Several years ago, Home Depot used the slogan, “You can do it. We can help.” A lot of what I hear in popular evangelicalism reminds me of these words. We present Jesus as the one who can help you fulfill your potential, reach your dreams, and live the life that you have always wanted. We talk about him as if he is standing on the sidelines of our lives yelling, “you can do it, and I can help.” In this presentation, Jesus becomes nothing more than a tool that I use to help me get what I really want.
We foolishly think that we have Scriptural support for this. The first time I ever heard Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” it was in a pep talk before a football game. While the person speaking never uttered the phrase, “you want to win and Jesus can help,” it was the clear implication.
What this person did in speaking about Jesus before a football game, we often do in life. Whether we want healthy relationships, a fit body, a fat bank account, or to feel successful, we sanctify our desires by saying that Jesus is helping us do it. In our popular rendering of Philippians 4:13, we seem to be saying, “I CAN do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” I want what I want, I’ve got the power to achieve my dreams. I just need a little help, and Jesus is the life coach who is helping me reach my goals.
Is this the real Jesus though? Does Jesus present himself as the one who is there to help us fulfill our vision for our lives? If we go back to Philippians 4:13 and put it in its context, a better way of understanding Jesus and this verse starts to emerge.
The opening chapter of Philippians shows us that Paul writes this letter from prison. He mentions his chains and the imperial guard who watch over him. Rather than railing at his circumstances or looking at how this “set back is going to lead to his comeback,” he rejoices that God is using his suffering for the advance of the Gospel. Paul is okay with either dying or continuing to live in his present situation. Either way, his desire is to bring glory to Christ through his life or in his death.
In the second chapter, Paul encourages his fellow believers to conduct themselves with self-denying humility rather than self-glorifying ambition. Paul knows that our desire to be great, to be successful, and to have more can create a self-centered view of life. We begin to see life as if it is a movie in which I am the star, and everyone else is playing a bit role in which they exist to help me get what I want. When we find ourselves in this place, we begin to treat other people either as pawns to help us get our way or as obstacles to be cleared from our path.
Paul’s antidote for this malady is a long, steady look at the life of Jesus. Paul presents him, not as a cheerleader urging us on the achieve our great personal ambitions, but as a humble servant who poured himself out for others and by his example encourages us to do the same. Jesus did not hang on to his equality with God but left the beauty of heaven and perfect fellowship with his Father to take on full human flesh and be born in a stable in Bethlehem. Then, knowing the joy set before him, Jesus gladly and willingly laid down his life for us to bring us back to God.
Paul offers a recitation of his own personal accomplishments in chapter three. Instead of clinging to personal accruements, he tells how he counted them as loss so that he might gain Christ. Those things that we so often pant and long for, Paul possessed, and yet he counted them as worthless refuse compared to knowing Christ. In this passage he offers Jesus, not as the means by which we attain our personal goals, but as the great prize we should have been looking for all along. In his life, sufferings, and resurrected glory, we find everything that we need.
This brings us back to Philippians 4. After showing Christ as the supreme treasure, for whom we should count the loss of all things as gain, he turns again to his current situation. He writes to the Philippian church to thank them for a gift they sent him to sustain him in his imprisonment. In doing this Paul says that he has learned to be content in whatever circumstance he finds himself. He has lived in low circumstances and great abundance, yet he knows how to be content wherever his lot may fall. He says he can do this because “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Here’s the context for Philippians 4:13. It’s not a football field and there are no shining lights. He is in prison. He needs Jesus to strengthen him to live for his glory in his difficult circumstances so that he might continue to proclaim the Gospel and see Jesus as the infinite treasure that he is.
In light of what Paul says about the real Jesus in Philippians, we need to lose life coach and cheerleader Jesus because he is altogether insufficient. A Jesus who only exists to help me achieve my own personal greatness is not the real Jesus. The real Jesus is not the means to an end, but is the treasure itself.
Jesus did speak of greatness, though, and we would be remiss not to mention it. Jesus’ disciples argued over who would be the greatest in the kingdom. They saw Jesus as the catalyst to help them receive the praise of men. He was their chance to be great. Instead, Jesus showed them another way, and it was the way he would soon go himself. He said that the greatest among them would be the servant of all. This is what he modeled when he gave himself up for us on the cross as Paul mentioned in Philippians 2. Then he shows that God highly exalted Jesus, and gave him the name above every name so that every knee would bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
We don’t find greatness by asking Jesus to come alongside and help us fulfill our dreams so that we can make much our ourselves. We discover true greatness when we treasure Jesus above all else and follow him in serving others for the glory of his great name. In doing so you will find that the greatness you have desired wasn’t that great after all.
“Why Christians Need the Gospel Every Day“
For Further Reading:
The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson