“I can do all things through him who strengthens me” is the battle cry for just about every Christian and nominal Christian athlete in the United States today. I’m sure it’s not limited to the US but most of my experience comes from here, so that’s what I’ll critique.
The source of this quote is the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:13. It’s pretty obvious why this has become a tatoo verse, it’s super epic! All things?! What doesn’t fit in that category? State championship? Yup. D1 scholarship? Yeah. All american Status? Yeah that’s a thing. National Championship? Sure! How about looking tan and fit in my uniform? Especially that!
This verse really says I can win all things through him who strengthens me right? No… reading the Bible that way is called “reading into the text”. When you read into the text you make the Bible say what you want it to say instead of letting the Bible say what its intended to say.
When you make this verse about “winning life” you lose out on the real peace Paul is trying to convey. If you have this verse tattooed on your body don’t get it zapped off, i’m going to make the case that this verse should be even more meaningful to you once you have the proper understanding.
Reading into the text can also be called “cut and paste theology”. That’s pretty self-explanitory, you focus on the one verse out of a whole chapter in an entire book of the Bible that says what you want, paste it on your wall or tatoo it on your ribs and cut out the rest of the context. The theological word for cut and pasting this way is “eisegesis”.
I’m about to use a couple weird words that sound more like somthing Jar Jar Binks would say than a theologian would say but bear with me. Eisegesis and exegesis are hermeneutical terms.
Hermeneutics is a fancy word for interpreting a text.
Eisegesis is basically when you read a text having already made up your mind and cherry picking what your want in order to support your preconceived notions.
Exegesis involves looking for the author’s actual meaning in the text and taking in the context of surrounding sentences, paragraphs and the theme of the book.
Hermeneutics, exegesis, eisegeis, read those three words out loud and tell me you don’t hear Jar Jar’s voice.
Having those three words fresh in our minds let’s go back to Philippians 4:13. If we read this verse with our blinders on and our “me centered” hermenutic guiding us, we will come to the conclusion that we can vanquish all our foes. We will think Paul is telling us to name it and claim it and our cut and paste theology will bring in other verses like: “if I have faith the size of a mustard seed I can move mountains”.
“You can do literally all things if you just muster up the faith. You can be the biggest, the strongest, the fastest, you can jump the highest, run the longest, and climb to the top of the podium if you just claim this simple truth.” That sounds so good but that’s not what Paul is saying and that’s not reality.
I used to be the worst eisegetical theologian in my whole high school. For the record everyone is a theologian, if you open your mouth and talk about God you’re doing theology. Throughout highschool and even the first three years of college I would write “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” all over my notes in class. It was my way of pretending I wasn’t nervous about my next practice, my challenge matches, and my actual competitions.
I thought if I had doubts about winning the football game or wrestling match then I wasn’t believing I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. When I would lose I thought it was because I really didn’t have enough faith and it was God’s way of showing me. My senior year of high school I thought if I truly believe this verse then my amount of faith will get me to the top of the podium at the state tournement. I guess I only had enough faith to get me a 6th place medal, I didn’t even get to stand on the podium. That’s dumb, don’t be like me!
God finally showed me the proper meaning of this verse after my junior year of college. I went to the Athletes In Action Ultimate Training Camp in 2013 were I realized I need to read the Bible not just pick out tattoo verses to fire me up before I compete. This was a major paradigm shift for me, I began to exegete the text and I didn’t even hear that word for another year or so let alone understand it.
Exegesis can be super complex and controversial amongst differing scholars but what i’m talking about is much more simple. Just read the verse in context.
“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.” Philipians 4:10-13
All we did there was go back a couple verses and we can see that Paul is not intending his readers to think they will be the top Greco-Roman wrestler or be the best gladiator to ever enter the colosseum. He’s specifically talking about being lifted up and being humbled, having wealth and being poor, having a full stomach and being hungry and being ok in each situation because of Jesus.
Paul’s overall goal in writting this letter to his Philippian brothers and sisters is to encourage them in their faith. Here, specifically, he’s closing out his letter by saying that God will provide for their needs in Jesus Christ, He will strengthen them and sustain them in the extremes and everywhere in between.
When we understand what Paul is really saying it doesn’t take away our courage but should boulster us even more. If you think God is going to always give you victory because you’ve read one verse a billion times reality will beat you down so bad. You’ll have to rationalize your loses and chalk them up to your lack of faith or else your faith in God will be shaken. However, if you understand that Jesus will sustain you in your victories and in your losses, when you are cutting weight and when you are bulking up, when your scholarship check comes and when your student loan clock starts ticking, then you can have the courage and peace Paul is talking about here.
I was finally able to wrestle with this kind of peace towards the end of my wrestling carreer and it only took about 17 years or so to figure it out, not bad! My redshirt junior year (senior year in school) was supposed to be my year. I had moved down from heavyweight the year before after cutting 53 lbs.
My first year at 197lbs wasn’t anything to brag about. My second year, however, was on track to be different. I was older, wiser, I had got the hang of the new weight class and I was stronger in my relationship with God than I had ever been. The Red and Black duel is NIU wrestling’s annual challege match finals, where the winner will most likely be the starter that season. Going into the duel I was in the perfect state of mind, calm but ready to go to war. Excited but not nervous, I knew it’d be a hard fought battle and it was anyone’s match. I shook hands with Shawn Scott, a redshirt freshman at the time, the ref blew the whistle and we locked up. Shawn got a pretty easy take down and tilted me up over and over.
Tilts have always been my weakness, they were the main reason I got to stand on the floor instead of the podium in Highschool. The second period ended early because he tec’d me 15-0. It sucked so bad to get absoluetly womped like that infront of all my friends and family, by a sophomore! I was perplexed for sure but I was not broken. It was painful and embarrasing but I didn’t have to ask “why did i lose if the Bible says I can do all things through Christ?”. I finally understood that God is in the Heavens He does all that He pleases and it pleased Him to allow me to lose. I tried as hard as I possibly could, I trained like an animal but I came up short, really short, and that’s alright. God gave me the strength to win and even the strength to lose for His glory.
Philippians 4:13 is not about always winning, it’s about trusting the Lord whether you win or lose. It puts sports back in their proper place. Remember it’s just a sport.
Christian athletes should be some of the hardest working athletes because they want to honor the God who’s blessed them to play, but don’t idolize your sport and don’t use His Word to rationalize your obsession.
It’s a misunderstanding to use this verse in a sports psychology, blocking negative energy kind of new age weird way. If you understand this verse you can be free to train like an animal, eat well, sleep well, study well, practice well, to control what you can and leave the results up to God. God made you for His glory, don’t get it twisted.