When was the last time you heard an athlete say after a blowout defeat, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me”? In American sports, it’s not uncommon after a game to hear one of the victors cite Philippians 4:13, but we seldom, if ever, hear it from the losing side. This phenomenon is perhaps most apparent in sports, but it can be seen in other fields of competition as well. Why do we seem to hear this verse only in the context of winning? Is that the extent of its application?
We typically associate this verse with winning because the verb “do” sounds like accomplishment, like success. Losing, on the other hand, is typically the result of not doing something or of being outdone. So, it makes sense that when we hear “I can do all things,” we associate it with winning, because winners have done something.
If in the moment of triumph a winner gives credit to Christ for the strength to succeed, this is an appropriate and good thing. But it would be a mistake to conclude from such moments that this verse belongs only to winners. No one should think that whenever he is not a success story it is because Jesus is not with him or that he is further from God’s favor, because that is clearly not what Paul meant.
Rather than forsake God or grumble against Him in pain or hunger or fear, Paul was at peace in his circumstances. Paul “did” contentment.
Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians from a prison cell in Rome. Prison is not a place for winners, at least not as defined by this world. Of course, Paul did not get his definitions from this world. His “do” was more than merely “win,” and his “all things” encompassed more than what gets memorialized in trophy cases or on office walls.
The circumstances of Paul’s imprisonment would have crushed any man left to his own strength. As if his being incarcerated were not enough, insincere preachers were seeking to afflict him further (1:17), he was “troubled” by meager provisions (4:14), and death seemed as likely an outcome as release (1:20). But rather than forsake God or grumble against Him in pain or hunger or fear, Paul was at peace in his circumstances. Paul “did” contentment. And the secret to this inexplicable accomplishment—the reason for his patient perseverance in a hopeless situation—was faith in Christ:
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. (4:11–13)
Notice what Paul packages into the phrase “all things” as he builds up to verse 13: “hunger,” “need,” and being “brought low.” In the scope of what he is able to do through Christ, Paul has in mind periods of deprivation and humiliation. When he is “losing” at life, Paul is nevertheless content because he knows his God is still with him.
This is why defeated athletes and Christians in every circumstance should own verse 13 as much as any champion: Jesus attends and strengthens His people amid loss and struggle and heartache just as much as in seasons of success and prosperity. In this sense, Paul’s words in Philippians 4:13 echo those of Habakkuk nearly seven centuries before: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines . . . yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength” (Hab. 3:17–19). Habakkuk “did” joy in God despite his destitute situation, because he knew the strength of his Savior.
But we shouldn’t miss the fact that in the “all things” category Paul also mentions times of plenty and abundance. Christ must sustain His people in easier seasons as well, because the temptation to forget God arises not only when His blessings are absent but also when they abound.
It’s counterintuitive to think we need help to face abundance. But denying the temptation in times of ease to presume upon God’s blessing, to take credit for it ourselves, and to idolize gifts over the Giver requires divine strength if we are to remain faithful. Therefore, anyone who credits Christ at the beginning of his success must continually rely on Him throughout that season, lest he forget the One who has given it.
Philippians 4:13 teaches us that through faith in Him, our Lord Jesus enables us to endure with contentment whatever circumstances He places us in, from the pressure of poverty to the refining fire of prosperity. More than a motto only for “winning” Christians, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” is the continual claim of every soldier in the Lord’s army. Whether marching across mountaintops or trudging through valleys, we can be content in the Lord because He is with us always, providing for our every need and lovingly leading us to our ultimate victory.
Tyler Kenney is digital content manager at Ligonier Ministries and a graduate of Bethlehem Seminary in Minneapolis.