Commencement Speakers and Bad Advice
I remember most everything about the day I graduated high school, apart from the ceremony itself. I would say, on my best day, I can recall 4 things about sitting in Bojangles’ Coliseum waiting for my diploma; I sat next to an old friend who shared the same last name with me, I hugged my favorite assistant principal when I received my diploma, I stumbled because I had to wear “real” shoes and not flip-flops, and the commencement speaker gave terrible advice.
Fast forward six years and I am now a high school Bible teacher. Part of being a high school Bible teacher is understanding the cultural message being spoken to the students and interacting with it from a biblical standpoint. I have noticed that the same well-meaning, but biblically inaccurate, advice I received from my commencement speaker is still being peddled to our unsuspecting youth. Sadly, this advice does not seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. “You can do anything you put your mind to!
No, no you can’t. And that’s fine.
If you can do anything you put your mind to, Christ becomes nothing more than a motivational life coach in the background of your success.
I imagine only the most delusional folk believe they can do anything. You won’t see someone try to fly after hearing that statement. Rather, it is manifested in the idea that if you do the right stuff, try hard enough, and put your mind into practice, you will certainly be successful by societal standards. This advice — when internalized as truth –becomes destructive in the life of the Christian because the logical conclusion of this line of thought is, at best, prosperity-gospel-lite. You will see this in the rallying, out-of-context cry, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength!”
To debunk the idea that we have the ability to accomplish everything we put our mind to, we must look at Philippians 4:13 in context starting with 4:10:
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for 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.”
— Philippians 4:10-13(ESV)
Out of this passage, we are going to see the errors in thinking we can do all we attempt and why it is wonderful to embrace, “No I can’t.” Here are three ways a proper understanding of Philippians 4:10-13 can comfort us in our present state.
Comfort #1 – “I Can’t” Enables Authentic Christian Fellowship
Look again at verse 10: “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity.”
In the eyes of the watching, pagan-world Paul isn’t doing so hot. He wrote this Epistle to the church in Philippi while imprisoned, which has never been a measure of success by any human standard. In his time since leaving the Pharisaical school, Paul endured some terrifying situations, which he recounts in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29. Yet even in all this, there is an obvious contentment in his understanding of the Gospel.
We can see Paul’s good fruit by his otherworldly contentment. Even from a distance Paul is encouraged and strengthened by the fellowship and love the church in Philippi has for him. They care for him and he knows it.
While Christian fellowship is not the sole witness of the saving work of Christ, it does highlight the indwelling work of the Spirit in both the individual believer and the universal Church. We see the love of Christ in His Bride throughout our lives, and it shines brighter in times of need than plenty. Paul knows there are people who care for him in his struggles, and this care encourages him in his imprisonment. Rejoicing in the Lord greatly is the sign of a man who is being edified through fellowship with the church.
If we were to succeed in all life circumstances, or if we believe we can do anything we put our mind to, we could not fully experience the comfort of believers in our daily lives. We need this fellowship in the inevitable pains that plague us. Failure and trials draw the people of God together in the same way a welding torch unites metals to build a sturdy structure.
Embracing the fact that you will fail in some way, shape, or form enables you to unashamedly embrace your brothers and sisters in Christ when you inevitably do. Failing should not become an excuse to hide away from others out of shame; rather it is an invitation to meet with those who are divinely placed in your life to support you in your hurt. Not all failure is directly due to a mistake, but all failings and hurts are direct results of the Fall. All Christians are affected by the Fall and need to strengthen each other in anticipation of the return of Christ. Paul does not merely rejoice in the temporal encouragement by the Philippians but the eternal promises to which Christian fellowship points. Do the same, and do it side by side with fellow believers.
Comfort #2 – “I Can’t” Enables True Contentment
If a Christian presupposes they can do anything they put their mind to it is impossible for them to be content. This leads to habitual discontentment which will have devastating consequences. Habitual discontent looks like this: When something goes your way, you could’ve done just a smidge better. When something goes wrong, you better work harder next time. Whichever way it ends up you will still be discontent because in your mind you either didn’t live up to your full potential, or you came up short. When discontentment is your default setting it will empty you of peace and joy, and fill you with anxiety and bitterness.
Paul knows how easy it is for someone to fall into habitual discontentment, this is why he words verse 12 so strongly, “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.” If you look at the verse you will notice that he parallels excess and lack four times. This repetition shows that peace and contentment are realized when circumstances cease to direct the passions of the Christian.
Remember, Paul is in prison writing this letter before his salvation he would never have considered this to be the way his life would go. He would have been well off as a leading teacher of the Jews. He was a student of the famed Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) and was brilliant (Acts 26:24). He was on the fast-track to political and religious greatness. Instead, here is he, writing a letter in chains. A prisoner of the worldly power, but free of worldly desire.
Jeremiah Burroughs, in his book, “The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment,” says that the Christian should be the most dissatisfied man in the world, but the most content. The point he is making is that As Christians we cannot be ultimately satisfied by what the world has to offer. All the power, wealth, and health in the world cannot compare to what Christ has done for the Christian. If things are going well, we are able to praise the Lord. When things are going awful, we are able to praise the Lord. We must be dissatisfied with the things of the world, but wholly content in our savior. The work of Christ on the cross is not undone by bad circumstance, rather bad circumstance shows us how much we need Him. In plenty and in want He is enough.
Don’t sell Christ short by seeking satisfaction in stuff that will ultimately be thrown away or hawked off at an estate sale. Be content with your earthly blessings and satisfied by the saving works of Christ. In every situation be content in Christ.
Comfort #3 “I Can’t” Draws us to Christ
All the previous comforts point to the fact that circumstance doesn’t dictate your standing as a child of God. A poor single mother who is redeemed is not struggling to make ends meet due to a lack of faith. A wealthy family who can vacation in the Poconos at whim is not gaining these blessings through naming and claiming them. Our standing with God is not determined by how great our faith is, our faith is made great by God’s mercy towards us.
How is it that a widowed mother of 4 can be strong in faith even while facing the hardships of grief, loneliness, and financial need? How is it that a man who lost his job praise the Lord? How is joy even possible in such a twisted world? Well, Paul has learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need, and what a simple secret it is, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Paul tells us that the reason we can be fully content in this life is Christ’s mercy. Christ gives us the strength to follow Him even living in a world full of misery, pain, hate, and evil. The reason I hate the prosperity gospel is simple, it steals the possibility of joy from millions of people. Health and wealth preachers are misguided-at-best peddlers of legalism, except rather than earning salvation you earn a flat screen. The proper understanding of the enabling power of God in our Christian walk frees the Christian from living a life of begrudging servitude. We live as sons and daughters because of the sacrifice of the Son. As it says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Christ took on our sin and became the worst sinner in history on the cross. Not by committing sin, but by assuming his people’s sin. We have been imputed the righteousness of Christ so that when we enter the throne room instead of hearing guilty, we are deemed innocent. If the atonement of Christ on the cross was simply to make us succeed in our careers due to our hard work or accomplish awesome things for our own glory, then Jesus was just a 1st Century TED Talk.
Christ accomplished the greatest work of all time in that he redeems sinners. He met Paul on the road to Damascus and saved him. Christ redeems sinners in their wickedness and transforms them into new creations.
Never cheapen this verse to mean you can do some awesome feat because Jesus is your cheerleader. But rather hold to the truth that He who saved you will not abandon you, and in Him, and only in Him, can true contentment in a fallen world be found. In any situation, we are enabled by Christ to endure unto glorification.
This does not mean don’t try your hardest in everything you do, it does not mean be a nihilist and do nothing. The point is that we all need to realize our earthly success is not God’s greatest concern, but rather it is His glory through His Son’s work on the cross. Don’t make the driving force in your life to accomplish everything you put your mind to, rather work towards promoting what Christ accomplished for you. Because you can’t do everything you put your mind to, and that’s fine. What Christ did for His people is eternal, and better than anything you or I could ever do.
The Secret in Every Circumstance by John Piper
Philippians Expositional Commentary by James Montgomery Boice
PWhy Philippians 4:13 Does not mean what you Think from Athletes in Action