One of the most promising—and intriguing—passages in the New Testament is this: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13, NKJV).
And it applies to everyone: it encourages those who think they can do everything to examine the source of their confidence. It also encourages those who think they can’t to stop doubting and start moving out in Christ.
“I Can Do All Things.” St. Paul himself was a doer. He preached. He established churches in Asia Minor and Europe. He wrote lengthy, in-depth letters. He fought one opponent of the faith after another. Vicious threats, nights in prison, stonings, and severe beatings could not deter this man’s drive. Clearly, this was a confident man! But as he was doing all these things, Paul also confessed that all of his confidence and all of his accomplishments were as “loss” (Philippians 3:8). He even went so far as to say that “nothing good dwells within me” (Romans 7:18, NRSVCE).
Doesn’t this sound like a contradiction? Didn’t Paul use his learning to write all those powerful letters? Didn’t he draw from his rabbinic training as he formulated his theology? Didn’t he need a lot of self-confidence to preach as boldly as he did?
It’s not a contradiction at all. Paul knew that he was a steward of God’s grace and gifts (1 Corinthians 4:1). He understood that he could have been born somewhere other than in Tarsus. He knew that he could have come from a family that had no connections in Jerusalem and no prospects for his further education. He knew that everything he possessed—his intellect, his health, and his shrewdness—came from God. That’s why he could accomplish so much and yet not take credit for it as if he were some great hero.
If you find yourself wanting recognition, money, or some other kind of reward for a job well done, you may want to examine whether you are a doer in Christ or a doer in yourself. It’s not that Jesus is opposed to recognition or monetary gain. It is that when these kinds of goals become our primary motivation, a serious question arises: Who will get the glory? Goals of recognition or material gain are good, so long as they do not overshadow the Lord. But since they are ultimately perishable, these kinds of goals should be only secondary motivations.
If we were to place most of our emphasis on the thought that we can do all things, but not acknowledge that we need the strength of Christ, we would end up claiming that our accomplishments are ours alone. And that would only feed the self-love that separates us from other people and keeps us closed off to the love that God so wants to pour into our hearts.
“I Can’t Do Anything.” Hurdles—they are part of life. We face them every day. Some people revel in them. They thrive on tackling a tough situation and overcoming it. And yet for many other people, the story is different. They look at a difficult situation and lose confidence. Some even feel defeated before they start. The little voice inside tells them, “I can’t. I simply can’t. I wish I could, but I can’t.”
The children’s story “The Little Engine That Could” tells how a little blue engine carrying a trainload of toys overcame a formidable obstacle—a towering, seemingly impassable mountain—by repeating to itself: “I think I can, I think I can,” over and over again. It would be nice if we could overcome all of our obstacles in the same way that the little engine did. But it isn’t always that easy. For some of us, past failures have beaten us down and convinced us that we cannot do it. We believe that we are inadequate to the task. Others resist taking risks because they are afraid to fail. They prefer not to face the challenge instead.
Scripture tells the story of a man who gave one of his servants a sum of money that was the equivalent of about three months’ wages. Rather than invest it and risk losing everything, this servant chose to hide the money. When he heard what had happened, the master was outraged. He took the money away from this servant and gave it to another servant, who had already doubled his money (Luke 19:11-26).
While this parable may not be precisely about doing all things through Christ who strengthens us, it does offer us some important insights. If you think you can’t and then you don’t, sooner or later, you will lose even the little “can-do” that you have. On the other hand, if you think you can and then you go out and try to do it, God will be more pleased, even if you fail, than if you simply did not try.
When the “I can’t” voice rises up in your mind and tries to convince you that you can’t do it, respond by saying, “In Christ I know I can.” Such a response goes far beyond self-motivation. It is a proclamation of faith rooted and grounded in the promises of the gospel. It is a statement of trust that we can do what God asks of us because Jesus has given us his divine strength.
The Right Foundation. Over the next few days, try to carve out some time in prayer to examine your motivations. If you tend toward self-confidence, try asking yourself, “Am I the primary focal point of my life, or is the Lord?” Ask Jesus for the gift of humility so that you might be like St. Paul—tirelessly working and doing great things for God, yet knowing that your talents and abilities are gifts from God entrusted to you so that you can give him glory. Try to begin your day in prayer, telling Jesus that you want to start doing everything for him since he has given so much to you.
For those of you who tend toward doubt or fear, ask yourself, “How often do I think that I can’t tackle a challenge—that it’s too difficult? How often do I say, ‘I’m not worthy; I can’t overcome this fear or this resentment or this sense of guilt’?” If this is you, then it’s time to reject these voices of condemnation and inadequacy. Try to begin your day in prayer, telling Jesus, “I am not hopeless and helpless. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!”
All Things—in Christ. In every age and in every land, Christians have learned what it means to do all things “in Christ.” They have learned to be content with whatever they have and with whatever situation they face. They have learned how to cope with the ups and downs of life. They have learned that the skill to overcome challenges has less to do with what they can do and more with what Jesus can do.
Jesus has a wonderful plan for your life. He also knows that you will face times of pain, injustice, and rejection. He knows that this world is filled with temptation and sin. Whenever you face tough times, remember that Jesus himself suffered—and because he did, he knows our sufferings firsthand. He suffers with us and is always with us, offering us his consolation and strength.
This is the great promise of the Christian life. Anyone who takes as his or her own the prayer of St. Paul—that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us—will navigate even the most turbulent waters of life far more peacefully and successfully because Jesus is with us, helping us do what we could never accomplish on our own strength.