I won’t name his name, but several years ago when I was a reporter for the Banner I was called to interview a young man for a feature article in the paper.
I drove over to the high school and spoke with the football coach about him while we waited for him to get out of class for the interview. He told me of his good work ethic and, more importantly, his moral character. A fine young man and good student and good son. I believed him, and after the interview, I agreed. This young man was and I pray still is a man of character.
But I want to highlight a trend I’ve noticed. A few minutes into the interview I noted his shirt – which read, “Philippians 4:13: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” He said it was his life verse and he would pray it before football games and weightlifting competitions. I smiled and nodded and kept my mouth shut about what I wanted to say in response.
First, life verses are not bad. It’s great to have a wellspring of verses memorized to remind us of the great promises of God in our lives. However, there is a danger of memorizing sole verses, isolating them from the rest. Namely, we can forget the context of the verse, and in doing so, misinterpret and misunderstand the meaning of the verse we hold so dear.
What I wanted to tell that young man was while that verse is a great one to memorize, the context of the passage shows that the verse means something quite different than something to be prayed before lifting weights and playing games. “I can do all things” does not mean we can lift heavier weights or win more games. Suffering precedes and permeates that verse.
Paul reminded the Philippian church that he had “learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” Paul wrote he learned how to be content during the good times and the bad, when he was brought low and when he did abound. The secret? “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
In context, that verse means something different than what Norman Vincent Peal write in his 1950s book, “The Power of Positive Thinking.” That verse is not a mantra to be repeated before a job interview or a test you forgot to study for, but a reminder that whether you have food on the table or wait in line at the food bank, whether you wear name-brand apparel or rely on hand-me-downs and thrift shop specials, whether you have a roof over your head or don’t know where you will lay it down from night to night, you can do all things through Christ who gives you strength.
It’s something Paul learned through a lifetime of suffering for his Savior. A hard-learned lesson he passed on to the Philippians and, through them, to us.
This gets to something I’ve noticed in the larger culture and the church at large. It seems as if this is what we often do with lessons passed down. We are tempted to shorten things into bite-sized chunks. From paragraphs to slogans.
In shortening everything, there is a danger to shorten truthful sayings until they become untruths. Lies.
Another example of this in culture is how the verse rendered in the King James, “The love of money is the root of all evil,” became “money is the root of all evil” in popular society. By shortening it we change the meaning and shift the focus and blame from us to inanimate objects. Money, not our disordered passions, are to blame for the root of all evil.
And of course what I just wrote isn’t the whole truth as well. “The love of all evil is itself a mistranslation from the translators of the King James Version. Not “all evil,” but “all kinds of evil,” is what seems to be the closer translation. Because evil was in the world long before we had the currency to monetize it. The human heart, as Jeremiah wrote, is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Deceitful. Above all else. Ununderstandable. Will kill for all the money in the world or for none at all.
To meander back to the point, what I’m advocating for in this particular column is to realize the truth takes time.
Slogans are pithy and easy to chant and repeat. But so often when we distill great teaching – especially from Scripture – we can dilute their meaning and eventually distort what these verses truly mean.
We should be careful with our words because, to state the obvious, words mean things. And if they have meaning and someone took the time to write their thoughts down in the hopes of passing them down to the next generation, we should not take the easy way. Especially with Scripture.
Again, life verses are great. So please don’t read this and throw away any mugs with Psalm 41:1, Philippians 4:13, or Romans 8:28 on them.
But the next time you pick up that mug with “as the deer pants for flowing streams,” or look at the family photograph with the words “All things work together for the good,” be sure to pick up the Good Book and not only read the entire verse, but also the verses surrounding them.
Scripture is a well of treasure. Let’s plumb it for all it’s worth.
Joseph Hamrick is a semi-professional writer and sometimes thinker. He lives in Commerce and serves as a deacon at Commerce Community Church (C3). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org