Since the autumn season is also one that means new beginnings to many of us – the fall semester is usually the first semester of most school years in North America; churches begin offering programs again as the regular volunteers return from their summer vacations; and for some of us, it may mean the beginning of a new career or job, especially as our summer jobs come to an end. And who wouldn’t want to, with the crisp fall air and the amazing array of colors all around us? Either which way, the fall season is seen as a time of new beginning.
You may be asking yourselves what that has to do with the Bible, or with verses taken out of context. In a lot of ways, it doesn’t directly. However, if there is one verse that is often seen around this time of year, it would be this one:
“I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13, NIV)
OUT OF CONTEXT MEANING:
The meaning of this when taken out of context can seem rather encouraging on the surface… Have a difficult exam in a few days that you need to pass, or you fail the class? I can do all things. Competing for your dream job? I can do all things. Your team really needs to win the next game? I can do all things. You see a beautiful young woman across the room, but you don’t know how to talk to her? I can do all things. Never tried skydiving or bungee jumping? I can do all things. You really need that promotion at work? I can do all things.
DANGERS OF READING OUT OF CONTEXT:
In other words, we assume that this verse is saying that God will give us the ability to accomplish anything, and will bless anything we set our minds to doing. Yes, very encouraging, and very American. After all, it can be read as a version of the American Dream – or Canadian Dream, if you live in Canada, like I do. But does American (or Canadian) mean Christian? Not necessarily. As you may have been seeing in this series so far, and will continue to see as the series continues, some of our North American values actually contradict what the Bible has to say, sometimes even with these verses and images that we are looking at together.
For instance, since we are Christians who believe the promises of the Bible (some even “claiming” the promise, which is why the American-born Prosperity gospel has also been nicknamed the “Name it and Claim it gospel” in some circles), one would think then that the promises that the Bible makes are trustworthy; otherwise, the trustworthiness of what the rest of the Bible says is also brought into question. It is for this reason that the Prosperity gospel can be seen as very pragmatic because its central question seems to be asking “what can I get out of this?”
But what happens if you don’t get that promotion? Or because you didn’t study, you fail the exam (despite how many times you “claimed” this verse)? Or despite playing your hardest, the other team still won the game? Or that young woman’s much bigger and much better looking boyfriend shows up? Does that mean that you didn’t believe the promise hard enough? Does it mean that God didn’t give you any strength after all, or at least not enough strength, and so this proves that the promises of the Bible are not to be trusted, or that God is powerless to keep his promises?
Not in the least! Rather, this is yet another example of misreading – and misquoting – a verse that was actually saying something else entirely (and promising something else, if you really want to keep your pragmatism).
THE ORIGINAL CONTEXT:
The curious part about our modern tendency to pull texts out of context actually comes from an earlier attempt to find texts easier and quicker. In fact, the chapters of our Bibles were only developed in the 13th century and the first Bible to use them was the Wycliffe English translation. The verses came later, the Old Testament in 1447 by a Jewish Rabbi named Nathan, and the New Testament in 1551 by Robert Estienne, a French printer and scholar, also known as Robert Stephanus. Before this point, there were no chapter and verse divisions in the Christian Bible.
Another thing to make note of (the same with the rest of this series) is the genre of literature that we are dealing with. Unlike certain holy books of other religions, such as the Quran for the Muslims or the Guru Granth Sahib for the Sikhs, the Christian Bible is actually an anthology, a collection of shorter manuscripts, each with its own genre. In the case of the verse we are looking at here, it is actually part of an epistle – an official letter sent from someone with authority that is addressed to a specific group of people, and that is addressing the situation of those receiving the letter. So, to more accurately interpret what the verse would mean for us today, we also need to ask the question of what it would have meant to the original audience. Once we do that, we may have a better picture of what it would mean to us today, because as Christians, we believe that the parts of the Bible, while originally written for specific audiences, also have something to say to us today as well. The task that I am talking about here in this column is a task that experts call “exegesis” (meaning to read the original meaning from a text), and it is important because it helps us discern what the Bible does say to us, as opposed to what it is not really saying, but that our traditional or cultural bias wants it to say.
In this case, it is the apostle Paul, who is writing to one of the churches he had established as an apostle (which, to use more modern-speak, an apostle is a missionary who starts new churches – more on that another time). The church is located in the Roman colony of Philippi, and Paul is writing while imprisoned in Rome. Part of the purpose of this letter (which has a lot to do with our verse in question) was to thank the Philippian Christians for their generous gifts that they sent with Epaphroditus, one of the members of their church, and for their concern about his present circumstances.
Here is the verse in its original context (v. 10-19). For the sake of what we are talking about, I have removed the verse numbers, to help us better read it in its original context:
I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through him who gives me strength.
Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need. Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account. I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. (New International Version)
HOW CAN WE REALLY APPLY THIS VERSE?
As we can see, it isn’t really saying, or promising, that God will bless everything that we set our minds to. Rather, Paul was reassuring the Christians in Philippi by declaring that God had given him strength and inner peace to endure whatever situation life threw at him, whether it was a time of comfort or a time of difficulty, whether having everything he could possibly desire or facing great need and hunger, whether surrounded by friends and popularity, or being forced to stand alone. And if we were to look at all that Paul had endured since declaring himself a Christian, it’s nothing to take lightly. He was been beaten, whipped, chased out of town, shipwrecked, jailed (at least twice), stoned (having rocks thrown at him); he faced deadly sickness, homelessness, poverty, angry mobs, scoffing derision, as well as the pleasures of friendship and successes in his work. Likewise, if we look to Paul’s example, we could also see that God could give us the same strength to endure these challenges.
Also included in this is the idea of contentedness, which actually corrects our very human tendency to always want more, bigger, and better (which is a huge part of the North American dream that I was talking about earlier). Being content means that you are happy (and grateful) for what God has already given you and that you are not grumbling or complaining about how you are never happy because you don’t have the shiny new toy that your neighbor has. Which actually brings up the curious irony of Thanksgiving. Admittedly, it isn’t as obvious with Canadian Thanksgiving, as ours is earlier (the second weekend of October), but have you ever noticed that on the day after the American Thanksgiving, which has traditionally been a day of giving thanks for all that God has given you and showing contentment, is Black Friday, a day of ultimate consumerism and “Get out of my way, or I will punch you and kick you because I NEED this package of socks!!!” I don’t know about you, but I find the irony of these two contradictory days right next to each other to be quite hilarious. But getting back to seriousness for a moment… what would being content in all circumstances look like in this circumstance? What would being able to face all circumstances, whether luxury or need, sickness or health, happy times or sad times, look like in the midst of this?
In a way, it reminds me of marriage vows – promises to remain faithful to your husband or wife through every season of life, even those when everyone around you is telling you to give up on the idea of faithful, life-long monogamous marriage (usually during those times when you aren’t feeling very loved by your spouse). After all, why not “upgrade” to something better? And let’s face it – many have given up on the idea, and many others, even though they remain married on paper, have given up on any sense of intimacy in their marriage. That’s not to blame them. Yes, marriage can be difficult. But to use Paul’s argument – you can face it, you can endure it, the bad times as well as the good, because of Christ, who gives you strength.
In fact, we could expand this idea to other life situations also. Let’s say you are tempted to give up on your studies because you feel that your current classes are too difficult, even though you need these classes (and this program of study) to achieve your dream at the end. In this case, stating that you can do all things means not giving up, but trusting in God to give you the strength to endure. Or let’s say that you signed a contract to work at a certain job for a year, but you have entered a difficult patch and you are tempted to leave your contract early. Once again, because you have given your word by signing that contract, it is important that you stay with it for the sake of your own sense of integrity, if nothing else (especially if it’s known that you are a Christian). In this kind of situation, we can trust in Jesus to give you the strength to get through this difficult season to finish the contract well.
Or, to make it a direct parallel to the verse in question, let’s say that you are travelling in a country or you become employed in an environment that is hostile to Christianity, and your Christian faith is discovered and you are pressured to abandon your faith in Jesus. It can be through direct persecution, like being thrown into prison, tortured, or threatened at gunpoint, or indirect, like being passed up for promotions, or having your home vandalized, or hateful comments directed at you (or behind your back in workplace gossip), or the intentional sabotage of your projects, or mockery for your faith and clean lifestyle. See, in a way, this is where the rubber hits the road, and it is in these times when you need to trust in declarations like these and make them your own, trusting that Jesus will give you the strength and inner peace to endure these circumstances for the sake of your faith. And you know what? He will.