It is one of the best-known verses in the Bible. It appears on wall art, bumper stickers, social media profiles and even tattoos. But we usually misinterpret it.
Philippians 4:13 is not about personal empowerment. It is not a promise that you can become anything you want when you grow up if you want it badly enough. It certainly isn’t assurance that you’ll win an athletic contest or find success in your job. Quite the opposite is the case. In Philippians 4:13, the Apostle Paul models contentment in whatever circumstances he finds himself, whether things are going well or poorly. Moreover, the focus of this verse isn’t on you or me … or Paul for that matter. The focus is on Christ who strengthens for contentment.
How do I know that contentment in any situation is the central issue in Philippians 4:13 rather than empowerment? Look at the verses that come just before (and pay attention to the words highlighted in italics): “… I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Phil. 4:11-12).
It is only after Paul writes about contentment despite circumstances that he pens the words: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).
That Paul is writing about non-circumstantial contentment in this well-known verse is confirmed by the following verse: “Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble” (Phil 4:14). Paul thanks the Philippians for sharing his sufferings through financial aid. He is chained to a guard and needs external aid to provide food and clothing. Philippians 4:13, thus, cannot be about personal success; it must be about contentment despite one’s circumstances, even if those circumstances include chains.
What Paul intends to say, then, is that through Christ he can be content despite his circumstances. No matter how hard it gets. No matter whether things are going swimmingly (as my English friends sometimes say) or kinda’ stink (as we sometimes say in America). Paul is content. You can be, too — regardless of your circumstances.
But where does such contentment come from? This is a deeply personal question since many of us struggle with contentment. I know I sometimes do. When things are hard, I long for escape. When things are OK, I wish they were better. When things are good, I want them to be great; good isn’t enough for me. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this discontent?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! The only way … the only way … to break free from the incessant desire for better and more, from the constant longing for comfort and ease, is “through him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). What an astounding faith affirmation! As we depend upon Christ, whether our circumstances are easy or hard, Christ strengthens us to persist and persevere, to rest and rejoice, to be constant and content.
Precious brother or sister, is your life marked by contentment? Is rest and trust — whatever the circumstances — a defining characteristic of your life? Have you learned to be content regardless of the circumstances?
If you sense that God is calling you into a deeper life of contentment, let me encourage you to start leaning into the truth of your inChristness. You can only move toward profound contentment during the ups and downs of life when you focus on the truth that when you came to Christ you were united with Christ. You will discover strength from Christ to be content, despite your circumstances, as you deeply rest in the truth that no matter what happens, you are in Christ.
This post is reading #63, “Contentment through Christ” in my devotional book, How to Live an ‘In Christ’ Life: 100 Devotional Readings on Union with Christ. Every devotional reading in this book is two pages long. My goal in writing this book is to take a theologically deep concept (union with Christ), and turn it into application. Hopefully, you’ll find the book spiritually enriching.
This post and other resources are available at Kindle Afresh: The Blog and Website of Kenneth Berding.