“I can do hard things” is the current cultural parallel to this verse and is the meaning many cultural Christians intend when they call on it as inspiration to achieve something. But Paul was not advocating that believers be like the “Little Train that Could,” approaching goals with an “I think I can” mentality. In fact, if the verse is taken in context, it has little to do with what we do and everything to do with how we respond to the various situations our fellow believers may encounter in life.
Taking one sentence out of a paragraph because it has a catchy ring to it is a dangerous thing. We see it happen in the news every day, and social media is rife with examples, especially when sharing “breaking news” and viral photos. As humans, we like to think we’re “in the know,” so we grab hold of bits, rather than sort through information. We choose quotes and comments we tend to agree with and call them facts. Ray Bradbury saw our generation’s habits back in the 1950s when he wrote Fahrenheit 451. Consider:
Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending…Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column…Digests-digests, digest-digest- digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline!”Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451. (1953, Ballentine Books, pp. 54-55)
Bradbury wrote against the mind-numbing effects he expected from the technology of television, but he could not have imagined just how far down the rabbit hole from critical thinking culture would ultimately descend. He might have written, “Picture it. Nineteenth-century book clubs and philosophical thinkers gathering in cigar-smoked rooms. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up the camera. Discourses cut shorter, listen to the man on the radio, watch the celebrities on television explain the meaning of events. On to the twenty-first century, everything boils down to the sound bite, the meme, the three second video clip! Politics? A tweet, an accusation, a viral statement taken out of context!”
And the Church is not immune to the ways of this world. “I can do all things” becomes “My dreams are limited only by my imagination because Christ will help me overcome all the obstacles to my personal fulfillment.” But that’s not what Paul said.
The book of Philippians is essentially a thank you letter to a church that met his physical needs over and over again. Their lives exemplified dedication to ministry and pursuing maturity. Paul reminded them of how God was working in them and how their partnership with the gospel brought him joy (Philippians 1). But Paul wasn’t writing out of an abundance of material blessings. He was writing from prison, probably in Rome, and not sure whether he would be released or executed (Phil 1:20). But it wasn’t because he was in prison that he said “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Certainly he relied on Christ to endure prison conditions but that wasn’t the point. Paul wrote about the necessity of humility and unity between brothers and sisters in the Lord as they joyfully hold true to a heavenly citizenship.
Paul wrote “joy” or “rejoice” 16 times in this short letter. He wrote about prayer with thanksgiving. He talked about the peace of God. He reminded the Philippians of how to set their minds, on “whatever is true, what ever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable” and things of excellence, worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8). In that context, Paul went on to say that he has learned to be content in every situation by guarding his heart and pondering the praiseworthy things of the Father. He reassured the Philippians, of whom he was so proud, that he received their gifts with gratitude for their sakes, not his own.
This is when Paul makes the statement so often misused. It’s not a meme. It’s not a headline. It is recognition that God supplies his needs, often through the people with whom Paul proclaimed the gospel. It reminds the readers that the Father uses us to minister to one another with grace and gratitude. Our giving and care of each other is “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18). It’s not Paul who can do all things, it is that God never abandons his children, even in the direst circumstances. It recalls the 23rd Psalm where David writes, “Even thought I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).
Knowing God and living in community with fellow believers who seek after the well-being of one another should give us confidence to dwell on praiseworthy things, practicing contentment no matter what the circumstances may be. The “secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” is trusting the strength of Christ and watching how he works through those who joyfully partner together for the glory of God.