"I Can Do All Things in Him That Strengthens Me"
The Text: I can do all things in him that strengtheneth me.
The Meaning Given To It: Many denominational preachers and even some brethren---especially those into the various forms of the "positive thinking" philosophy---have adopted this verse as their motto. Robert Schuller says on an Amway motivational tape, "You don't know what power you have within you...You make the world into anything you choose. Yes, you can make your world into whatever you want it to be." Norman Vincent Peale echoes those sentiments in Positive Imaging, p. 77, "Your unconscious mind...has a power that turns wishes into realities when the wishes are strong enough." And, finally, listen to Oral Roberts: "Whatever you can conceive, and believe, you can do." Miracle Of Seed Faith, p. 7. In other words, this verse is supposed to teach that anything you want to do or become you will achieve if you will just let Christ strengthen you, think positive thoughts, and work real hard. It is sort of a "wish upon a star and all your dreams will come true" verse in which God gives us a signed blank check and we write in the amount with His assurance that He'll cash it.
Let me be clear: (1) There is nothing wrong with thinking positively; positive thinking is not, contrary to what some teach, an unbiblical concept. (2) not only is there nothing wrong with doing one's best, it is a biblical principle and would be wrong not to strive to be the best we can be (see Prov. 12:11; 28:19; 14:4,23; 20:13; 18:9; 21:5; 27:23-27; 30:24-28; 22:29; 24:27)
But, let me equally candid: (1) This "you can do/become anything you want" is transparent nonsense. Not only scripture but common sense and experiences in life tell us that some goals are unachievable and there are some things I'll never be able to do or become regardless of my positive mental attitude and how hard I work at it. Ecc. 9:11 teaches that "chance" or "luck" sometimes wins out over skill and hard work. And all of us have known positive thinking, skillful, hard-working, Godly people who, for whatever reasons, just didn't see their dreams fulfilled. (2) The purpose of Christ's coming and teaching was not to make me materially successful. To use the scriptures---any scriptures---to teach that He did is to engage in the perversion of God's word. If judged by this standard, Paul was a failure. Everything of a material nature that could have led him to a life of "success" he forsook in order to gain Christ, Phil. 3:7-11, and many Christians today and in years past have stayed at the "bottom"--- socially, financially, etc.---for the same reason. To use material success as some measure of one's relationship to Christ fails to factor in (a) whether or not one, like Paul, has opted not to enjoy this "success" or (b) whether or not that, in spite of thinking every positive thought and exerting every effort they still, through no fault of their own, failed to achieve their goal(s). It is, among other things, spiritual elitism to look at those materially deprived and with goals unfulfilled and to tell them or think about them that something must be wrong in their spiritual lives that has brought their condition about.
The Context has absolutely nothing to do with the subject our text is applied to. In vs. 10, Paul rejoiced in the fact that the Philippians had revived their thought for him and now were able to do something they had hitherto be unable to do, even though they had been thinking of him all along. But Paul doesn't want to be misunderstood. He says he's learned to be content in whatever state he finds himself as he labors in the gospel and his joy is not so much in the reception of the material assistance from the Philippians but what that gift revealed about their spiritual character, vs. 11. He has learned, vs. 12, to be content in whatever state he finds himself in his work as an apostle and evangelist, including the extremes of abasement and abundance. Whether filled or hungry Paul had learned how to cope with these things. (Isn't it ironic that the context which contains the verse which allegedly teaches the "achieve anything materially you want" philosophy, actually finds Paul saying he's learned to be content in situations of material deprivation--- the exact opposite of what most the above-quoted individuals say we should not be content with!?)
The Meaning: It is in the midst of this sort of context that Paul makes his, "I can do all things in him that strengtheneth me," statement. As with all of the "all things" phrases, we need to be careful that we don't, unless warranted by the context, turn them into blank checks upon which we write just anything we want. We would do well to mentally insert the word "these" between "all" and "things" as we remember that "all things" must be limited to the things spoken of in the particular set of verses.
In this context, Paul has been speaking of the various conditions he found himself in as he preached the gospel: sometimes having an abundance of the material things he needed, sometimes not. But in whichever of these states he found himself he had learned to be content because he could do all these things in connection with Christ who provided the strength.
By David Smitherman
From Expository Files 11.6; June 2004