Faith and limitations

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

These words have become more about tearing people down than lifting them up. How so? Well, if you have limitations, then you must not be a faithful person because faithful people are strengthened (by Christ) to do anything. Let me pause here. I don’t believe that is what these verses are saying, nor what they mean, but it is the most common presentation. People who have limitations cannot help but feel ashamed when their lives do not match this image of strength.

It might surprise you, then, to see the words which precede these famous verses.

10 I was very glad in the Lord because now at last you have shown concern for me again. (Of course you were always concerned but had no way to show it.) 11 I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. 12 I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor.

Working backwards, we ask the question, “What is it that Christ strengthens Paul to do?” Not literally “all things.” He can’t fly. He can’t jump over a mountain. So, what is it? According to verses 10-12, Paul is empowered, by Christ, to live in contentment regardless of his material circumstances. In other words, whether in wealth or poverty, Paul is capable of being content because Christ strengthens him to do so.

This should blow your hair back, because these verses are often used to encourage people to think that hard work, or effort, can help them rise above their limitations. What Paul is saying is more like: You can be content in the midst of your limitations because Christ offers you the kind of strength necessary to live with your limitations.

Those are very different messages, aren’t they?