Strength in weakness
There is an old saying that gives the key to evaluating a real estate property: Location, location, location. Well, the key to understanding Bible verses is: Context, context, context. The context is the surrounding circumstances and words that lead to a particular statement or idea. The Bible is not a series of loosely connected phrases and ‘religious’ statements (like the Koran) to be plucked out and quoted when the timing seems right. Instead, the Bible is mostly narrative, or epistles, that were written with specific aims and purposes in mind; and have a consistent flow of thought throughout. To pull a verse out of it’s context and apply it in a way that the author did not intend, is the cardinal sin of Biblical interpretation.
One of the most misused verses in all the Bible is Philippians 4:13. It says, “I can do all things through Him (Christ) who strengthens me.” This verse has become the mantra of personal goal setting, individual achievement, and self-confidence. People quote this verse as they try and lift a new record at the gym, or make their monthly sales goals, or try to improve their own self-esteem by believing that they can do anything (with God’s help of course). However, when you analyze the surrounding context, this verse actually teaches the opposite of self-achievement.
In verse 11 Paul says he has learned to be content in whatever circumstances he is in. The flow of his argument is about contentment regarding his situations. What situations? Verse 12 says he has learned how to get along with humble means and prosperity, being filled and going hungry, and having an abundance and suffering need. Sometimes things were great for Paul and sometimes things were really bad for Paul; to the extent of not having food! But in all those circumstances he was learning to be content in them. Then comes v 13, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
The message of this passage of Scripture is that God will give you all types of circumstances, and we must learn to be content in whatever those circumstances are, but He will always help us through those difficult circumstances. I’m amazed that the Apostle Paul, arguably the greatest Christian ever to live, had times when he literally didn’t have food. But he was learning to be content in those times because God was strengthening him through those periods of hardship. That is a far cry from being a statement of personal achievement and goal setting. In fact, it is really the opposite of such conclusions.
Other passages of Scripture help us to see this as well. In 2 Corinthians 12:10, Paul says he is content in his weaknesses because God helps him when he is at his weakest. He says in v 7 that God gave him a thorn in the flesh to prevent him from exalting himself! Even when Paul asked for it to be removed, God said ‘no,’ because His power is perfected in weakness (v 9). Paul is then glad to boast about his weaknesses so that the power of God will come upon him (v 9).
What do these verses all have in common? They teach the exact opposite of self-exaltation, self-congratulation, and self-achievement. The lesson is to not depend on yourself, but depend on God. When have you ever heard of someone boasting of their weaknesses? Or being content in times of need? Paul did, because that was when God showed up the most. It was God, all God, who aided Paul in all his circumstances. Paul was not afraid to be honest with his weaknesses because that is where God puts on display His own strength.
Let us remember to see the meaning of verses in context, because if they are used outside of their immediate context, the meaning changes drastically… sometimes even into the exact opposite of what the author is trying to say.
Pastor Mark Scialabba