Digging in Deeper: Philippians 4:11-13

“I don’t say this out of need, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I find myself. I know how to make do with little, and I know how to make do with a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content – whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. I am able to do all things through him who strengthens me.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

Do you remember the “yanny” versus “laurel” fad from a few years ago? The audio illusion became an internet sensation for a couple of weeks in May 2018. The clip contained both of the words, but the former was more prevalent at higher frequencies, and the latter at lower frequencies. Which one you heard depended on which sound frequencies were picked up the most easily by your ears. A slight majority of listeners (including me) reported hearing “laurel” when they heard the clip. I even still hear “laurel” when the low frequency sounds are filtered out to some extent so that the “yanny” sounds are more prevalent. The rest (including my lovely bride) heard “yanny.” The clip came from a Georgia high school student doing some homework when he recorded the audio pronunciation of the word “laurel” (see, I knew I was right!) from Vocabulary.com. The poor quality recording he made is what allowed some folks to hear “yanny” instead. Without getting any of the back story or listening to an edited version of the clip to make one sound more prominent than the other, though (here’s a video where they edit the clip so you can easily hear “yanny” and then transition it back to normal – it was the first time I’ve ever heard what the “yanny” sounds like and promptly couldn’t any longer when it went back to normal), most folks will hear the clip one way and never know there was another option. What has me thinking back to 2018 this morning is this well-known declaration by Paul. Most folks have only ever learned to hear it one way (the “yanny” way), but when you play it with the pitch Paul wrote it, something entirely different – and better – comes to the fore. Let’s talk this morning about another lie Christians believe and why the truth is so much better.

Philippians 4:13 here is the official verse of sports. And dreamers. And anyone who is feeling unprepared for a big challenge lying ahead of her. Its applications are broad and deep. The words don’t really need any interpreting either. They are as clear as they could be just the way they were written. I can do all things through Him (that is, Jesus) who gives me strength. I mean, it doesn’t get much easier than that. What could “all things” possibly mean except…well…all things?

And so we run with it. High school football teams (at least, high school football teams in small towns or in the South) burst out of their locker rooms through banners proudly displaying the verse. Their victory that evening will be furnished by the power of Jesus. I’m not sure what they do with a loss after such a victorious field-taking, but that’s another story. Basketball players put it on their shoes (I’m looking at you, Steph Curry). Baseball players sometimes scribe it into their eye black. Nervous test takers scrawl it into their desk. Job applicants breath it out just before walking into the interview room. Anxious young men whisper it to themselves just before they propose. Frustrated moms print it on their coffee mugs as a reminder that, yes, they will make it through this day as well. It’s everywhere we look. Walk through the aisles of your local Hobby Lobby. If you find it printed prominently on fewer than ten items, you’re probably not looking hard enough.

There’s just one problem here. It’s kind of a significant one too. Paul almost certainly didn’t have anything even remotely like this kind of a catchall application in mind when he wrote this near the end of his letter to the Philippian believers. Wait, what? You mean it’s not the ticket to a winning football season? Sorry, no. It won’t help me make the big, game-winning shot? Not if you haven’t already practiced it a million times. It won’t help you pass that test or get that job or score that date or even make it through another day running the zoo. Oh, that doesn’t mean Jesus won’t go with you into those times or somehow cares less about them than He really does. It’s just that this isn’t your verse for them.

Too often, Paul’s declaration of ability to accomplish “all things” becomes a blank slate on which we feel can write whatever we need in a given moment. A little bit of thought, though, reveals rather quickly that “all things” cannot possibly really mean all things. For instance, I can want to leap tall buildings in a single bound all I want, but it’s not going to happen, Jesus or not. Perhaps to bring things a bit more within the realm of imaginable realities, I can want to be a starting NFL quarterback with all my heart, but with 40 looming all too large on the near horizon, that one is also sitting firmly on the “no way” list. If you go and take a test for which you have not studied at all, you’re not going to pass it no matter how much strength from Jesus you feel. What Paul says here is simply not a ticket for you to claim the ability with Jesus’ help to do anything your heart desires. That’s mostly because your heart desires all kinds of things that aren’t what Jesus wants and He’s never going to give you the strength to do something He doesn’t first want you to do.

So then, what does Paul mean here?

Well, the best way to answer that question is to remember that context is king in understanding anything in the Bible. What is the context of what Paul is saying here? Paul was nearing the end of his letter to the Philippian believers. The whole letter has been infused with a joyful tone that far surpasses that of any of his other letters. At the same time – and Paul makes mention of this several times throughout the letter – he was writing from under house arrest in Rome, awaiting his requested trial before Caesar Nero, which he was as certain as he could be would end in his martyrdom. Joy and impending death don’t really seem to make for expected bedfellows. And yet, again and again we see both in Paul’s mind and heart as we read through his letter. By the time we reach the end, we are practically begging Paul to explain himself. If he can be so joyful in spite of such awful circumstances, how can we manage this feat in our own lives? His answer is as simple as it is profound: Jesus.

Look back over these verses again. What Paul doesn’t say out of need is revealed in v. 10 where he expresses his deep gratitude for the compassion and care the Philippian believers had given him during his difficult ordeal. He wasn’t thanking them, though, because he was in need (which is wildly ironic as he was in exactly the kind of situation most people would consider “needy”), but rather because he appreciated their thoughtfulness and Christian love expressed toward him. He did not consider himself to be in need, he said, because – v. 11 – “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I find myself.”

Wouldn’t that be a neat trick to learn? Can you imagine being able to be content no matter what your circumstances happened to be? Maybe you’ve seen someone who has that gift. They are entirely unflappable. Life can be blowing up into a category 5 hurricane around them, and they are just as calm and laid back as they can be. They’re not doing nothing. They’re battening down the hatches and boarding up their windows. But they’re doing it without completely freaking out. In fact, there even seems to be a bit of a spring in their step. Meanwhile, you’re a basket case on their behalf made worse by the fact that you’re trying to carry the load of anxiety you would have naturally expected them to be carrying. They refuse to get worried and so you’re worrying for them…and for you…and now you’re twice as worried all the while they’re just cruising right on through. How does anyone do something like that?

Jesus.

When Paul said he could do “all things” with the strength Jesus provided him, this was what he had in mind. He could weather the real storms of life with grace and poise because of the help and strength Jesus gives. After all, if He could bring peace to a literal storm, surely He could do it in a rhetorical one. And even if He didn’t do it in the way Paul would have preferred, He would still wind up with Jesus and so everything was going to be okay. Paul didn’t have to give in to the worry, fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, cynicism, jealousy, or any of the other things life’s hardest moments dump on our plates and invite us to consume – or rather, to be consumed by. He could embrace this spirit of joy and contentment because He had the Lord of all creation with Him. If death couldn’t stand before Jesus, whatever he was facing couldn’t either. The same thing goes for your own life if you’ll stick with Him like Paul did.

So, yes, go ahead and claim this verse for your life. It is applicational new covenant truth that was meant for anyone who claims the name of Jesus as their Lord. But when you do, don’t limit its application down to little things that Paul didn’t have in mind. Jesus cares about those too, but His real goal is for you to live in such a way that honors Him whether you get the victory you had in mind or not. He wants you to be fully His in every situation of your life. The lie we too often believe is that Jesus is good for the little stuff, but when it comes to the big stuff, we need to take the reins and steer things through. We may not give lip service to such an idea, but our life-service speaks loudly enough. The truth is so much better. You can be content no matter what it is you are facing. The secret is Jesus. Lean into Him and find all you need.

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