I Can Do All Things?
We’re winding down our sermon series on Christian slogans that have a ring of truth, but if you take them too far, they can lead us in some wacky or even harmful trajectories. Today’s slogan is a popular motivational meme that quotes Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Today, we’ll explore what’s good and bad about how this saying gets used and see if we can use the discussion to move us toward a more helpful faith perspective.
Sometimes, we need this verse to help us persevere.
When we hear, “I can do all things,” it sounds great. Sign me up. Sometimes, we all need a dose of encouragement. Whenever we’re challenged, it’s comforting to think of the Bible saying, “You’ve got this! Don’t be afraid. God will strengthen you.” Notice that it doesn’t say God will do everything for you or do it instead of you. Rather it says God will strengthen you to do what you need to do.
We have lots of ways of talking about this. We might say it’s simple math. The sum of “You plus God is greater than the sum of you plus your problems.” The parallel phrase we sometimes use is, “Don’t tell God how big your problems are. Tell your problems how big your God is!”
There are times when this is exactly what we need to hear to summon the courage to do whatever hard thing is in front of us, whether it is having a difficult conversation, putting off short-term desires for long-term benefits, or summoning the courage to take the risk to follow your dream. What is the hard thing staring you down right now? Health, sorrow, regret, someone who’s not treating you right? Sometimes, we need to hear, “You’ve got this; you can do more than you think. God will strengthen you.” This is the true and valuable part of this common expression.
God doesn’t serve our selfish agendas.
But there is always the temptation to overplay it and make it sound like a power chord at the motivational speaker rally. You will become salesperson of the millennium, you will be respected, you will be the most interesting person in the world. God will strengthen you. You will be prosperous in all things because you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.
Treating God like a cosmic vending machine.
There are always problems when we start believing that God will be at our beck and call to service our personal agendas. God isn’t there to serve our agendas; we are here to serve God’s agenda. There’s a pull to treat God as if the Spirit is a cosmic vending machine where we press a button and our life selections come tumbling down to us. We hunt for the right button as if it’s all in code. Prayer, Bible study, throwing a few dollars at a charity. What will it take before God releases the goodies and lets them fall into possession?
I think of Fredo in The Godfather, who taught his nephew the secret to catching the big fish. “I say a hail Mary.” He promises it always works. Until at the end of the movie, his brother has him whacked in the boat. Transactional approaches to faith work until they don’t.
There are a lot of ways faith gets superstitious. Most of them are harmless. For example, many folks swear by burying a statue of St. Joseph upside down in their yard to sell their house.
But is it any different than thinking that you must be perfect or God might do something to mess with you?
Any time we develop an equation where we think God owes us something, we reveal a transactional approach to faith and need to go back to the drawing board. Good luck if you think God owes you because of something you said or did. God has already given you all you need everlastingly. Unless you are prepared to manufacture sunlight, create your own life…
We don’t earn God’s acceptance or favor or approval or forgiveness because the Spirit has already given it to us.
It works until it doesn’t.
If you treat God like a vending machine, expect vending machine unreliability. You put in your money and press the button, but your item gets stuck and doesn’t fall. You start shaking the machine, kicking it even before you give up and walk away empty. With God, we may start thinking, “I put in money, time, and effort and tried to be a good person. I pressed the prayer button, but the goodies never came. I got hosed. Enough of this garbage. Fool me once…”
Don’t miss the good things God has for you.
It’s tempting to walk away and never receive the good things God has in store for you. They may not be the things that fit your self-centered agenda, but they are real and do come in the long walk of faith. We get things like inner peace, a sense of purpose and belonging. We get a community and a moral framework that helps us see beyond ourselves to serve others. Why walk away from all of that?
Where the saying falls short.
The way our Bible verse gets used it sometimes leads to unrealistic assumptions. I can do all things! But before you get fitted for your superhero cape, you should know it’s not a blanket promise. If you are 7’1 tall and 300 pounds, like Shaquille O’Neil, you can’t recite the verse often enough to make you the winning jockey in next year’s Kentucky Derby. Far from eliciting, you can do anything philosophy, the context of this Bible verse aims at something different.
When you look at Philippians 4:13 in context, it isn’t about God granting you magical powers where all you touch turns to gold. Its author, the apostle Paul, was talking about his ability to endure suffering through the strength of Christ. He suffered—a lot. He had been rejected, ridiculed, beaten, and even stoned for his faith. He wrote these words from prison. It wasn’t about getting rich or having God magically clear your path. He was talking about how he got through his personal experiences. A more faithful reading of the text would be: Christ gives me the inner strength and resources to be content through anything life throws at me.
Getting through anything differs from some unrealistic promise that you can do anything.
Accessing this strength.
If it’s not about sending a check, how do you access this strength that can get you through tough times? Paul doesn’t lay out an easy strategy. We can, however, look at his life for some clues. First, he sensed that he was not alone—there was a spiritual power he tapped into. He had a sense that God was with him, that he was accepted, forgiven, the beloved of God. Just as you are.
Second, he believed that his life had a purpose. He felt he had a role in God’s purposes in history by sharing the gospel, not of getting rich, but of serving as Jesus did. You have this purpose, too. You can serve, you can encourage, you can listen, you can pray. You have a role and purpose in God’s plans. As John Wesley said, by doing all the good, you can at all times in all the ways you can.
Third, he practiced spiritual disciplines. He prayed, stood up for people, and practiced gratitude and generosity.
Maturing in faith.
While most of us start with some transactional approach to faith, I want to challenge you to grow beyond that to a transformational kind of faith. Paul said we are to aim for personal transformation.
Being in the presence of divine—connection. It is what God is after. Seek to connect with spirit, not to get our agendas met. In the process, we find ourselves transformed. Kinder, patient, loving, etc.
Loop back to Philippians—get through all things by being the kind of person who can endure. Strength from that relationship with Christ, living into his model.