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The meaning of Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him who gives me strength”

Categories New Testament Online Courses

Philippians 4:13 is one of the most well-known New Testament verses, but it’s also notoriously misused. After telling his audience that he’s experienced both poverty and affluence, the Apostle Paul writes these well-known words: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

Many of us have seen some variation of these words in encouraging notes and cards, in art, on t-shirts, tattooed on people’s bodies, and even scrawled on the shoes of famous athletes or printed on their eye black.

The verse is often shortened to, "I can do all things . . ."

But is that what Paul is really saying here? Is he telling us to believe in ourselves? Or to believe that Christ empowers us to do whatever we set our minds to?

No.

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What Paul really means

If we truly want to know what a Bible verse or passage means, we have to read it in context. We can’t strip away all the surrounding verses, remove it from its original intent, and still expect to understand it.

Just before Paul says, “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength,” he recounts some of the different circumstances he’s found himself in: he’s been hungry and well-fed, he’s been in need and he’s been well off, and he’s learned to be content, no matter what his circumstances are.

Paul isn’t juxtaposing these circumstances to suggest that one is better than the other. He’s using these extremes to highlight that he understands the range of human experience, and that he understands the challenges that come with each position. He isn’t a rich person telling a poor person to be happy with what they have (or vise versa), and he’s not sitting there on a full stomach telling hungry people to get over it.

He’s saying that no matter what your circumstances are, you can learn to be content. How does he know? Because he’s tested it, and he’s proved it. How does he do it? That’s where verse 13 comes in.

If you read the NIV translation of verse 13, you’ll notice an important distinction from most other translations:

“I can do all this through Him who gives me strength” (emphasis added).

When we read “this” instead of “things,” it’s a lot more clear that the passage is referring to specific things—all the things Paul has been talking about—not “all things” in the sense that we can do anything.

In context, "I can do all things" is the ministry that God has sent Paul to do. He can persevere, share the gospel, and be content in any situation. Not on his own, but through Christ who strengthens him.

What Paul doesn't mean

This verse is so misused because many Christians interpret “all things” as “anything,” not “all the things Paul has talked about.” It’s not a blanket endorsement that God will support anything we set out to do and empower us to do whatever impossible things we can imagine. It’s an assurance that we can do whatever God calls us to do, not whatever we decide to do.

This isn’t a biblical exhortation you can stamp on whatever goals you have professionally, personally, or physically. It’s an encouragement that God can give you the strength to be content, no matter what.

Learn more in Lynn H. Cohick’s Philippians online course.

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By submitting your email address, you understand that you will receive email communications from HarperCollins Christian Publishing (501 Nelson Place, Nashville, TN 37214 USA) providing information about products and services of HCCP and its affiliates. You may unsubscribe from these email communications at any time. If you have any questions, please review our Privacy Policy or email us at yourprivacy@harpercollins.com.
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