On the night that Evander Holyfield defeated Mike Tyson to win his third heavyweight championship, he entered the arena with “Philippians 4:13” embroidered on his robe and shorts. The verse reads: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
What an amazing verse! We would do well to take it to heart. It’s one of the first verse that I memorized, and it has been a constant reminder to me that no situation is too difficult for God, no trial is without hope. Perhaps if Christians took this promise from God seriously, we would undertake more on his behalf than sitting in a church service an hour each week.
But as important as Philippians 4:13 is, it is also one of the most misused verses in all of Scripture. Holyfield is an excellent example of this. Presumably, he put the reference on his shorts because he believed that he could beat the tar out of Mike Tyson through Christ who strengthened him. He said as much in an interview: “With God on your side, the things you choose to do, you can do.”
It’s a blank check promise, then. Create your own goal, then invoke Philippians 4:13 and God will make it happen. How very Walt Disney: “When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true through him who strengthens you” (Phil. 4:13, New Disney Translation).
Or perhaps Paul had something different in mind when he wrote those important words. The context provides some important clues.
“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. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11–13)
What exactly is it that Paul can do through Christ who strengthens him? He says it clearly. He has learned to be content in every situation. He knows how to endure without having anything. He knows how to be in need. He knows how to go hungry. God has taught him to be content in that. God has strengthened him through it. And on the flipside, God has strengthened him through those times when he has “abounded,” when he has had plenty. It’s not about the situation. It’s about the God who empowered him to be content in every situation.
Philippians 4:13, then, is not about getting God to bankroll your ambitions. It’s about God’s strength enabling us to live in contentment in whatever situation he sets before us.
Evander Holyfield would have made better use of the verse if he believed that entering that ring would mean enduring the beating of a lifetime: “I can be content with getting the tar beat out of me by Mike Tyson through him who strengthens me.”
In terms of Church History, this is exactly what many Christians have meant as they clung to the truth of Philippians 4:13. Christians have been thrown to lions, lit on fire, beheaded, crucified, disemboweled, and ruthlessly beaten for the sake of Christ. And as they have done so, they have clung to the promise that they can do all things through Christ who strengthens them.
So let’s quote Philippians 4:13 often, but as we do, let’s be sure that we’re quoting Paul’s version rather than Evander Holyfield’s.