I’ve written before about taking scripture verses out of context to give them a meaning other than the one the author intended. I’ve also touched several times on the way that many western churches have co-opted the gospel and spun it into a message of success. (If you’re tired of hearing this, you might as well hang up the phone: this is an issue that isn’t going to go away, and I’m going to keep on banging the drum about it.)

I was already planning to write this post, but then I saw the perfect hook on Facebook earlier today when a friend shared this picture:

Can do all things

This pithy quote is referring, of course, to Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. This is a favourite verse among the God-wants-to-make-you-successful-beyond-your-wildest-dreams crowd. And why wouldn’t a good, loving God want you to fulfil your potential and achieve to the max?

The problem is that, taken on its own, this verse has no contextual anchor to root its meaning and stop it being misinterpreted. The quote above is quite obviously untrue: it implies that we can do whatever we want, with God’s blessing. Don’t tell me I can’t be richer, more beautiful, drive a bigger car, live in a bigger house, have a better job, enjoy a higher status in society, or generally be a superstar: the Bible says I can do all things through Christ!

To understand what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote this verse, we need to look at it in context. Let’s read verses 11-13 of Philippians 4:

Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

It’s immediately clear that Paul is talking about a range of situations in which he has known distress as well as ease. (In fact, he goes on to talk in verse 14 about the Philippian Christians sharing in his distress.) He’s not talking about his unfulfilled dreams or ambitions. He’s not “naming and claiming victory” over some undesirable circumstance or other. He’s making a general statement about where he finds the source of his strength in good times and bad. To assume otherwise is either to deliberately misuse the text, or to assume that the Bible is a collection of sentences that can arbitrarily be rearranged as desired without losing their intended meaning.

Another verse that is often similarly pressed into service by the I’m-a-Christian-therefore-I-expect-to-succeed-at-everything crowd is Romans 8:37: “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us”. Treat this verse as a standalone nugget, and you can apply it to whatever you want. Having difficulties in your marriage? Just declare that you’re more than a conqueror and everything will miraculously be fine. Struggling financially? Simply proclaim that you’re more than a conqueror and you can expect God to sort it all out for you.

Once again, context is key. Given that this verse begins “Yet in all these things…”, it’s reasonable to ask ourselves what are the “these things” to which Paul is referring. Let’s take a look at verses 35-38:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written:

“For Your sake we are killed all day long;
We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”

Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.

It couldn’t be any clearer what “these things” in verse 35 refers to: it refers to the things Paul’s just been talking about – namely tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword and suchlike. As was the case with the above verse from Philippians 4, Paul is offering encouragement and consolation in the face of trials and difficulties. He’s telling the believers in Rome that God will preserve them and keep them secure even when the worst happens and they have to endure terrible adversity. He’s not giving them a magic formula to whip out and chant every time they need to be assured of winning.

I once heard a preacher who was talking about believing God for great things say the following words: “You can do what God says you can do, you can go where God says you can go, and you can have what God says you can have!” Now, on one level, that is entirely true. What God says, goes. But we are fallen creatures with powerful and deceptive egos, and this kind of statement feeds right into our pride. And I believe that the two verses we’ve been looking at do exactly the same when misused by the proponents of “word of faith” style teaching.

(Incidentally, when the Apostle Paul had a problem that bugged him and wore him down over a long period – he called it a “thorn in the flesh” – his response was not to claim the victory over it, rebuke it or declare that he was more than a conqueror over it. Instead, he pleaded with God to remove it, and when God apparently didn’t, he accepted that and learnt a powerful lesson about God’s grace working in our weakness – see 2 Corinthians 12:7-9.)

I’m not trying to say that God wants us to suffer, or that we should expect to be miserable in life. Not in the least. I’m just pointing out what seems obvious to me: when you use scriptures like the ones above as a means of claiming success in some area, you are blatantly disregarding their context and making them say something other than what the author meant when he wrote them. I for one don’t want to be guilty of knowingly distorting and misusing the word of God in that way.

(For more on treating the Bible with the respect it deserves, I encourage you to read my earlier post on Using and abusing the Bible).