Philippians 4:13 is Not About Your Life Goals

Philippians 4:13 is Not About Your Life Goals February 25, 2020

Philippians 4:13 is likely one of the most misquoted, misapplied, and misunderstood passages within the New Testament. Suffice it to say, it is not about how one can literally do anything they put their minds to simply because they are in Christ. Paul has a specific context in mind here—and it is not about attaining your personal goals and aspirations, developing a healthy conception of self-worth, nor is it designed to be a coping mechanism to deal with the grit and grime of life. Truthfully, the passage isn’t even about finding the secret of contentment in all things, despite insistence from many that this is the focal point of this passage. This interpretation has more validity to it owing to vv. 11-12, as Paul undoubtedly affirms learning contentment in all circumstances. However, the overarching point of Paul to the Philippians in this passage is not contentment, but one of enduring through suffering, particularly, a suffering brought on through no fault of their own.

The Letter to the Philippians is one of Paul’s epistles written from prison, which means that as he pens this letter, he is chained to a Roman guard waiting for his trial before Caesar (Phil. 1:7, 13-14, 17; Acts 28:16). Under these conditions, the Philippians sought to minister to the apostle by providing for him financially (4:10, 15-18). In his return correspondence, Paul responds with careful consideration toward their generosity, yet with some back-and-forth as he expresses his ability to live within both humble and prosperous times. In the midst of Paul’s expression of gratitude, he takes the opportunity to encourage his people that Christ Himself is the source of all comfort, hope, and faith. The simple reason why Paul encourages them in this manner is they have been appointed, not only to eternal life, but to suffer for the sake of Christ, which in particular for them means they will experience the same things Paul has (Phil. 1:29-30). To this end, it is likely that Paul is referring not only to being jailed for Christ’s sake, but to enduring through physical persecution (2 Cor. 11:23-27). It is in light of this that Paul then ministers to those in Philippi by highlighting the hope of the gospel, the resurrection, and the object of their faith: Jesus Christ.

This is Paul’s ultimate message, one wherein he resoundingly brings the focus back upon Christ because Christ is the means by which Paul, in his own weaknesses and sufferings, has been strengthened, supported, contented, and caused to remain standing. So too, Christ must be the means by which the Philippians will be strengthened, supported, contented, and remain standing (Phil. 1:27-28). Thus, Paul’s secret here is not in learning about contentment, but dependence upon the One who is all-sufficient and provides for his every need. In other words, things for Paul do not terminate in finding contentment, they terminate in the fact that to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21). For Paul, his lifeblood is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and this is ultimately the focus of his words when he says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Why? Paul is dealing with the content of what he has said thus far in the letter; dependence upon Christ under any circumstance is what produced contentment in Paul—and yet contentment is not the thing Paul brings to a burning focus for the Philippians. Contentment is the fruit, not the root.

In other words, it was not ultimately contentment which Paul lacked, but that which produces contentment, namely, the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:8). It is through this knowledge of Christ that Paul is able to count all things as loss, but notice that it is for the explicit purpose of gaining Christ and being found in Him (v. 8-9). Paul defines being found in Christ as having an alien righteousness that comes through faith in Him (v. 9), again, with a second purpose clause: that Paul might know the Christ and the power of His resurrection and share in His sufferings (v. 10). What does sharing in Christ’s sufferings look like for the apostle? Conformity to Christ’s death (v. 10)—but see again that it has an explicit purpose found in v. 11, which is that by sharing in Christ’s sufferings, even unto death, he is made to share in Christ’s resurrection from the dead. In other words: Paul’s knowledge of Christ that causes him to count all things as loss is the beautiful gospel of grace itself. This is what allows him to persevere in the midst of his sufferings with the ultimate prize in mind, which is that he is going to be raised with Christ (v. 12-14). Paul likewise calls them to follow in his example, focusing on their heavenly citizenship and future glorification in Christ (Phil. 3:17-4:1).

This is particularly why Paul urges Euodia and Syntyche to live in harmony in the Lord, and gives the rapid succession of commands in chapter 4 that the Philippians:

  • Rejoice in the Lord (v. 4)
  • Let your gentle spirit be known to all men (v. 5)
  • Be anxious for nothing (v. 6)
  • Let your requests be made known (v. 6)
  • Dwell on these things (v. 8, speaking of the honorable, right, pure, lovely, etc.)
  • Practice these things (v. 9, speaking of everything Paul has taught and modeled)

The result of being found obedient to these commands is twofold: the peace of God will guard their hearts and minds in Christ, and the God of peace Himself will be with them in the midst of their trials (vv. 7, 9). What that means is that their obedience to these commands is what will produce the peace of God in them, and the means by which they will recognize His presence. Paul reassures the Philippians that they can endure through the sufferings to come because Christ Himself is the source of their comfort, hope, and ultimately, their faith. God Himself will take careful measures to protect their hearts and minds, and His presence will be intimately known in the midst of their sufferings. In other words, they won’t be going through persecution alone.

Their God will be in their midst, protecting them, shielding them, and caring for them in a manner that causes them to endure through the fiery trials that await them. For a church that has been promised they will also find themselves in chains, just as Paul has, this is a much needed word of comfort and hope. Couple this with Paul’s continual focus on the empowerment of Christ, the surpassing worth of Christ, the hope of the resurrection, and the call toward faithfulness in all things, both doctrinally and morally—and the letter is incredibly pastoral. Paul is not writing to the church at Philippi due to some grand failure, but to remind them of the incredible joy found in Christ and Christ alone, even in the midst of incredible, forthcoming hardship for His sake.

The thing that is rather sad about focusing on both the ability to do “all things” and “contentment” is that we don’t focus properly on the message of Paul, which is Christ Himself. Not only does emphasizing the “all things” profoundly miss the point of the passage, but it just doesn’t stand the test of basic logic. It isn’t even an adequate application of this passage, because “all things” to Paul here has a specific context, and that context is enduring through suffering for the prize gained through the glorious gospel of our Lord. Even more clearly, they stand to be glorified with Christ, as they too share in His sufferings. Yet equally as sad, though perhaps in a less heinous way, is the focus on learning contentment that is often also presented as the point of this passage. Again, it must be restated: contentment is the fruit, not the root. The root is Jesus Christ.

A rather large focus in this book surrounds the idea that the knowledge of Christ and His great work is the means by which the Christian is able to endure persecution. What that simply means is that a true knowledge of Christ leads to us seeing Him as greater than everything else—even our suffering. A true knowledge of Christ will produce in us the heart attitude that believes all else is to be considered as loss, and that to live is Christ. The one who sees Christ as the preeminent One will actually remain stable in the midst of either incredible prosperity or incredible duress, because their eyes are fixated on the risen Christ Himself (Heb. 12:1-2). They are not lured away to treasure or trust in wealth, yet neither are they acting as if the sky is falling in the midst of even the most horrendous of circumstances. They are able to say with Paul that they may be, “…hard pressed on all sides, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9). Why? Because it is invariably through weakness that the Lord is pleased to show His strength (2 Cor. 12:9). They are content, yet their contentment is born exclusively out of seeing that their “light and momentary” afflictions produces an eternal glory, which is the hope of the resurrection that the gospel of Christ brings (2 Cor. 4:1-5:10).

When we favor an interpretation of this passage that highlights our particular career, fitness, or social and emotional goals, we develop an incredibly diminished view of what this passage teaches. If you would let the context speak for itself, both in its immediate and broader context, you might find an incredibly uplifting and intrinsically pastoral encouragement from the hand of the apostle Paul that directs you to treasuring Christ for His death, burial, and resurrection—and all of the implications of that glorious work for us. Yet the truncated view of this passage will likely continue to stand, unfortunately, to the detriment of people who place their hope once more in something other than Christ, which is the precise opposite of what the passage does.

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I believe so many Christians struggle greatly in the areas of anxiety, depression, doubt, and so forth; they do not yet see that knowing Christ, specifically in light of the gospel and the hope of the resurrection, is infinitely more valuable than anything else. Read that carefully. It is not saying that one who struggles in these areas does so out of a lack of faith, but rather, a lack of understanding how the gospel and the hope of the resurrection applies to these things. The reason for this is relatively simple: most tend to read the Bible like one might read a horoscope. They view it through the lens of an earthly-minded individualism, where they can chart out various passages and see how they correspond in alignment with one’s current life and trajectory. Or, perhaps they read it like a how-to manual so they might better navigate the circumstances of life they find themselves in.

Don’t get me wrong—the Bible is profound in its depth and application and I firmly believe that we ought to personally apply the Scriptures as we come to understand them, but therein lies the key: we must understand them properly in order to apply them properly. Surely, the adage is true: there is one meaning and many applications. Yet we must also recognize that simply because many applications can be derived from a single text does not imply all applications are equally sound, valid, or even biblical. The Bible is not interested in giving you unqualified statements; you cannot literally jump over the moon because you’re in Christ. The Bible is not interested in giving you “life verses” to rip out of context because the Bible is not about you. The Bible is not interested in teaching you how to avoid suffering or develop coping mechanisms in order to grit through it. It is, however, interested in teaching us how to embrace suffering for the glory of Christ because it is the means by which we enter His Kingdom.

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