“You know that line, the line where they tell you anything is possible. You can do anything you want when you grow up…it’s a lie.”
I have had the conversation multiple times with youth and young adults.
I’ve had it over sharing a cup of coffee, a coke, ice cream, and a meal. The individual stories are unique, but the core theme is the same. A message bought into when young has turned out to be a bust. Not only a bust. There are feelings of hurt and anguish, feelings of being deceived for buying into a message which turned out to be a myth.
At these moments I want to tell them that only society is guilty of promoting such a lie, but I know the church, I am, guilty of promoting the same propaganda.
It’s one of the most popular verses in the New Testament. One of the first verses I memorized as a youth.
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:13)
Words immortalized. Words, almost magical, that hold infinite possibility! If only I am willing to take hold of them and place them in the center of my heart. Or so I was taught growing up.
And for a while they do help. They are an encouragement when times are tough. They are the foundation of the popular belief, “God will only give me what I can handle.” They see me through the bump in the road. Until that bump becomes a full blown crisis, or worse yet, a fatal tragedy which cannot be undone.
We graduate from high school, trade schools, college, seminary, and graduates schools, thinking we have done everything right. Only to then struggle to find a job that pays the bills. Or we lose our job even though we did everything right.
It’s then, the words become shallow and begin to fail. At those moments in my life, and I imagine I am not alone, I don’t need the trite words printed on a card meant to cheer me up. I didn’t need someone reminding me of them, that somehow these feelings will pass, that God will give you only what you can handle. “You just got to keep believing…” I didn’t need empty words. I needed the people saying them to stand with me in those moments of despair, to be present to my suffering. And thankfully, they did.
The reality is, our interpretation of Philippians 4:13, anything is possible if we simply believe, has more to do with the mythic American Dream than it does with Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi.
To think, or interpret, otherwise forgets the context in which Paul was writing to this church – he was in prison. But, more important it forgets the great Christological statements Paul makes earlier in the letter, Philippians 2:5-11 (a.k.a. the Christ hymn). Theologian Daniel L. Migliore reflecting on this hymn writes, “It matters whether we are prepared to think and speak of God in the light of the humility, self-emptying, and obedience of Christ. Briefly stated, your God is too small if you think of the majesty of God as invulnerability to suffering or of the power of God as sheer domination.”
Jesus was not above suffering for what he believed in. To think things would be any different for us is to misunderstand his life and the message of the gospel completely. Jesus, and Paul, invite us to share in the sufferings of one another. This is what it means to be church.
The reality is this verse has nothing to do with the American Dream.
I think sometimes we are tempted to promote Philippians 4:13 as a verse of infinite possibility due to the fact we are trying to compete with the glitz and glamour of society. And we are afraid that if we don’t make Jesus shine like a “superstar”, then our youth won’t be impressed and will move on to something else. Jesus embraced the limits of being human. If Jesus embraced these limits, why then, should we expect God to help us defy them?
Other times, I think we pass along Philippians 4:13 because it’s a lot easer to pass the verse on than it is to walk with someone who is struggling.
Relief is most often the expression I encounter over a coke whenever I share my own thoughts on passages of scripture like Philippians 4:13. Relief from wondering if they are somehow doing something wrong because all things do not seem possible. Relief they are not alone in their doubts and struggles.