Philippians 4:10-13 I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
There’s a line from a book that’s I think it’s safe to say has been etched into our national consciousness. It’s been a classic for years now and has even made the top 100 list for the National Education Association. I’ll bet you’ve read it before. There was the Shiny New Engine that was too good to do it. There was the Big Engine that was too important to do it. And there was the Rusty Old Engine that was too tired to do it. But when the Little Engine saw the mountain and the opportunity… well, I’m guessing you remember what he said. (I can still remember the percussive way my mom would read those words to me.) “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” That book is my first memory of a human can do spirit.
Shia LaBeouf in what some have called the most intense motivational speech of all time said the exact same thing in different words. (You can find it on YouTube.) He said, “Do it. Just do it. Don’t let your dreams be dreams. Yesterday you said, ‘tomorrow.’ So just do it. Make your dreams come true. Just do it. Some people dream of success while some people work hard at it. Nothing is impossible. You should get to the point where everyone else would quit and you’re not going to stop there. No. What are you waiting for? Do it. Just do it. Yes, you can. Just do it. If you’re tired of starting. Stop giving up.”
We understand, of course, that kids books aren’t written in a vacuum and that Shia LaBeouf had an audience. Or, to say it another way, there was a reason why the Little Engine That Could tries to drum, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can,” into little human spirits. And there are hearers who needed Shia to scream, “Just do it,” to them with almost overwhelming physicality and power. Because sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we quit. Sometimes we encounter a life situation and say, “I don’t think I can.” And we do this because what’s packed in our invisible suitcase is the idea, “I have no power.”
And, yes, it’s important to notice this is very, very personal to all of us. The Little Engine That Could wasn’t aiming at the person sitting next to us. And Shia LaBeouf wasn’t getting after somebody is some far off galaxy. He was after us as individuals. Because this is very, very personal to all of us. And it was for Paul too. That’s why as he builds a case for God’s vision of a human can do spirit he takes us to that pinnacle through his own experience. Not anyone else’s. Just his. I rejoiced that you renewed your concern for me. I know what it is to be in need. I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. I. I. I. I. Me. Me. Me.
Why do you think Paul does that? What’s he trying to show us? Is he unveiling his narcissism? Does he somehow think his experiences are more instructive than anyone else’s? No. You know what he’s showing us? Paul’s showing us that he’s got a big ol’ pastor’s heart that gets us. He really gets us. Because he’s lived this life. He’s felt its rough corners and known its bite. He wants us to think, “This isn’t some guy who rides around in some limo and has people pull out the red carpet every time he gets out.” And so he makes sure we hear him say, “I know what it’s like to be hungry. And I know what it’s like to be filled. I know what it’s like to be in need of something. And I know what it’s like to have.” Paul has legitimate life experience and he’s speaking to us from it.
There’s no theological ivory tower here. No, sage on a stage that tells all the little ones beneath him how to think about their little, tiny, down-here lives. He comes to us on our level, as one of us, so that we’ll hear him - really hear him - when he speaks the truth about everything that happens to us down here and that applies to us all. The same truth that applies to a young, single mother that also applies to a young family wondering what’s next. The same truth that applies to a man with busted career aspirations that also applies to a woman whose dream of having kids appears frustrated.
What truth is that? It’s the truth about empowerment. That’s the truth that Paul has built toward and now states, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (v. 13) Tell me that isn’t empowering. Tell me that isn’t glorious and hopeful and beautiful. Tell me that’s not enough to make your heart beat out of your chest while you say, “I’ve got this. I can do this life. I’m going to get unstuck. I’m on my way.” I remember going to a basketball camp during my during my junior high days as a kid. It was that hopeful time of life when you still sort of thought that maybe, just maybe if you worked as hard as Michael Jordan. That if you shot enough free throws and worked hard enough on your vertical that maybe, just maybe you could make get a scholarship, and make the NBA. I remember that. And I remember seeing this t-shirt with Philippians 4:13 plastered on it, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” And I thought to myself, “I’m totally going to play in the NBA.”
I thought about that moment as I stared at the same truth a solid two decades later prepping for this sermon - no closer to my dream of playing in the NBA and this time also noticing that Paul calls God’s vision of human empowerment a secret. He said, “I have learned the secret (of being content)… I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (v. 13) That’s odd, isn’t it? Why is being able to do all things through him such a secret? It doesn’t seem like a secret. It seems much more like a well known fact. Don’t we all sort of know that if we want to thrive and have a sense of contentment that what we really need is a bit more Jesus. A lot of people think that.
In fact, there is a very powerful idea running rampant around Christianity right now that says that if you sprinkle a little Jesus pixie dust in your life that you will become a spiritual He-man and vanquish every foe in life. There is an idea that if you just salt and pepper enough God, that life will become this tropical island resort where you will only experience waves of more peace and more joy. It’s the same idea that says that if you give your child enough Jesus that they will go to Harvard, study pre-med there, and then your life will become a Christian parade of joyful experience. It’s this idea that if I have enough Jesus and if I shoot enough free throws and practice hard enough that I can even take down Lebron James in NBA Finals. After all, I can do everything through him who gives me strength, right?
But that couldn’t have been the secret. You know why? The guy who taught this didn’t look much like a world beater. Not even close. What he actually and historically looked like was world beaten. Here’s a guy who spent large portions of his life fleeing, in prison, or getting beaten up. Here’s a guy who was just as likely to think, “I wonder where my next meal is going to come from,” as he was, “I wish I could refrigerate this extra food.” And he was just as likely to think, “I wonder where I’m going to put my head down to sleep tonight,” as he was, “I have one too many pillows here.”
So what exactly is this secret then? And what exactly then is Paul able to do through Him who strengthens him? You know what the answer is? Absolutely everything. He said that. He meant that. Just not the way you may think he did. It’s not that if I want to play in the NBA I can and I will. It’s not that if I just work hard enough at something that I can get it with God’s help. It’s that no matter what comes in life - no matter what! - that I’ll be safe and I’ll be ok because of the one who strengthens me and is with me through it. Our world may come crashing down around us, but we’re still ok. We’re still content because the world is never what we ultimately wanted anyway.
At least, that’s the way it stands after repentance and faith. It wasn’t always that way. And that’s why Paul calls this whole way of thinking a secret. Because it used to be a secret from us. We’re not naturally oriented to think or believe this way. We come wired wanting this world to be our paradise, not its Maker. We come understanding this life as our chance to carve out joy and know a bit of our own glory, not as the moment to come to know the Ultimate Joy or to see the Only Glory that is God. And if you think about it, that very human story is a huge part of the Scriptures. It’s the story of people on the hunt for something that’s so tragically less than God.
It’s only through repentance that we sort that all out - that we can spot clearly that part of us that wanted Jesus to be pixie dust for our lives. The part of us that wishes that you just salt and pepper God liberally into this life so that we can accomplish, achieve, and have for ourselves whatever it is that our hearts desire. It’s only through repentance that we see that there is a part of us that doesn’t believe that God is the goal - that believes that God is merely a means to my ends. That if we sprinkle enough of him on ourselves that he will supply whatever it is that we really want and that isn’t finally God.
And that’s why that peace, that everything, that glory, and that joy that is God literally came and hunted us down in Christ. He came and revealed to us the secret. That there is more - so much more - for us to have than we ever knew. There is God. And he is revealed, and restored, and given to us in Christ - a God who was so jealous for our attention, so committed to our well-being, and so wonderful with his fierce love that he allowed himself to become a means for our ends. He became the means for our forgiveness. He became the means for our reconciliation with the God who is our peace, our everything, our glory, and our joy. No additives necessary. None.
That’s the secret that Paul knew. That’s what he believed when there was no food to eat. That’s what he trusted when he didn’t have a pillow on which to lay his head. That’s what he believed. No. Matter. What. And that’s why Paul not only could. He would. He not could live with hunger. He would live with hunger. He not only could live with nothing. He would live with nothing. And he wouldn’t give up. He refused to believe he was powerless because he wasn’t. Because today he had Jesus. And tomorrow he would too. And Jesus was enough for him. That was the secret. No matter what came. No matter what happened. He had his everything, his joy, his peace, his Jesus.
I think about that a lot as a pastor as I watch the Lord work in people’s lives. I had a good friend call me the other day. I could hear in his voice he was devastated. He got to the point quickly. He said, “My wife left me.” He went on to say, “I feel so powerless to fix my emotions. To be ok.” And I told him from the bottom of my heart, “I’m so sorry. I don’t have the words.” And then I did my best to speak words of truth that also came from the bottom of my heart, “You have your God. You know that from Jesus.” And I just let the truth fall over him with all the power I could muster over the phone. So he could face the moment. So he could stand up with faith. So he could.
That’s God vision of human empowerment for this life. And it’s just so honest. And so full of Jesus at it’s heart. Christians aren’t little super heroes that leap from power to power and from joy to joy. We’re people who sometimes see astounding success and sometimes see soul numbing trouble. We’re people who sometimes find bright solutions and other times stare at a problem only to find more problems. But that doesn’t mean we need to carry around an invisible suitcase with the idea inside, “I’m powerless.” Because we’re not. And that’s not because we’ve got all the answers or have peppered enough Jesus onto every situation, but because come what may we’ve still got our glory, our peace, our everything, our Jesus. Or to say it like a man named Paul who lived a whole lot of this life said it: I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
And, no, that wasn’t spoken in a vacuum. And, no, that wasn’t written for some person in some far off galaxy. It was written to us as individuals with all of our unique joys and hurts. So that as we face them we unpack the idea in that invisible suitcase that says, “I’m powerless here,” and we catch God’s vision of human empowerment – that we actually say to ourselves, “With him I can.” Amen.