At some point, we have all probably quoted this verse to encourage ourselves:
I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me. (Phil. 4:13)
We might have mis-quoted it, too. The context of this passage is not declaring the ability to do anything you want to do, but the ability to handle what God wants you to do:
…for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know both how to have a little, and I know how to have a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content — whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. (4:11b-12)
The context reveals that contentment, not abundance, is the goal for the Christian (and is honestly the more impressive trait anyway).
So if you ever launched out on some project without consulting God, then wondered why it faceplanted even though you read this verse, that might be your explanation: the verse doesn’t suggest you can do just anything. It’s about glorifying God, both his power in you and his purposes for you (desirable or otherwise).
But you know what gets me about this verse?
The idea that you would have to be content in abundance.
Because the verse implies that Paul needed contentment in both abundance and need.
Like, why on earth would Paul need contentment in abundance? I ask myself. You’d think that’s where you wouldn’t need contentment. Just sit back and enjoy the good life, for as long as it lasts.
But Paul experiences otherwise, and it seems to suggests two things.
One has to do with that pesky “as long as it lasts” tag: the good life is not entrenched. Fortunes come and go, sometimes triggered by the most trivial and frustrating events. Jesus had some bad news for the guy in Luke 12 who upgraded his barns and decided to eat, drink, and be merry. All things in this life are transitory.
And that leads to the second truth: abundance does not bring contentment. Anyone who thinks it does, has probably never had abundance. Or has taken it for granted.
When I worked on the reservation years ago, many of my students had their eyes fixed unwaveringly on attaining abundance. Get more money, they reasoned, and life would be better. They weren’t entirely wrong. Poverty was a real problem and causing genuine pain in their lives. I could sympathize; there had been a time when I, too, was living paycheck to paycheck.
But having come from off the reservation where the median income was higher, I could tell my students that being better off wasn’t making anyone particularly happy. It just made you want more. Get a nice middle-class home and your middle-class conversations shift to how awesome those big homes up on the hill must be. Attain that level and the conversations turn to the architecturally fancy mansions up on the mountain. Each step you take up the socioeconomic ladder, you build a lifestyle that sucks up everything you have. And on and on it goes. Someone’s always got a bigger boat.
Paul could have been talking about either one of these things when he referenced having to be content, of all things, in all things. You either want more, or you end up tightening your grip on what you have, out of worry.
I want neither existence. Chasings after the wind, both of them. I want peace today, and God. More of him. Paul got that, and he spends his epistles swearing up and down that it’s the best thing ever.
If wealth increases, pay no attention to it. (Psalm 62:10b)
Today, if you’re having trouble being grateful for what you have, I heard a question once that rocked my world: “What would you lose if God were to remove everything from your life tomorrow that you hadn’t given thanks for today?”