“I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me.” – Philippians 4:13
This is one of the most astounding statements ever made by the Apostle Paul. Yet, tucked away in the midst of the 4th chapter of one of his most profound Epistles it can easily be his most skimmed over and that would be a shame. As students of the Bible we should know by now that he’s prone to throwing exceptionally brilliant jewels into the treasure chest when we least expect it and this verse is a case in point. I pointed out in my last essay that from verses 10-12 he was thanking the church in Philippi for their gift while making sure they knew that his reliance was (and ours should be, too) on God alone. And then he presents us with this uplifting line, a humble yet exhilarating message of triumph. If you think he’s boasting you’re mistaken. He’s paying glorious, worshipful tribute to his Lord and Master. Is it paradoxical? Yes, but most Christian truth is essentially paradoxical in that it makes us want to rejoice aloud for the hope it promises while at the same time bow our heads in heartfelt gratitude. There’s no contradiction because the pride of an honest believer is for the Spirit of Christ that dwells within. Paul expressed it several times. “But may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Galatians 6:14) and “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:31) The apostle openly crows like a rooster but it’s always about his Savior, not about Paul. In his statement he tells us that Christ is constantly filling him up with strength and, in so doing, he sums up the whole Epistle. He’s successfully established an unbreakable bond with his Father in heaven. He has learned, through experience and by intelligent reasoning, to be content in the good times and the bad by making sure his faith in God is independent of his earthly circumstances. While that may sound complicated Paul simplifies it in his verse. He’s been made strong enough to deal with whatever may come by the One who is the source and supplier of all strength. This should come as no surprise because for Paul every argument or discussion always ends up in Jesus Christ our Savior who’s all-sufficient for every situation, every eventuality and every possibility.
We believers often forget that the Christian life isn’t just an existence, it’s a power, a dynamic activity. It’s not just some philosophy we adopted, a point of view we hold nor a set of morals we try to adhere to. It is all that in a way but it’s also something immensely more. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote: “The very essence of the Christian life is that it’s a mighty power that enters into us. It’s a life that’s pulsating in us. It’s an activity on the part of God.” That’s what Paul is trying to convey in a nutshell. In Philippians 1 he emphasized that God who began a good work in us will someday perfect it, no doubt hoping that we’d see our potential in light of that encouraging fact. God literally lives in us. We Christians aren’t just a bunch of folks who’ve bought into a religion, we’re children of God the Father who’s doing something unique in and through us! In verse 13 Paul wrote “for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of his good pleasure – is God.” Our noblest thoughts, our most unselfish of aspirations, our most righteous of inclinations are implanted into our minds and hearts by God Himself. God is good. We, by ourselves, are not. Christ’s power is Paul’s central theme and he wasn’t worried about sounding like a broken record in proclaiming it. In Ephesians 1:19 he prayed that we would know “the incomparable greatness of his power toward us who believe, as displayed in the exercise of his immense strength” and in 3:20 that our exultation be aimed at “him who by the power that is working within us is able to do far beyond what we ask or think.” That’s foundational New Testament doctrine and if you haven’t wrapped your head around it yet then you’re missing out on a glimpse of His infinite grace. As a believer you’ve been granted a new life. Someone said the definition of Christianity is “the life of God in the souls of men” and that hits the nail on the head. A Christian isn’t just a nice person; God has come to live in them. They possess a power, an energy, a fragment of the creator dwelling on the inside that separates them from non-believers and Paul made it his mission to tell us that.
“I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me.” Interpreted incorrectly, one might surmise that Paul had become either big-headed or apathetic but that’s not true. He hadn’t achieved some kind of nirvana-ish state of mind wherein he’d advanced to the “next level” and was now nonchalant about the travails of mankind. That’s how the Stoics were. If you don’t know much about them, they were a cult that encouraged their devotees to develop a passive indifference regarding the world in general. Sort of like the Indian fakirs who, by controlling their minds and bodies, “rise above” earthly existence and pay it no heed. This brand of thinking is more prevalent than you might realize. Hinduism teaches that the world doesn’t really exist and Buddhism considers individual human beings to be of no practical consequence whatsoever. Those religions are profoundly pessimistic. They espouse that life on this planet is hopeless, that nothing you can do will improve things so the best you can aspire to is plowing through your day avoiding pain as much as possible. Eastern sects consider all matter to be inherently evil (including the flesh) and one’s only hope of escaping an endless series of reincarnations is to be absorbed into the absolute via something you do yourself and thereby cease to be an individual, separate personality altogether. (I don’t know about you but that doesn’t instill happy thoughts in me.) All of that’s as far from what Paul was saying as the east is from the west. In fact, it’s the very antithesis of the Gospel of Christ. Yes, evil does exist but the universe is not negatively charged. As saved, justified believers in our precious Lord our ultimate victory is based solely upon God’s grace and our association with Jesus Christ who’ll someday exterminate evil forevermore. Our task is not to simply believe in Him or to merely memorize the truths He imparted to us or to try valiantly to mimic His perfect and holy life; it is to be so vitally connected to Him that His life and His power are working in us. It is to be in Christ and for Him to be in us. Paul’s saying that the Lord feeds so much power and stamina into him that he’s strong enough to endure anything. He hasn’t been left alone to struggle in vain against imposing forces because the awesome power of Jesus has entered his bloodstream and therefore he’s able to assert with all confidence, “I am able to do all things.”
As my dad used to say, “Them’s some awful big claims he’s toutin’!” And, considering Paul’s situation, we must agree. Here’s a man locked in a prison designed to break his spirit. A man who’s already been through hell on earth. A man who’s known persecution, derision, scorn, betrayal and abandonment by his friends. And yet he avows that he can withstand it all because of the power invested in him by “the one who strengthens me.” Some readers might wonder just what this has to do in relation to the crazed, depression-inducing world we live in today. You might inquire as to why, since Christ has put this enormous power into his people, don’t his modern day disciples use that power to do something about the inefficiency of governments, the selfishness of politicians, the unfairness of global economics, etc.? One merely needs to look back through history and see that the church has been opining about those things since Pentecost with no noticeable effect. So the power Paul speaks of is not intended to be aimed in that direction. But with all of us living under the threat of terrorism, crime and natural disasters the question remains: How are we going to deal with the horrors of this world? We as individuals can’t do all that much about hatred, discrimination or wickedness but, according to the apostle, there is something we can do. If we follow Paul’s lead we’ll be ready to face anything that comes our way whether it’s peace or war, freedom or oppression, happy times or sad. It doesn’t mean an idle acceptance of evil (for we’ll do whatever we can to show the love of God to even our enemies) but it does mean that we’ll be prepared for even the worst, come what may. And our peace that “surpasses all understanding” will prove contagious to those who don’t have it.
Can we have Paul’s attitude? We’ve all known tests and trials in our lives to one degree or another and we’d be fools to think more aren’t on the way. Will we say, as he did, that the power of Christ in us enables us to withstand anything? If not, how do we obtain it? To say there’s confusion about all this is an understatement. There are many, even preachers and priests, who’ve spent their whole lives trying to gain that power yet they feel they’ve never had it. Why? As Lloyd-Jones said, “The main trouble is due to a failure on their part to recognize and to realize the right respective positions of the ‘I’ and the ‘Him’ or the ‘One’ who is mentioned by the apostle.” So it’s a matter of finding the proper relationship and the correct balance between ourselves and the beautiful source of all power, Jesus Christ. To imply that doing this is a simple matter would be a disservice on my part but we must start somewhere and the best place is where we confront our emphasis on ourselves. If I make me the priority then I’m no different from a Stoic, Hindu, Buddhist or any number of New Age religionists who seek to “attune themselves to the vibrations of the universal absolute,” (whatever those are). In their view it’s really all about self. That’s a mistake but so is going to the other extreme and I dare say that Christians are particularly susceptible to going there. If a believer thinks of themselves as only a voice through which Christ speaks or a heart through which He loves and so on then where is the “I”? Does God intend to obliterate the unique creations He so “wonderfully made” and turn us into automatons without any trace of personality? That’s not what Paul says. “I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me.” In Galatians 2 he says, “I live, yet not I, but Christ living in me.” Paul continues with “So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Notice that the “I” that is Paul didn’t disappear. Therefore I must conclude that my Christian life isn’t one sustained by my own power and, at the same time, the man God had in mind when he made me is not just important to Him but cherished and loved by Him, as well. Perhaps I can illustrate better through an imaginary dialogue with the apostle.
Paul: I’m able to do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Me: Say what? Are you boasting that you can do anything? Seriously? Who do you think you are? Iron Man?
Paul: No. And stop being sarcastic. But, nonetheless, I can do all things.
Me: Hold on. You’ve stated that you consider yourself the least of all saints which is admirably humble but now you’re bragging that you can do anything. I’m confused.
Paul: What I said was “I can do all things through Christ.” You need to listen better.
Me: That’s what my wife says to me all the time. So you mean there’s two of you?
Paul: Exactly. It’s not just me, Christ lives in here with me and we’re a formidable team.
The question still persists, though. How do we attain this power? One way to look at the problem is to place it in the context of one’s physical health. Sometimes it seems like the very folks who are most obsessed with wellness are the very ones who are always sick. They go from one doctor to another, from one self-help book to another, from one spa to another ad nauseum but they never feel good. Often the reason for their ailments is simply that they overeat, drink too much, don’t get enough sleep or don’t exercise as they should. They’re not paying attention to the basics. The same thing can apply to a Christian. Spiritual health comes from right living over a period of time, not from all of a sudden being anointed with the power of Christ. That divine power will abide and grow in you only as you continue to abide and grow in the Lord. You want the power Paul had? Then study your Bible, think it through, analyze it, put in the time necessary to understand it, pray without ceasing, obey God’s rules and laws. You get the picture. As Lloyd-Jones put it, “The secret of power is to discover and to learn from the New Testament what is possible for us in Christ.” Paul’s ambition was to know his Savior better each day and that should be our goal, as well. Yet it’s not enough to know Jesus, we must do what He tells us to do. I go back to the health illustration. If I don’t take proper care of myself I’ll end up with an illness or an ailment. If I don’t continue to make seeking God my priority I’ll get the born again blues. There are no shortcuts in the Christian life. If we want the same contentment with our lot that Paul had then we must live as he did. In verse 9 he instructs us, “What you learned and received and heard and saw in me, do these things. And the God of peace will be with you.”
In other words, if we do what the Holy Word tells us to do we’ll receive a blood transfusion. The blood I’m talking about, of course, is the healing, rejuvenating blood of Jesus. Without it we’re anemic weaklings unable to do much of anything. It’s when we admit our weakness that Christ pumps his life-giving, powerful blood into us and reminds us that God’s grace is all we need. Only then will we understand that when we own up to our weakness we’re at our strongest. To abide in our Savior means to do what He told us to do. Abiding is a positive activity and as long as we do our part God does His. When we pray for His will to be done we hand the reins over to him. He’s the power supplier and He always knows exactly how much we need at any given moment. As Dr. Larry Crabb’s book says, “The Pressure’s Off.” We no longer have to beg God for power, we simply must do as He says and He’ll make sure we always have enough. Spend time with Him. Live as a Christian should. Ask Him to manifest His Son’s righteousness in you. Love your neighbor as yourself. Forgive those who hurt you. Seek God above all other pursuits. Do these things and you’ll be able to announce to the world, as did the apostle, “I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me.”
(Inspired by the sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book, “Spiritual Depression.”)