You have perhaps seen this reference inscribed on baseball cleats or chiseled in the eye black below a linebacker’s fierce gaze. “I can do all things!” In these athletic contexts it seems quite appropriate…until, perhaps, the inevitable strikeout or missed tackle–not to mention bench-clearing brawl.
What of other contexts? Might a persecuted Christian shout this as he submits to the torturer’s scalpel? Maybe. But only if he were using a different translation from those that have shaped our misguided imagination in mainstream pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps America.
“ischuo” (the original Greek verb in this verse) means “I am strong”; it is not the normal expression used for “can” or “be able” in Paul’s writings. When, for example, Paul reminds the Ephesians of the God who is able to do what surpasses our asking or thinking, he uses the standard Greek verb of ability: “dunamai.” Why, as he concludes his letter to his beloved Philippians, does he choose “ischuo”?
Meditating on Philippians in general and the immediate context of this verse readily provides an answer. There is no material triumphalism in this epistle. There is, however, peace *passing understanding* and contentment *whatever the circumstances*. There is, in short, a strength in Christ that is not can-do-ism. It is perseverance despite what we see or experience.
As we follow Jesus, we follow him who could–but didn’t. He chose crying to Abba on the cross rather than to his legions in the garden.
And so, with Jesus, we affirm Phillipians 4:13: I am mighty in all circumstances through the one strengthening me. That is our banner. Illustrated with a cross, not a sword.
Sometimes we wish it were otherwise. We have Jesus’ company in that, too.
All things are possible with God. This is not can-do-ism but a call to Faith. Moreover, Jesus shared this particular assurance with those who were concerned about salvation, not material improvement. (Matt 19:26)
In Mark 9:23, Jesus encouraged a desperate father with similar words: All things are possible for the one believing. This would seem closer to the can-do, but bear in mind a parallel story in Matthew 9:29, where Jesus heals two blind men with the declaration: According to your faith let it be unto you.
We are not the source of ability. Our role is believing. Always we look to the one who is able, not to ourselves. Our expectation is salvation: perfect wholeness as the Lord defines it, not as our worldly minds imagine it. Our work–and the victory that overcomes the world–is our faith.