By the time priests, pastors and Christian counsellors reach their 60s, chances are that they’ve used Philippians 4:13 hundreds of times in public proclamation and private encouragement, and also as something to hang on to in their own times of stress and discouragement. I know that I have.
It was also the favourite text of the great evangelical anglo-catholic Archbishop Philip Strong who proclaimed the Gospel in Papua New Guines during wartime and peace. It is written in big letters on his gravestone in Wangaratta cemetery (in Australia)!
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (RSV)
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (NKJV)
“There is nothing I cannot do in the One who strengthens me.” (Jerusalem Bible)
One of the most startling reflections on this text is in “The Most Misused Verses in the Bible,’ by Eric Bargerhuff, who points out that the way many preachers isolate it from the drift of St Paul’s letter twists it to say something quite different to what the apostle wrote.
The “prosperity preachers” have a lot to answer for. They have taught people - using this text and others like it - that the closer they are to Jesus the more stuff they will have . . . the richer they will be . . . with bigger houses, better cars, flamboyant lifestyles . . . and so it goes on. For everyone who is blessed by their strange doctrine, there are hundreds of casualties, spiritually, emotionally, and - quite often - financially (including people who have gone into debt to send money off to these “ministries” with the expectation of becoming financially wealthy themselves as a “reward” from God!).
There is something grotesque about an evangelist boasting of how he “believed God” for a fancy car, a personal aeroplane, or a big house at the posh end of town, implying that God so approved of his ministry as to move the hearts of supporters to increase their giving and supply those “needs.” How does that stack up against our brothers and sisters whose faith leads to persecution, poverty and even bloody martyrdom in the Middle East, Egypt, Nigeria and other places? How does it stack up against nuns who have given up everything and live in poverty themselves, trusting the Lord for his provision, and caring for the destitute in the slums of India?
For me, the real problem with the “prosperity gospel” preachers is that they cause a lot of people to go to the opposite extreme and NEVER really trust the Lord in any meaningful way for his provision. That is a real tragedy, because we should be relying more and more on him. But the same thing happens in the area of healing. Some evangelists tell people that psychologists or medications are not necessary (and even a sign of lack of faith!), with the result that lives are destroyed, and people’s confidence in the Church’s authentic healing ministry is undermined.
Of course, Philippians 4:13 is about God’s provision. But to read it in the flow of St Paul’s letter, it’s really all about God helping him to be content, whatever the outward circumstances of his life. And St Paul says that. Sometimes he’s been really well-off; other times he has been desperately poor. But he is content. St Paul’s paragraph is about contentment with what we have and where we are, and this is something he says he has found “in Christ.” And, remember, when he wrote this passage he was in prison!
So, let’s try to be a bit careful when handling the Word of God. Let’s not twist it or water it down. Let’s not try to make it mean what we want it to mean. Let’s be in awe of the Word of God, and remember the catchy saying that “a text without a context is a pretext.”
The image below (pinched from Facebook - the original source is lost) says it all:
(Click on the graphic to enlarge it.)