lows, yet how can we live in this revelation from where we are now? Paul says he “learned” to be content and that the “secret” was Christ. Paul learned these things through what he personally experienced, which leaves me with the question of how we can possibly ever cultivate this in our lives without the extremes that he faced?
I believe there are a few things that any of us can start doing today that can help us grow in our contentment regardless of the season in which we find ourselves:
1. Meditate on the Word– being renewed starts with our thinking. Here’s some great verses to start with:
Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.
Your steadfast love is better than life
You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.
2. Gratitude– be grateful, on purpose, for everything. This is not always a natural response. Many of us have to purposefully grow in gratitude.
3. Ask God for a renewed revelation of the Cross of Christ– take time to meditate on what it actually means to you that Jesus died in your place and offers you His strength.
4. Receive the Spirit’s empowerment– Paul’s strength came from only one source- The Holy Spirit. We have access to this same Spirit, who has all the strength we need to choose joy always.
5. Laugh– If you have nothing to laugh about, just laugh anyway until you don’t even know why you’re laughing. (If you want a recommendation I think animals with huge eyes are absolutely hilarious.)
It turns out Philippians 4:13 is not about getting the promotion or finishing the NY marathon. It’s about cultivating what will be one of the most important skills that will enable us to walk through every season of life still full of love, joy and hope; with a conviction that Jesus was, is and will always be enough.