The Superman Verse—- Phil. 4.13 and what it does not mean

We’ve all seen the T shirts, and the T-bow eye black touting Phil. 4.13. And the translation always is ‘I can do all things in Him who strengthens me’. Leap tall buildings in a single bound, overcome all odds, go boldly where no one has gone before. You get the picture.

The problem is, that this translation absolutely makes no sense of the context, and is not a literal rendering of the verse in question at all. The verb ‘to do’ is nowhere to be found in this Greek verse. The verb ‘ischuo’ means ‘to be able, strong, healthy, valid, powerful’. That’s the only verb in this phrase. You have to fill in the helping verb, and the context absolutely doesn’t favor the translation— ‘to do’ as in ‘I am able to do all things….’ Not at all. Here is a rendering of the verse in context.

“I know a humbled state, and I know also surplus. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of how to be satisfied, even if hungry and being able also to do without. I am able/strong enough [to endure] all things in Him who empowers me.”

What Paul is saying is that no matter what his circumstances, God has given him the strength or ability to endure and be satisfied, even when he must do without, even when he must go hungry.

This verse has nothing to do with ‘I can accomplish anything with a little help from the Lord’. It is a verse about perseverance in God’s will and way, not about personal success or triumph or even overcoming odds to win an individual victory of some kind. And most emphatically it is not about God helping us achieve our desires and goals. It is about Paul submitting to God’s goals and plan, and God giving him the strength to do so, even when he must endure house arrest (as he did when he wrote this), and hunger, and deprivation.

The ‘superman’ rendering of this verse is all too typically American. It is based on an assumption that we can accomplish anything we set our minds to, perhaps with a little help from above and a little luck.

Actually, this is not how the world works. We are not in charge, we are not the masters of our own fate and the captain’s of our own souls and lives. God did not die and leave us boss of the universe.

If we are Christians, Christ is our Lord, and we are bought with a price. It’s not about our dreams, our goals, our agendas, and getting God to assist us with them. It’s about Christians like Paul doing God’s will, working out God’s salvation plan, even when it involves suffering, and loss, and hunger, and the like. Paul says bravely– ‘I can endure anything the world throws at me, in Him who strengthens me’. Elsewhere we read ‘greater is he who is in us, than any of the forces in the world’. This is certainly true, but it has nothing to do with the American success syndrome or our accomplishing our individual selfish goals and dreams in life. Nothing.

Think on these things.

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  • Dennis

    thank you! this is a great pastoral word. I recently finished a preaching series through the book of Philippians and felt the need to deal with an appropriate understanding of 4:13

  • Steve Harper

    Thanks, Ben, for this helpful clarification of a much misunderstood verse. This is one place where Peterson gets it right in The Message: “Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.”

  • Lori Broschat

    I appreciate this so much, and I wonder why no one has come forward before to exegete this properly and prevent it from becoming t-shirt lheology.

  • Harold Crosby

    Would you agree, then, with the rendering of 4:13 in the TNIV/NIV2011: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”? This seems to refer specifically to the conditions listed in the previous verse though one could, I think, easily extrapolate a greater range of conditions without turning it into a carte blanche. I like this rendering which seems to do a much better job of transmitting the meaning you give. (I can’t abide the older rendering anymore. Another reason for people to put the old NIV84 on the shelf.)

  • Ben Witherington

    It’s o.k. but not as clear as I would like it. BW3

  • MIke Taylor

    Amen, brother. With the Lord’s help, we can endure and fulfill His will. What more could a Christian want?

  • Mlkehoe

    I love this verse. After my recent sojourn in an ExecuStay after a tree destroyed part of my home, I can say with confidence that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me to the task. At my tender age with arthritis I moved my business into the apartment and taught for six weeks…taking a new young new student successfully. Now back at home, I continue with fall semester. With courage I will attend my fall conference!

  • Drane

    Nice work, Ben.

  • Sidney Schandorf

    Thanks Uncle Ben. The 2011 NIV translates it I can do ALL THIS through Christ. I find this accurate in so far as this refers to verse 12. Thanks God for the reassurance of something I felt burning in my heart. Oh for grace to learn as Paul did