Philippians 4:13 may be the poster child for fortune cookie Christianity. If it’s not the poster child, it’s definitely battling for the top spot in the Youth Group T-shirt Contest with “I know the plans I have for you” and “All things work together for good.”
Let me just say up front that I don’t think that all popular verses are misused or taken out of context. I would argue that most verses mean pretty much what they say, though understanding things like context and culture can make a huge difference when we try to move verses into 21st century America, or try to move ourselves back into ancient Palestine.
The Psalms were intentionally designed for time travel. Sure, context still matters, but unlike other parts of Scripture, the psalmists of ancient Israel were sort of like the worship leaders and devotional writers of today, inviting God’s people to enter into the text and claim the pronouns for themselves.
Psalm 51 is a great example. We know that this was written by David after he slept with a married woman and murdered her husband. How’s that for context? We also know that David wrote, “take not your Holy Spirit from me” at a time before Pentecost, a time after he had personally seen the Holy Spirit taken away from Saul because of sin.
But David’s words were not stolen from his private diary and sold on the antiquities market. They were recorded and shared for the benefit of everyone, and I am personally grateful. David’s confession allows each of us to resonate with phrases like, “against You, and You alone, have I sinned,” and “let the bones you have crushed rejoice,” and “create in me a clean heart, O God.” Beautiful stuff.
However, using the Psalms in this way does not give Christians a license to hopscotch through the rest of Scripture, claiming verses, shoving ourselves into the context, and stitching encouraging phrases together like some hope-inducing, fear-stifling Jesus quilt.
Let’s take Philippians 4:13 as an example of how not to use Scripture:
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Here is how my high school self would have paraphrased this verse: No matter where my life takes me, no matter what God asks me to do, God can make it happen.
I was never foolish enough to believe that “all things” meant reading minds or becoming an NBA superstar or being able to climb Mount Everest while juggling pregnant tarantulas. I realized that I could never actually control Christ’s strengthening power. Christ is a person, with a heart, mind and will of his own. He’s not some kind of spiritual jetpack.
But even though my theology was consistent with other parts of Scripture, affirming that “with God all things are possible,” resonating with plenty of Biblical stories, I did not actually understand Philippians 4:13 the way Paul wrote it.
Here is the context of that passage in the New King James:
I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Funny how context can seem to reshape the words. In this context, strength has to do with perseverance, not power. “All things” has to do with circumstances, not accomplishments. Paul’s goal is contentment, not achievement.
Knowing the context, my middle-aged self would look at my teenage self and re-paraphrase: Life with Christ can be a lot like a marriage—for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health—but Christ can give me the strength to endure the highs and lows, keeping my vision clear.
Can I still put Philippians 4:13 on a T-shirt? Absolutely. Paul is not talking about something that is too personal to be shared. Our highs might not get us to the third heaven, like Paul [II Cor. 12:2], and we may not end up as low as being stranded in the ocean after a third shipwreck [II Cor. 11:25], but we can certainly relate to the sentiment.
Just promise me that when you design the T-shirts, you don’t put Philippians 4:13 inside the picture of a flaming jetpack. If I see that shirt, I’m calling the fortune-cookie Christianity police.
And, yes, I know the number: JER-2911.