“I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13). How many times have you heard this familiar, beloved verse? It has been used in a variety of ways. Christian business leaders have used it to encourage their employees to do their best. Christian politicians have quoted this verse to announce hope for the future. Christian military officers have referenced it on the eve of battle, encouraging the soldiers under their command that Christ gives strength for the victory. It has even been used by Christian volleyball teams as a pep cheer before a game!
However, many Christians are surprised to learn that the context of this verse is not related directly to accomplishing business success, political goals, victory in battle, or even triumph in the sports arena. In its proper context, this oft-quoted verse is describing the strength of Christ that enables the Christian to be content in all manner of afflictions and troubles. This statement also reveals the heart of one man who learned contentment, which results when we understand the tenth commandment: “Thou shalt not covet.”
What is the context of Philippians 4:19? The verse is part of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. The Philippian church was born out of the troubles of intense persecution. It was there that an angry riot broke out when a demon-possessed girl cried out that Paul and Silas were “the servants of the most high God” and asserted that they had come to “shew unto us the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). It was there in Philippi that Paul and Silas were beaten, cast into prison, and their feet shackled (see Acts 16:23–24).
The church at Philippi had begun with people such as Lydia, a “seller of purple”; the converted demon-possessed girl; and the Philippian jailor and his family. It had grown into a thriving, active congregation that Paul tenderly called “my joy and crown” (Philippians 4:1). Apparently, the Philippian church had sent Paul a financial gift to support and care for him during his Roman imprisonment. The apostle gave thanks for the gift in glowing words of appreciation: “I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, wellpleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18).
In this final thanksgiving in his letter, Paul expressed gratitude for the generous gift. He then told the Philippian Christians, “But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at the last your care of me hath flourished again; wherein ye were also careful, but ye lacked opportunity” (Philippians 4:10). The apostle realized that the believers in Philippi had long cared for him and his needs, but they had not always had the ability to supply a gift.
He continued, writing, “Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” (Philippians 4:11). When Paul wrote “I have learned,” he used the Greek word μανθανω (manthano). This is the same word that our Lord Jesus used when He told His disciples, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Matthew 11:29).
This “learning” that both our Lord Jesus and Paul described is not classroom learning. It is the learning from practical experience. You cannot learn the meekness of Jesus merely by intellectual understanding. You must submit to His “yoke” and walk with Him. In the same way, you cannot learn contentment without a certain measure of suffering.
Thus, Paul expressed trust in God’s ways: “I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” (Philippians 4:12). The instruction of the Lord comes by putting His children through a variety of circumstances, both those which seem to us good (i.e., “to be full”) and also those which seem to us bad (i.e., “to be hungry”).
In that background, we have the context in which the famous verse is given: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” Through Christ, we can face the various afflictions of life with contentment and patience. Through Christ, we can “in whatsoever state” be content. Contentment is the true context for this expression of triumph.
How about you? Have you learned to be content by the afflictions of life? Have you realized that the power of Christ gives you the strength to be content in any and every circumstance?
When you lose a loved one, Christ can give you the strength to bear that loss with acceptance and with hope. Christ knew what it was like to stand at the tomb of a dear friend. Just as He came to Martha and Mary with words of comfort and hope, so He can give you the comfort of His promise, “I am the resurrection, and the life” (John 11:25).
When you suffer physical affliction, Christ can give you the strength to suffer with patience. Paul experienced this in his own life when dealing with the “thorn in the flesh” (II Corinthians 12:7). In Paul’s hour of affliction, Jesus came to him with the promise, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). In the next sentence Paul then testified of that all-sufficient grace: “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” Have you learned that secret? Do you resent your physical afflictions, or do you “glory” in them, knowing that the power of Christ rests upon you in your time of weakness?
When your hopes and ambitions are dashed and you are faced with disappointment in a relationship, in business, or in a financial investment, Christ can give you the strength to bear that loss with contentment. Job said, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). Whatever God takes away, He is able to restore from the fullness of His own mercy.
Before us lies a final trial that we all will face. One day, sooner or later, we are all appointed to die. When that day comes for you, will you fear death, or will you meet death with contentment and confidence? “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” applies even on the deathbed. The Christ Who imparts the strength to live will also provide the strength to die. You can be confident and content in the care of the One Who strengthens you.