The Superhero Verse
Perhaps no other verse better exemplifies the practice of plucking a verse out of context and making it represent one’s agenda than Philippians 4:13. We see this verse on basketball and baseball jerseys. You see it on coffee mugs and throw pillows and cellphone cases. If you wanted to argue the commercialization of Christianity, then Philippians 4:13 would be your starting point. It’s become the “superhero verse.” “I CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH CHRIST WHO STRENGTHENS ME.” You want to hit a homerun? You want that new job? You want long life and a prosperous existence? Just put your faith in Jesus. With Christ on your side, you are Superman and nothing can stop you! There’s a couple of problems with this interpretation: 1) It doesn’t match reality, and 2) It’s a complete abuse of scripture.
Nowhere does the Bible teach that God will give you the strength to do whatever you set your mind to. In fact, here’s an important point to keep in mind when studying the Bible—anytime a foundational view of one’s theology begins with, “God will give you…”, stop and double-check because, more than likely, it’s bad theology. God is not some divine genie or heavenly sugar daddy. He’s not some cosmic Santa Claus. Instead, He is our sustainer in an unstable world. As much as we might like for our faith to be a means of making all our dreams come true, it’s just not. The truth is this—LIFE IS MESSY! It’s chock full of hurts, disappointments, and regrets; most of them self-inflicted. Our great need is not a God who showers us with materially blessings. What we need is a God that resides in the valleys with us. We need a God who is there when life is less than ideal. The god of my health and wealth is a god who never satisfies. We don’t want that kind of God. The God of the Bible is much better because He gives us what we truly need—strength to survive when life seems too hard to handle.
The Philippian letter is one of the “prison epistles.” We tend to imagine Paul delivering this message like a Knute Rockne speech before the big game. We can see Paul standing before a crowd of Christians, flailing his arms, sweating profusely, as he shouts the inspirational words, “You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you!” But imagine instead, Paul sitting in a dark, damp prison cell, in shackles and chains. It’s a picture that seems more like defeat than victory. Paul wasn’t inspiring Christians to dream bigger. He was encouraging them to endure in the face of adversity. He’s not trying to inspire them to go take life by the horns. He’s trying to inspire them to press on when the world overtakes them. The message of Philippians 4:13 is actually quite the opposite of what so many interpret it to mean. It’s not about achievement. It’s about endurance. It’s not about being able to fulfill your dreams through faith in Christ. It’s about being able to endure anything through Christ. Whether you’re on top of the world, or living in the trenches. Whether you’re rich or poor. Whether you’re healthy or diseased. If you have been beaten, flogged, mocked, ridiculed, and thrown in prison for preaching Christ, you can be content.
In his book The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, Dr. Eric Bargerhuff writes:
“[Philippians 4:13 is] not really about who has the strength to play to the best of their abilities in a sporting contest…. This verse is about having strength to be content when we are facing those moments in life when physical resources are minimal.”
In its proper context, Philippians 4:13 is not about scoring touchdowns or earning a fat paycheck. No, Philippians 4:13 is about finding contentment in what matters most—the Lord. You don’t need superhuman power or prosperity. All you truly need is HIM.