Saturday, March 20, 2010

You Can Do It

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 everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4.12-13)

Dismantling the Mantra

Hearing the Bible called “The Good Book” puts me off. It’s not that the colloquialism minimizes the Word’s sacredness. What bothers me about “The Good Book” is its suggestion the Bible is a collection of proverbs and fables, a religious Poor Richard’s Almanac. The phrase usually turns up in sentences beginning with, “Like The Good Book says…” But the Bible wasn’t written so we could pick through it for notable quotes. It was given to teach and enlighten, and when we yank bits and pieces out of context, more often than not we distort—in some cases totally mangle—their intended meaning.

Philippians 4.13 is a classic case in point: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” As an axiom, it says one thing. As Scripture, it says something entirely different. Quoted out of context, it promises unlimited potential through Christ, which is why it’s a favorite mantra of athletes and entrepreneurs, positive thinkers and prosperity preachers. It’s lovely, this notion we can achieve anything we want in partnership with God. Alas, when we replace the verse in its original context, we find Paul’s not talking about achievement at all. He’s discussing adaptability. “I’ve known poverty. I’ve known prosperity. My stomach’s been full. It’s been empty,” he writes. “But I can be content in any and every situation because Christ gives me strength.” Dismantling the mantra strips its pop-friendly optimism and gets down to the nitty-gritty of life. It’s not “nothing’s gonna stop us now.” It’s “you can’t always get what you want, but you’ll get what you need.”


In Jeremiah 32.27, God says, “I am the LORD, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?” As the Creator and Ruler of everything that is, He holds supreme authority, His word is absolute, and His promises are true. In this sense, then, there’s nothing we can face that God can’t remedy, nor anything we can ask that He can’t do. Yet is it not foolish and presumptive to believe we can capitalize on God’s infinite power to realize our ambitions? God isn’t there to do what we want. We’re here to do what He asks. He places in each of us the talent and temperament to accomplish what He created us to do. The reason why we can’t all be millionaires and superstars is because each of us is uniquely suited to serve his/her specific purpose. That’s God’s plan and we should stick with it.

Earlier in his letter, Paul urges the Philippians to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (2.12-13) Before succumbing to the delusion God enables us to do anything we undertake, we might consider His reasons for making us as we are, where we are. Working that out—“with fear and trembling,” placing His will above our wants—initiates a process that leads to “I can do everything.” Fulfilling God’s purpose begins with wholehearted embrace of our making, time, and place—i.e., self-acceptance. Rejecting any aspect of ourselves, especially on the premise it displeases our Maker, is no less dangerous than trying to be more than we are. Both unleash tides of doubt and discontentment that destroy God’s purpose. Once we accept who we are, we’re content knowing God is working His will in us. Anything He asks can be done with confidence in His strength.

Adaptive Obedience

This looks great on paper. Actually implementing it, however, raises questions about what God’s purpose is. While some intuitively know God’s will and others are specifically called for a purpose, the majority of us haven’t a clue why God shaped and placed us as He did. An interim step is needed—an accurate inventory of our talents and skills, passions and proclivities. All of these are tools God hands us to do what He asks. “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us,” Romans 12.6 teaches. “If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith.” An accounting of what we can do leads to discovering what we’re meant to do.

This is where self-acceptance and contentment come in, because knowing who we are and trusting God’s purpose in every circumstance are how we accomplish everything He made us to do. Personal doubts and desires no longer nag at us. We follow lives of adaptive obedience—giving all of ourselves, and using all we’ve been given, to do everything we can in response to our situation. It’s no longer about less or more, too much or not enough. It’s being content to apply our gifts in proportion to our faith—that is, trusting God’s power to accomplish what He selected us to do.

So, who are you? How are you made? Where are you? What’s your situation? What are your tools? What do you bring to life that no one around you has? Answering these questions will define what everything means to you. You’ll be amazed how grand and glorious your “everything” is. You’ll also be concerned it’s too much. But you can do it. You’re made for it. You’ve been placed to do it. You’ve got all you need to get it done. And strength to do it is already yours.

Philippians 4.13 isn’t about accomplishing the impossible. It’s about knowing who we are and adapting to our situations.

Postscript: His Strength is Perfect

Realizing the extent of everything we can do is a humbling experience. We’re fraught with second thoughts about our limitations. But they’re also there by design to create built-in reliance on God’s strength. “His Strength is Perfect,” by Steven Curtis Chapman.


Missy Francis said...

Once again, so spot on all I can do is echo amen.

Sherry Peyton said...

Tim, I always feel so bad for people who buy into the idea that they just have to keep praying for God to give them what they want. Sure, some succeed, and praise God, but the rest are left feeling inadequate and not faithful enough. They blame themselves, wallow in self pity and guilt, and waste time better put to the use for which God intended us. I think you speak so eloquently of the fact that we are not here to achieve our own ends, but God's and our efforts should always be directed toward doing our best in our circumstances. I'm slowly getting that, although I was never a fan of the "ask for it" mentality.

Thanks as always for such great food for thought.

claire said...

Adaptive obedience -- giving all of myself, and using all that I've been given... What a peaceful way of looking at Godde's will, Tim.

For me, it is also being open to what comes to me. Sometimes in the form of dreams, something that energizes me...

Thank you, Tim. Another good post to meditate :-)

Tim said...

Missy, thank you. What a delight to start my work day with you in the "amen corner!"

Sherry, I agree with you regarding people who continue to pray and pray and pray to no avail. In some cases, tenacious prayer is a good thing; it gets us through the waiting period for answer. But sometimes we pray against God's will, and no amount of supplication can change His plan. This is why the first request in The Lord's Prayer is "Your will be done." We were taught always to include that in our prayers, and if what we asked seemed not forthcoming to shift our emphasis to "teach me to accept Your will." This is the Gethsemane lesson, isn't it?

Claire, I also believe dreams and responses are instructive in revealing God's purpose--in part, because the psychology major in me also knows these are the psyche's methods for working out inchoate feelings and thoughts. It is mysterious how a dream or response will come from the blue and put everything together. The ineffable sense of assurance and clarity can be mind-boggling (pun intended).

Thank you all for your gracious comments. You bless everyone here with your wisdom and encouragement.

Joy always,

Edgington said...

The ocean pix is very cool, where did you get it?

Tim said...

Hi, Mariah! I Googled Philippians 4 13 and it surfaced on the second or third page. As I recall, it was one of several posters that visualized favorite verses.

Hope all is well with you and Byron--I'm enjoying the daily quotes at your place!