The Apostle Paul wrote, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). There’s no way he could have anticipated how those words would later be used. Printed on bumper stickers for aspiring marathoners; a benediction for victors of a football game; inscribed on the shirt of a middle-aged man attempting to reclaim his lost youth in the weight room. I don’t think this is what Paul had in mind.
The Apostle was talking about contentment, not accomplishment, borrowing an idea from the Greek Stoics. The only way one could be happy, per Stoic thought, was to rely upon nothing and no one. This was Stoicism’s highest ideal, and you have to admit that they were on to something. If you didn’t need someone else’s money, protection, or affection, if you could be free of all fear, expectations, and emotional hostage-holding, you would be truly liberated.
Thus, Paul and the Stoics both agree that a determined, “Can Do” attitude of self-sufficiency can lead to an extraordinary level of personal contentment. But they disagree on how to get there. The Stoic path was one of perfect detachment and internal strength, self-control, and fortitude. Paul offered a different path; not an “I Can Do” attitude, but a “He Can Do” submission. That is the context for his mantra, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”
No, this isn’t about overcoming, but accepting. It’s not a call to Stoic-like effort, rather, it is positioning one’s self to receive the strength that Christ offers. Contentment is not the result of trying harder, no matter what the Stoics or iron-pumping athletes might say. It is the result of relying upon a Power greater than yourself.
This is why Paul’s words are often so grotesquely misappropriated. They are used as a form of defiance against the odds, used to magically conjure up our personal strength when we have none left, making us try harder, go farther, endure longer, and never surrender until we are victorious. This is the exact opposite of what Paul was saying. It is only in surrender, the surrender of our own power, that the power of Christ can be ours.
Tireless self-sufficiency will take you far in life, but to be genuinely content, and genuinely powerful, it won’t take more but less—less of yourself and more of Jesus.
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.net.