On July 27, 2009, the cover of “Sports Illustrated” featured an arresting image of Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow. The headline—“Tim Tebow: Man of Many Missions”—riffed on the way he’d created a fan frenzy with his unique blend of faith and football. The championship quarterback seemed poised to jump off the glossy cover with pursed lips that oozed determination and a simple Bible verse scribbled within the black grease underneath his eyes: “Phil. 4:13.”
Tebow’s highly churched Southern fan base didn’t need to look up the passage. No, most of them knew it by heart: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Philippians 4:13 is one of the most popular verses in any of the 66 books of the Christian Bible, having been printed on millions of key chains and t-shirts, cellphone cases and coffee mugs. (If one wanted to argue the trinketization of Christianity, this Bible verse would be a good starting point.)
But it also one of the misunderstood, misused, and misinterpreted.
Like Tebow, Philippians 4:13 functions as a kind of mystical incantation for many Christians. They recite the passage when they need to draw power from another place to defeat an enemy or conquer a difficult task. It’s a talisman like Green Lantern’s ring or He-Man’s sword.
Need an example? Joel Osteen, pastor of the largest evangelical mega-church in America provided the following commentary on Philippians 4:13 in the January 21, 2013 edition of his “Today’s Word” devotional:
Most people tend to magnify their limitations. They focus on their shortcomings. But scripture makes it plain: all things are possible to those who believe. That’s right! It is possible to see your dreams fulfilled. It is possible to overcome that obstacle. It is possible to climb to new heights. It is possible to embrace your destiny. You may not know how it will all take place. You may not have a plan, but all you have to know is that if God said you can…you can!
I’m not trying to use Joel Osteen as a punching bag—surely enough Christian commentators have already done enough of that—but rather using him as an example of the way many Christians today understand and interpret this verse. For them, the “all things” that Christ empowers them to accomplish includes fulfilling their dreams, climbing to new heights, and embracing their destinies.
Do you want that job promotion? To find your soul mate? Have better sex with your spouse? Make more money? No problem. You can accomplish “all things through Christ.”
Unfortunately, this way of interpreting and applying Philippians 4:13 couldn’t be further from its actual meaning…