“I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”
Joel S. Heckendorf
“I think I can . . . I think I can . . . I think I can.” Author Watty Piper geared the book The Little Engine That Could for children. First released for publication in the United States in 1930, the classic’s optimistic message has climbed its way into a mountain of self-help books, motivational speeches, and personal mission statements.
Similarly, so has the Philippians passage. PHIL 4:13 appears on the eye-strips of athletes, and it’s inked on arms, engraved in rings, and printed on posters to motivate people. The reference is a visible reminder to never give up and to aim for success. To many, Piper and the apostle Paul were working with the same concept: “I think I can” = “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”
But what happens when cancer isn’t beaten, even though Philippians 4:13 was the patient’s mantra? What happens when the PHIL 4:13 quarterback throws a game-ending interception instead of the game-winning touchdown? What happens when “I think I can” is traded for “I see I can’t”? It’s then, when the mountainous challenges in front of us seem impassable, that we need the intended comfort of Philippians 4:13.
Context is crucial when it comes to understanding this popular passage. Paul was in prison when he penned these words. With chains around his wrists, the likelihood of throwing any missionary touchdowns was slim. Yet he could confidently write, “I can do everything.” What did he mean? Back up a few verses, and we see that Paul is not screaming out a vein-bulging, locker-room pep talk in this verse. Rather, he is whispering the secret of contentment. “No matter the situation, whether it’s bleak or bright, you can face it. You can endure it because you are living in Christ. He will provide the strength. Even if you’re running on empty, the Holy Spirit has poured Christ into your tank. You’ll have all the fuel you will need for the journey ahead—the journey to our destination with the Lord.”
Paul’s final words (2 Timothy chapter 4) assure us that he applied Philippians 4:13 to his life. Facing his death, he looked back and was thankful that the Lord stood by his side as he fought his fight and ran his race. He knew that the goal of life was not about climbing the mountain of earthly success. It was to ascend the throne of the Lord. And he knew the strength to make that climb didn’t rest in himself. If it did, he’d only be able to chant, “I think I can.” Rather, Paul knew his climb to heaven’s mountain depended on Jesus. Because of Jesus, Paul lived with an I know I can confidence. So can you, because of Jesus.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
1. Context. Context. Context. List ways you have seen or heard this passage applied. How does the context of the original passage compare to the way it is often applied?
Example of Philippians 4:13 is often used by athletes, politicians or in the medical field. Philippians 4:10-12 shows that this is more about contentment and strength to endure all situations and not the ability to do all things.
2. What do you consider to be the top three things that rob us of the secret of being content?
Answers may vary. Examples include commercials, instant gratification/information, lottery/gambling, the de-Christianization of the world which places self at the center.
3. Instead of thinking of negative situations, why is it important to remember that even positive situations are possible through the strength that God gives?
It helps us to be humble and not rely on ourselves.
4. “Who gives me strength.” While not always translated as such, this concept appears seven times in the New Testament. After comparing Philippians 4:13 with the following passages, explain what it means to have strength from God: Acts 9:22; Romans 4:20; Ephesians 6:10; 1 Timothy 1:12; 2 Timothy 2:1; 2 Timothy 4:17.
To be strong in the Lord emphasizes a reliance on him and a zeal to do his will no matter the cost.
Contributing editor Joel Heckendorf is pastor at Immanuel, Greenville, Wisconsin.
This is the tenth article in a series on the 12 most popular Bible passages accessed in 2012 through Bible Gateway, an online Bible resource.
Scripture references in this study are taken from the New International Version 1984.
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Author: Joel S. Heckendorf
Volume 101, Number 8
Issue: August 2014
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