Prevailing: An Honest Look at Philippians 4.13

Sometimes I want to scream! One thing that makes me want to scream is people, Christian people, who under the guise of faith, take scripture out of it’s God-given context and apply it to their own pretentious favor.  ARGH!!

I wonder, is there any passage where this more frequently occurs than it does with Philippians 4.13:

“I can do all things through him who gives me strength.”

All too often, it seems, this is claimed as the “life verse” by athletes, coaches, and others facing various forms of adversity.  Those involved in athletics so commonly claim this verse that I sometimes, tongue-in-cheek, refer to this mindset as FCA Christianity. (OK.  I know that this is not fair to FCA.  While this mindset may commonly be heard around FCA Huddles and events, there are also many faithful, deep, godly folks involved with FCA.  In truth, I don’t know that this mindset is more prevalent with FCA-ers than it would be in my denomination, PCA, or even the church that I pastor.)

Philippians 4.13 is often invoked whenever the odds of success seem stacked against someone. The person reminds himself/herself: “I can do this… Like Rocky Balboa, I can defy the odds… I can do ALL things through Christ who gives me strength… I can win!!”

What is wrong with this perspective is not the desire to prevail, whatever the endeavor. There is nothing wrong with that. The problem is that to use this verse, and suppose the Bible here champions winning, takes this verse out of it’s context and redirects the aim of the gospel, the purpose of the Christian faith, to serve our agenda and goals.  It assumes that our personal success is the goal of the Kingdom.  It turns the gospel upside-down.

Again, I am not suggesting it is inherently wrong to want to win. But the absurdity of this mindset is evident whenever you have Believers pitted against each other on both sides of some contest.  Obviously only one side can win. (It is possible, in event of a tie, that no side wins, but it is not possible for both sides to win.)  So after one side wins, do we assume God only cares for, or cares more for, those on the winning side? Should we assume that the promise of this verse is limited in power or scope?

Sadly many assume that very thing – that this promise is limited in some way.  They wonder if the loser is in some way out of step with God, has a lesser faith, etc.   Mostly, I suspect, people just move on in their disappointment, giving little conscious thought as to how God’s promise could have come up short.  They will continue to cling to the verse, and it’s presumed application, for future motivation.  But for many, deep down, they will put less trust in the promises and principles of God.  They won’t say so, but this is the reality.

Kenda Creasy Dean, in her book, Almost Christian, thoroughly investigates the spirituality of North American teenagers. Kenda observes:

“Most teenagers… were not concerned that they would fail God or suffer consequences for failing God. On the contrary, they assumed that God might fail they lowered their hopes accordingly. As long as God demands little, [people] are free to invest little; everyone is happy.”  [Almost Christian, pg. 77]

I suspect that this lowered expectation extends beyond teenagers.  A lot of adults embody that description.  And I suspect that the frequent de-contextualization of God’s Word is a major contributor to such an anemic, self-centered faith – or lack of it.

Simply put, the goal of the Christian Life is the glory of God.  Those called  by God are expected to grow in Christ-like character.  Ephesians 4.11-13 shows this:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

We must never forget this, neglect this, or even simply assume this.  We must continually remind ourselves of this purpose. And to achieve our purpose, of glorifying God through growth in grace and Christ-likeness, we must also remind ourselves of the promises of God, including the one we are primarily considering here.

The context of Philippians 4.13 is spiritual growth; spiritual maturity.  In the previous verse Paul said he has learned to be content in all circumstances:

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”  (v. 12)

Paul has learned to be content, regardless of circumstance, because he knows that God’s promises prevail.  He understands circumstances do not dictate the final outcome.

Now, for the sake of illustration, let’s contrast Paul’s confidence with a common perspective in the United States.  Education studies suggest that children learn best in stable environments, where all the basic needs are met, and perhaps even a few comforts are thrown into the mix.  Such an environment is most conducive to to achieving educational goals.

I do not doubt the validity of these studies, nor the insights gleaned from them. I do not question that a good education does occur best in such an environment.  And, sadly, I have seen many instances where the absence of such a home environment has impeded academic performance.

But the awesomeness of the promise in Philippians 4.13 is that, while environmental circumstances may determine the outcome in education, environment and circumstances do not inherently determine spiritual development.  Paul says it does not matter, in need or in plenty, God will produce the desired and promised growth in those who are called to his purpose. (See also Romans 8.28)

So how do we apply this?

Let’s go back to the application in athletics.

First, let’s remember that sports exist both for our pleasure and for a venue for spiritual growth. So we need to shift our perspective from the unspoken assumption that God exists to give us joy in our successes to the recognition that God exists, above all, for his own glory.   (Isaiah 48.11; Isaiah 43.7)  To that end God has called and is sanctifying a people who are becoming vessels of his grace and glory. (Romans 8.29-30)

Now, we realize that win or lose – the athletic equivalent to “plenty” and “need” – God will enable us to continue to mature spiritually.  Unlike in education, poverty does not stunt our growth. Sometimes, in fact poverty (and losing) is the stimulus for growth.

My hope is that more Christians, in athletics and other endeavors, will realize that the promise of Philippians 4.13 is far greater in proper context than extracted from context. While this verse out of context may provide inspiration, this verse in context prompts sanctification.  And while momentary inspiration has it’s place,  sanctification leads to actual glory.

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