The Apostle Paul wrote: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” There’s no way he could have anticipated how those words would be used centuries later. Printed on bumper stickers for aspiring marathoners; a benediction for victors at the end of a football game; inscribed on the shirt of a middle-aged man attempting to reclaim his lost youth in the weight room: I don’t think this is what Paul had in mind.
While his words appear to be a mantra for overachievers everywhere, that’s not Paul’s intent. The Apostle was talking about contentment, not accomplishment, borrowing an idea from the Greek Stoics. Far and way, Stoicism was the most popular philosophy in the Greek and Roman worlds, and Paul, having been born and educated in that world would have been very familiar this school.
The hallmark of the Stoic credo was self-sufficiency. The only way one could be happy, per Stoic thought, was to rely upon nothing and no one. This was Stoicism’s highest ideal, and you have to admit that they were on to something. If you didn’t need someone else’s money, protection, or affection; if you could be free of all fear, expectations, and emotional hostage-holding, you would be truly liberated.
Thus, Paul and the Stoics both agree that a determined, “Can Do” attitude of self-sufficiency can lead to an extraordinary level of personal contentment. But they disagree on how to get there. The Stoic path was one of perfect detachment and internal strength, self-control, and fortitude.
A contemporary of Paul said, “If you go on long enough, and if you try hard enough, you will come to a stage where you can watch your nearest and dearest suffer and die, and say, ‘I don’t care.’” If, said the Stoics, you can dry up all emotion and desire, release all attachment and concern for the physical world, by the sheer force of your will, then you will be happy.
For my money, that is a philosophy that sounds more like apathy or indifference than happiness or contentment. And besides that, there is a big difference between saying, “I don’t need anything or anybody to make me happy,” and “I have found the ultimate source of happiness.”
So while I agree with the Stoic premise – if you were completely severed from your surroundings, nothing could hurt you – it’s a rather deranged way to live. Paul recognized as much and offered a different path; not an “I Can Do” attitude, as much as a “He Can Do” submission. That is the context for his manta, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”
No, this isn’t about overcoming, but accepting. It’s not a call to Stoic-like effort, rather, it is positioning oneself to receive the strength that Christ offers. Contentment is not the result of trying harder – no matter what the Stoics or iron-pumping athletes might say – it is the result of relying upon a Power greater than yourself.
And this is why Paul’s words are often so grotesquely misappropriated. They are used as a form of defiance against the odds, used to magically conjure up our personal strength when we have none left, making us try harder, go farther, endure longer, and never surrender until we are victorious. This is the exact opposite of what Paul was saying. It is only in surrender, the surrender of our own power, that the power of Christ can be ours.
Words from legendary gospel singer Larnelle Harris fit the bill perfectly. He sang, “It’s not in trying; but in trusting. It’s not in running; but in resting. It’s not in wondering, but in waiting, that we find the strength of the Lord.” And that’s also where we find peace, happiness, contentment, and every other synonym in the English language for being truly satisfied.
Determined, tireless self-sufficiency will take you far in life, but not quite far enough. To be genuinely content, and genuinely powerful, it won’t take more – but less – less of yourself and more of Jesus.