We’re all familiar with Philippians 4:13, which says “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” For many of us, Paul’s statement has become a daily encouragement, a rallying cry to success. It’s used in any number of situations: “I can survive this crisis.” “I can win that race.” “Anything I choose to do, Jesus Christ will give me victory.”
Except, when I look at my life, I can’t help noticing that I’ve failed. A lot. I bet you have, too.
There are some things that I’m just not very good at, and even for the most talented of individuals, there are real limits to what they can accomplish. So is Paul’s statement just an empty platitude where I can know God CAN empower me to do something, but He may not actually do it?
Or maybe, the question isn’t whether God will help me achieve whatever goal I choose, but whether I am choosing the goal which God has promised to help me achieve.
Notice the context:
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:10-19
Paul’s labor in the gospel
Paul is discussing financial assistance in his missionary work, and he says that even though there were times when he hadn’t received any support, he was still able to abound in God’s work. He even points out that the he didn’t really need the Philippians’ financial support. God’s work was going to go forward regardless. Whether he was deprived or in abundance, Paul did the work of an apostle.
Because when Paul sought to do God’s will, Christ gave him strength to succeed, no matter what.
Paul writes one of the great odes to salvation in Romans 8, and in that chapter he makes another statement about the assurance of success through God’s power: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” And while we often quote this passage to assert that anything that happens to us – good or bad – will eventually turn out to be a blessing, the context seems to be addressing something else.
The chapter is addressing how we as Christians can be assured of life in Christ despite any obstacle we might confront. We are “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him” (v. 17) and that despite those difficulties and trials, we live and wait in hope while receiving intercession from the Spirit, which occurs “according to the will of God” (v. 27).
Paul then says that “for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His son.”
For those who love God, “all things working together for good” means “God’s will is being accomplished in my life.” Not “I will eventually get the outcome that I judged in my eyes to be the right one.”
I believe what Paul is saying here is that no matter what you suffer in this life, no matter what obstacles are placed in your way, God’s will will be done and you will have victory in Christ. Because it is God’s plan to conform you to the image of His son, and everything we undergo in this life is working to help mold us into that image. Our faith, being tested and refined through persecution “may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:7).
Victory isn’t about earthly success!
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. – Romans 8:35-37
Is Paul really talking about winning an athletic event there? Or passing a test in school? Or getting a promotion at work? I would submit he’s talking about much more important things than that. When a Christian conquers, he conquers over sin. He conquers over death. And that victory is completely unaffected by whatever anyone might do to that person.
If I am determined to serve God, what can possibly be done to me that will prevent it? Does the behavior of ungodly people around me stop me? It didn’t stop Lot (2 Peter 2:7). Do divisive brothers and sisters in the church stop me? There were plenty in Corinth who continued serving God faithfully despite it.
Did Paul and Silas stop serving God when they were thrown into prison (Acts 16:25)? I can serve the Lord in stocks or chains just as well as I can serve the Lord walking around free. And if someone were to end your life for serving the Lord, then your last act on earth would be a resounding success.
No one can stop you from serving God
If we are presenting our bodies as “living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1), then we know that we can serve God no matter what anyone does to us, no matter what our financial circumstance, no matter whether we’re destitute and homeless. I can lose everything in my life – just like Job lost everything including his health – and my service to God can go on.
When I’m tempted to sin, God gives me a way of escape (I Corinthians 10:13). When I stumble and sin, God forgives me and encourages me to keep trying. When I am unsure of what God’s will is, I have the word of God revealed in scripture to guide me. We have “all things pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). And even as I work at bringing others to Christ, I know that it’s not me, but “only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7).
“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).
If I fail at serving God, it’s not because I didn’t have everything I needed to succeed. It’s because I chose not to try. So let’s set our minds to serve God, and let Him give us the victory.