This is the second installment of our Coffee Cup Doctrine series, a look at popular verses referenced in the American Christian culture that are typically used apart from their scriptural context. You can read the introduction to the series here and the first installment here.
It’s the bottom of the ninth. Bases are loaded. You have two strikes against you and your team is three runs behind. Your teammates are all looking to you. But you are the worst hitter on the team!
What promise from God do you hold to for hope?
You step outside the batter’s box and pray, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
You step back in, watch the pitcher’s windup, keep your eyes tight on the ball and swing with all your might.
You expect to see the ball flying over the centerfield wall, but it’s not. The pop was the ball hitting the catcher’s glove. The game is over and you lost it.
Did God’s promise fail you? Did God not come through to give you the strength to do all things? Or did you just completely miss the point of Philippians 4:13?
Coffee cup commentary
There is nothing in this life you can’t do as long as you have Jesus with you. Are you 5’4” with a 5-inch vertical? Don’t worry. Just have faith and you people will be comparing you to LeBron James in no time.
But this promise has connotations outside of sports as well. Are you looking for a job promotion with more responsibilities? Don’t worry about reading books on leadership or productivity. God will give you the strength, knowledge, and charisma to be successful. Life isn’t a matter of work, study, or discipline. Just have faith and God will give you what you need to overcome any obstacle in your way. … But let’s see if this is really what Philippians 4:13 means?
The book of Philippians was written by a man who knew what it was to be on top of the world and at the bottom of the barrel.
Paul had been mistaken for a god (Acts 14:6-7) and dragged outside a city and stoned (Acts 14:8-18). He had fellowship with men who refused to leave his side in prison (Colossians 4:10), and he had been completely abandoned (2 Timothy 4:16). He had planted churches that held fast to the gospel (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3) and churches that quickly wavered (Galatians 1:6).
Paul knew success. He also knew failure. He had been in prison with friends who refused to leave him, and he had experienced prison cells completely alone when everyone abandoned him (2 Timothy 4:16). Speaking of prison, Paul was sitting in a prison cell while writing Philippians. He may have been in prison in Rome, Caesarea, or Ephesus; he was experiencing severe persecution.
All of this is important because Paul says in verses 11 and 12 of Philippians 4:
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.
It is in the context of contrasting two extremes of the human experience of having abundance and having nothing that Paul says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
The central word for understanding 4:13 comes in verse 11, “content.” Paul is saying that no matter what situation he finds himself in, whether abundance or lack, he is content because of Jesus Christ.
What we miss
When our interpretation and application of Philippians 4:13 focuses on us, we diminish and weaken the promise found in it. Paul’s focus is not on us accomplishing tasks or overcoming obstacles. His focus is on the fact that Christ is our strength and contentment “in all things.” This should not give us a bigger view of ourselves but a bigger view of Jesus.
Christians in America are constantly told to be discontent or to covet. The message of every advertisement is to not be content with what you have but to buy this new thing or subscribe to this new service.
God even concludes the Ten Commandments with a direct command not to covet (Exodus 20:17). Covetousness is a vicious cycle because it is never fully satisfied. As soon as you get what you covet, you covet something anew because everything in this world is finite and has an end.
But God is infinite. He has no end. If we only desire Him, we will be satisfied yet hunger for more of Him at the same time. The problem is that we covet everything except more of Him. We have tried everything in this world except the one thing that will bring true, lasting, unchanging contentment and peace: Jesus Christ.
Paul lays out the application of Philippians 4:13 in verse 8, “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
What is more true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise than Jesus? Let us set our minds on Him!
John Piper sees another application. He says the secret of being content does not come from Philippians 4:13, and not even in this chapter at all. This video is well worth three minutes of your time:
So what does contentment look like? It looks like someone who is so wrapped up in the person of Jesus that there is no desire for anything other than Him. So the next time you see Philippians 4:13 plastered on a coffee cup, let it remind you to turn your gaze away from your dream job, dream car, or dream house to a person much closer and more real than any of those things: Jesus Christ.