Philippians is one of Paul’s prison letters. He wrote it about a decade after his first visit to the ancient city. A lot had happened in Paul’s life. A lot of
hardships and a lot of struggles, sometimes with no one to help him. The Philippians had been his partners through thick and thin. They had recently shown their affection for him with a financial contribution. This was a thank you letter and you could see the apostle’s gratitude and delight for their enduring friendship and support. Compared with his other letters you could see there was clearly a different tone from the anxiety and debate that were often characteristic of his correspondences. Paul was careful to explain in the fourth chapter that he received their gift not because they were obligated to do so or that he demanded it. He noted that no other churches in the area helped him in the past when he needed it accept them and he was alright with it. As a grizzled veteran minister of the gospel he knew how to handle abundance and comfort but also how to weather lack and adversity. It is at this point that he explains the secret to his contentment no matter the circumstance.
I can do all things through who Christ who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:13
Even at that moment in time, he faced the distinct possibility of death even though he was confident it would not go that way. All these troubles did not faze him because dead or alive he was for the Messiah Jesus. He had an enduring hope in the resurrection which gave him the character to face all odds.
Paul in Philippians 4:13 was saying no matter what circumstance he was in, he could fulfill what God had called him to do. This verse is constantly being abused by being taken out of context and being turned into a motivational self-help slogan. It is not about Jesus giving you superpowers to accomplish what you want. It is about him equipping you with hope and endurance through prosperity and adversity to do what he wants. Philippians 4:13 is Jesus’s centred not me centred.
This is a part of a larger hermeneutical epidemic among Christians who quote mine their Bible to satisfy their personal agenda. A common symptom of this, one you can always check for, is ignorance. The individual has no knowledge of the context surrounding the popular verse. He doesn’t know what is going on in the verses above and below, or the chapter, or the book. The visible sign of this is that they never quote more than that line. One might argue the New Testament does exactly the same thing with how it is uses the Old Testament. On closer examination this is not the case. Professor Richard Hays of Duke University has done important work on this. For one, whenever it quotes it is always drawing on the larger narrative and not fishing for soundbites. In fact if you don’t look at it that way, the New Testament becomes very difficult to understand.
Someone might then ask, “Is it not OK to seek motivation from the Bible?” Of course not but if the Bible is the word or God it should motivate you to do what he wants and not what you want. Does God want you to excel in your profession? Of course he does but that does not give us the right to mercilessly butcher the text to get our own chunk out of it. Vocation is a very important theme in the Bible and God wants people to work as stewards over his creation, representing his rule on earth. The motivation to work and do other things in this world must be framed within the narrative of God’s word and not our personal ambition. This goes to a deeper need for us to have everything surrendered as a sacrifice before him, including our drives and ambitions.
This all requires us taking our Bible’s more seriously, not cursorily glossing through, skipping to our favourite parts. I think our nonchalance betrays an even greater fear: taking our faith seriously. We want to do just enough to slip within the gates of heaven but not disturb our private plans to achieve this and that in the world. We fear taking our faith seriously means we would disengage from the real world and have to deal regularly with an unruly congregation or be sent out into some remote village, far from all we know and love, far from our very selves. This is not the case at all. The apostolic mission is to be in the world, to be thoroughly integrated and immersed in it just as God incarnate was.
The truth is most of us will not be called to the rigours of pastoral ministry but beyond the Sunday service who will be the pastor to the unchurched? God wants you wherever you are to be the light, the shining example that leads the way. If you are not where you are supposed to be, the maker of the heavens and the earth is thoroughly capable of letting you know. It is high time we take God’s motivations and ambitions as our own and be completely overwhelmed by them, no matter where we find ourselves.