Wednesday, July 14, 2021

A Verse Most Loved, Most Used, Most Misused...

Dear Friends,

For Christmas in 1997, my mom gave me a boxed set of the first three Mitford books and during that Christmas vacation I read all three back to back. Father Tim is an Episcopal priest living in the fictitious North Carolina mountain community of Mitford. This highly likable priest and the town of fascinating characters keep us engaged as the author folds back their lives to reveal their struggles, flaws, victories and faith journeys. With a strong Christian theme, the Mitford books subtly weave theology and the Gospel message into this seven novel series, but the books never preach about how to live a Christian life, they just show us how a Christian life is lived. As the characters experience the typical hardships and uncertainties in life, they are often reminded by Father Tim to hold onto Paul’s statement that, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13 It would be difficult to read the Mitford books and not come away with an infusion of encouragement and hope in any circumstance we might be facing.

In “Girl Meets God,” Lauren F. Winner described herself as a devout Orthodox Jew and bookworm intellectual who came across the Mitford books as a young lady and found herself longing for the Christian life as portrayed in the books. She was overwhelmed by the truth and promise of Philippians 4:13 and fell in love with a Christ (Messiah) who would give her that strength and hope. Her journey toward the Gospel truth started in the pages of these Mitford books and today she’s a professor of Christian Spirituality at Duke Divinity School and an ordained Episcopal priest. 

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and I would suspect that many believers have used this verse as a lifesaver when it feels like we’re at the end of our rope and barely hanging on. We can find this popular verse on wall plaques, coffee cups, tee shirts and bumper stickers and we’re encouraged by this biblical truth. But too often we’ve taken it out of context to “proof-text” an unbiblical concept such as prosperity theology. No..we can’t do all things. I can’t be President of the United States, become a billionaire or fly like Superman. Perhaps you can’t either. 

Context is absolutely vital to an authentic, Biblically-sound interpretation of God’s Word and there are three aspects of context when interpreting scripture: the book (in this case, Philippians), the verses immediately preceding and the verses immediately following. Paul is in prison and the Philippian church sent him a gift. His response is to write a letter to exhort them for a few things, thank them for their gift and for their concern for him while he is in prison. Always the preacher, Paul uses the horrible and discouraging conditions of imprisonment to teach an application of the spirit-filled life. Let’s now read Philippians 4:13 in the context of the preceding and following verses:

“How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn’t have the chance to help me. Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. Even so, you have done well to share with me in my present difficulty.” Philippians 4:10-14 NLT

Many Christians have misused this verse and believe it as: “Through the strength of Christ, I am physically and spiritually empowered to do anything and everything I want to do.” But Paul is saying, “I can live in either humble means with great need or I can live in prosperity through Christ who strengthens me, and because of Him, I can be content in whatever circumstances I am in.” 

Because of Christ Jesus, Paul is content when he’s hungry, in jail, on the road – cold, dirty, in the rain, laughed at, spit at, beaten, and falsely prosecuted. At the same time, when Paul is abounding in life, receiving all that he desires, when he’s prosperous with a full stomach, when he’s sitting by a warm fire, healthy and with money in his pocket – he can simply be content with that too and not become prideful about what he has. Paul remains content when times are good by knowing that all good things come from God and that knowledge keeps him from becoming self-sufficient and self-reliant. Like Paul, we can survive our own good times because Christ Jesus strengthens our humble hearts and keeps us real. 

You and I got through Covid because of Christ Jesus who strengthened us. Hang on tightly to Philippians 4:13, memorize it and encourage yourself with it. Jesus will give you the strength to survive whatever life has thrown at you, and in the most difficult of circumstances, His Word gives you a Biblical perspective of hope for our future and the spiritual contentment that we all long for. And this verse of encouragement is not just for you and me. One of the endearing things about the fictitious town of Mitford was how often Father Tim and the town people would often use this verse to lift up and encourage others, even strangers. 

Some Christians have heard others, even preachers, use this verse out of context, and thus through no fault of their own, believe that it means more than God ever intended it to mean. But when we truly understand its meaning, the beauty of God’s Word is revealed to us in all its glory. God is promising us that in all of our good and all of our bad circumstances, Jesus is right there by our side giving us His strength. Without Jesus, our circumstances can lift us up one minute and flatten us the next. With Jesus, we can find His peace and contentment in all that life brings to us.

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