Singapore and Malaysia are among my favorite destinations for experiencing dynamism at work. A unique feature of their English, sometimes called Singlish or Manglish, is their addition of lah to establish the tone of an expression. The discourse particle ends sentences with assurance and affirmation, exclamation, even exasperation. A former Malaysian diplomat, now a RREACH colleague, often answers requests with “can, lah” or with a gentle double, “can-can, lah!”
Meaning? It’s doable.
I need more of that willing and able, “can-can, lah” approach to life in this season of uncertainty and volatility.
Early this year, before COVID-19 struck the world, I shared a devotional on one of the Bible’s most popular verses, Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (NASB). There I revealed my word and verse for Year 2020,1 2030 and beyond: ABLE!
Not knowing how much the apostle’s declaration would be needed through the year, I had asked,
Where may I find all resources necessary to do life, to do God’s will?
Where lies the strength to fulfill God’s call in the middle of my finitude and frailty, and sadly, my fallenness and fickleness, too?
How can I go from finitude to fortitude while facing the reality of human and personal limits in life and ministry?
No other much quoted and intuitively appealing verse has been more explored for its full meaning. But I said I would expand on what I wrote in that devotional, since the pregnant sentence holds much life waiting to be born. Scripture cannot be exhausted or emptied, voided or forced. So here I go on how to read, claim and apply the astonishing verse.
We Are All Un-Able
The verse provides confidence to face any condition while fulfilling ministry demands, regardless of our feelings or fortunes. I need its personal assurance as I get ready for my next season of known current responsibilities and unknown future realities under the Lord’s will.
I need resolve. My willpower is weak.
I need time. It evaporates by the second.
I need focus. Distraction by the many personal and ministry decisions that await my urgent input is a default habit.
I need physical strength. After short but unpunctured nights, my daily habit of an early afternoon, 20-minute nap beckons me right now.
I need spiritual wisdom. Exploring this powerful concept and explaining it aright in concrete terms requires more than brainpower. I must be careful not to promise too much or too little.
You’ve heard phrases such as “It’s not about you!” that hope to keep us from inflated, narcissistic views of ourselves. To take that phrase in another direction, even my personal need is not about me; I can do nothing about this need by myself. I am intrinsically inadequate to accomplish anything of substance. Why? Consider the following comments and questions concerning the difficulties we all face.
We are marked by fickleness of will, revealed in indecision and vacillation. Casually changing activity without rhyme and reason is draining on the self, and every other self. (Sadly, between the last two sentences, and even with my offline setting in Outlook, I created four emails to go out later.) We need a steadiness in the decisions we make, without second-guessing ourselves or others. Where may we find the conditions we need to make our powerless wills more resolute and firm?
Frailty, especially related to the body and brain, also affects all of us. Just you wait and see. Once we cross peak age, we attempt to deal with the limits of body and brain. But death equalizes us.
Before COVID-19 restrictions, I met one of the most physically strong men I know. At 90, he still leg-presses 200 pounds. While quite bent in body (but not in drive), he held on to my arm as we made the way from parking lot to restaurant door. He wished not to be dropped off at the entrance. “I use roll-aids,” he quipped, and I was his that day. How can we possess strength for all God-given responsibilities assigned to us at every stage and till our last breath?
What about finitude? We are not omni-anything—neither omnipotent, omnipresent nor omniscient, as God is. (I may, though, be omnivorous. I can eat anything demonstrated by international hosts in Singapore and Malaysia as humanly edible. Once, at least. I can, lah!)
Earthly life is characterized by physical and psychological limitations, geographical and chronological boundaries, and cultural and intellectual confines that differentiate us from deity. Against God, who is infinite, and nature, which is unlimited, reality forces us to admit our finitude.
But do we withdraw from difficult responsibilities, dismissing them as humanly impossible because of lack of fortitude?
Then there is our residual fallenness that can pollute everything. I am referring neither to the human situation of lostness that God has fully addressed in Christ’s salvation nor to personal acts of commission we decide to do against what we know is right. I am referring to a human sin-nature that conflicts with the spiritual nature gifted us by new birth but whose defeat can be enabled by the Holy Spirit.
So how much does our fallenness contribute to our inabilities to be and do all that God wants of us?
Given our human condition of fickleness, frailty, finitude and fallenness, nothing but failure awaits any undertaking for God.
Christ, Our “In-Abler”
The book of Philippians talks about progressing in maturity spiritually, working together joyfully and ministering the gospel strenuously all while following the humble mind and example of Christ. Then Paul, though under house arrest for the Faith, utters the climactic, empowering declaration. While experiencing great deprivation of comfort and certainty, he proclaims spiritual confidence for all situations and limitations.
In verses like these2 we must ask how to avoid reading the text too narrowly because of our faithlessness or too broadly because of our foolishness. Shallow application of this verse is tempered by studying it in a helpful stair-step format.
Probe each step on this staircase with questions and observations—a good method for Bible immersion. I wrote these beginning comments in my notebook:
Step 1. “I can,” rather than an “I can’t” or an “I won’t” approach to life.
Step 2. “I can do.” The focus is on doing, not just on the precursors of doing (e.g., ideas, feelings or even commitments). I am able to do … through Christ who strengthens me.
Step 3. “I can do all things.” Why is “all things” in emphatic position in the original language? What does “all” mean? Any and everything? To what “things” does Paul refer? It’s all things that accompany his God-granted responsibilities, in other words, all things entrusted to him in any conditions and circumstances while he pursues obedience to God.
Step 4: “I can do all things through Him”: I am not the source of my strengthening. My ability to do all things comes through Christ, who “ables” this powerless instrument to do all things.
(Do you have a note for step 5 in the box above? Do send me a couple of those insights  to strengthen my soul. I look forward to hearing from you any time.)
“In-Abling”: Ten Declarations
Read, claim and apply what this amazing verse offers us: personal ability from the divine Strengthener in any situation so we can do all He has given us to do. In short, in and with Christ, I can do all I should. He makes me able for a responsible life. Or, as I found in an old English paraphrase, “He ableth me.”
But the mood of the verse is that of declaration rather than promise. The ten points below explore its declarations, which keep us from misapplying its content by manipulating it for everything we want or neglecting its amazing resource for life and ministry.
It declares weakness in the face of lacks and losses. It is definitely not an imperative to become strong on our own, like “the little engine that could.” We don’t have it in ourselves to be or become strong in ourselves. I know some hate admitting weakness, and some appear to possess native strength. One friend told me he had never entertained even a thought of weakness as applying to him until he experienced sudden physical debilitation while mountain climbing in Colorado. Laid low, he was rushed to the nearest emergency hospital for resuscitation and strength. Before God, we are all weak, and in time we shall succumb. Unlike the Stoics who exalted self-sufficiency, we are without self-power.
It declares that Christ’sstrength precedes and anchors mine. A well-known positive thinker used to quote only half this verse: “As the apostle Paul said,” he preached, “‘I can do all things!’” Paul neither claimed omnipotence, an attribute of God alone, nor said, “I can do any ” Nor does the verse give Christians an excuse to sin, even though they wish to sin. Already then, some “things” one can do must be left out of “all things.”
It is good to consider who is this One, the Christ who strengthens us. The passage begins with great joy in the Lord (v. 10) and ends with Christ (v. 13). Christ Jesus is the one who will be given a name above every name (2:9–11). Christ Jesus possesses the power—the capacity, ability, strength—to fortify us.
So realistic thinkers cite the entire verse, finishing with “through Christ who strengthens me.” A humble triumph in union and communion with Christ declares the source of their strength.
It declares relationship—a vital, continuous relationship—as the source of Christ’s strength to the believer. This is not a personally sourced inner strength, as pantheistic spiritualities propose. We have an outer source for a divinely provided, inner strength. The strength of Christ Jesus is available and accessible to any Christian servant immediately and continuously.
Christ’s provision of an inner strength is present and current rather than sporadic, in intermittent ways at occasional times. Such strength is the ongoing, present work of Christ in our union with and dependence on Him.
Availability, however, does not necessitate accessibility (though what is accessible must be available). Implied in this verse is a relationship established with Christ that gives us the availability and a relationship nurtured with Him that gives us the accessibility to divine strength.
All we have do is to request divine supply, as I do each morning in prayer, and clean out relational blockages, as I do daily in confession.
It declares sufficiency—a theology of divine sufficiency overcoming human insufficiency through that relationship. It acknowledges that my fickleness, frailty, finitude and fallenness will overwhelm me unless a greater, higher, stronger source empowers me. The verse exposes the Christian’s deep and desperate dependence on God.
The previous distinction between the availability and accessibility of God’s strength overflows into a parallel feature: Just because I have personal capacity does not mean I have personal capability. Capacity comes from my salvific standing with God, and capability comes from my spiritual vitality with God. Though a plastic bag may have room, it is not strong enough to carry a heavy grocery load. The Lord has built enormous capacity into us, but unless He makes us sufficient, we have not enough capability to carry the load of life.
It declares a practice of Christ’s sufficiency for all things. To continue the previous point, theology confirms I am insufficient-in-myself. I am unable. I, however, can practice the intersection of capacity and capability in each situation—facing all conditions by intentionally depending on Christ Jesus. Our lacks can’t be used as excuses for inaction. My incapacity gives no justification to withdrawal, because Christ’s resources are mine to attempt the impossible tasks assigned to me.
The personal ability word here (ischyō) always has to do with strength for striving, “to have requisite personal resources to accomplish something, have power, be competent, be able.”3 And in Philippians 4:13, the strength is for all things.
God is supremely powerful, and I am sufficiently empowered. Yes, the tasks are immense, the need is great, the works are impossible, but drawing from God’s strength makes us equal to the demand. God in and with us makes us equal to the task. Since God is greater than the task, the circumstance and I, I can be equal to the task and circumstance in Him. And so can you.
The theology and practice of sufficiency simply goes this way: The strength is divine, not mine, but I can have the strength to do all things He has given me to do.
It declares confidence—clear, active and present confidence in personal ability through Christ. Paul lacks adequacy (2 Cor. 2:16) but lacks no confidence for his adequacy from God (2 Cor. 3:5). The lacks and the limits of the Christian believer are obvious to us, but our confidence in God must be announced to all. Keep your doubts to yourself, or people won’t follow you; declare your confidence in God, so they will.
This verse gives so much confidence that we sometimes want to do much more with it than Paul intended. But his clear disposition is toward doing. Attitudinal components accompany Paul’s bias toward action: “I can do” goes beyond “I can be, know or feel.” Sometimes, you have to do regardless of who you are, what you know, or how you feel. We call this the be-do dynamic of the spiritual life: sometimes we be-into-do; other times we do-into-be. We are in a spiritual “be” relationship with Christ, which helps us fulfill our spiritual “do” responsibility for Christ, and vice-versa.
It declares learnedcontentment in all circumstances. The immediately preceding verse (v. 12) deals with that strange-to-modern-ears characteristic: contentment. Regardless of the quality of the circumstances, Paul had the ability to be content because he had learned contentment. He learned the secret of being content in any situation: disallowing deprivation to control his thoughts, emotion, doctrine or practice. This independence from circumstances is a learned discipline. Dependence on Christ is unnatural.
Indeed, he exhibited and called for joy always, the twin of contentment (v. 4). Equally poised whether in poverty and prosperity, he found that godly gratitude raised him above any circumstance, to give him peace without anxiety (cf. v. 6).
No matter the circumstance, he remained actively doing, neither passively nor stoically accepting situations beyond his control, but intentionally developing an uncomplaining and non-agitated spirit. In all things, he sought
spiritual occasions to draw from Christ’s strength
learning moments about his spiritual levels
teaching opportunities for truths and living
providential arrangements for spiritual growth and health
ministry platforms to seize, develop and use.
May we do the same.
It declares internal fortitude in all conditions. Written from a prison cell, the entire book reveals Paul’s theology, philosophy and strategy for enduring with fortitude whether in thought, emotion, doctrine or practice.
Some grammarians use a technical description “dative of means” for the word strengthens in this verse. Christ was the means of God’s strength in Paul. Others see it as a “dative of sphere.” Incorporated into Christ, Paul operated in the sphere of Christ. Another angle, the “dative of agency,” implies that Christ was the agent of God’s strength in Paul and Paul was the agent of accomplishing all things. But all grammatical aspects simply show Paul as the strengthened one with Christ as the strengthener. We are neither the means, sphere nor agent of any endurance. Christ is our sufficiency.
About a year ago I went to visit a frail man, one who had the most influence in my formative years next to my dad. Dr. Samuel Kamaleson, my pastor during my teenage years, had slipped and fallen again. He nears his ninth decade of life. One of the great preachers of all time, he, too, traveled all over the world to strengthen pastoral leaders. I wanted to learn his current realities as a prototype for a long-haul endurance in life and ministry. I probed for his desires in this life stage. I will never forget his rich baritone response (it used to be deep bass). “Ramesh, I am content. Ramesh, old age is doable!” My pastor was still pastoring me.
I so needed that declaration of contentment and endurance from one who had truly experienced the reality of Paul’s claim. Later in the year, I remembered in my own travels my pastor’s words as living proof of Philippians 4:13. A demanding, 18-day trip across 14 time zones depleted me. Crisscrossing five countries wore me out. It took me 13 nights to overcome jet lag before I could sleep through the night. It’s actually humorous, even hilarious, to write now that amid major speaking and leadership demands, only after I finished my final talk did my adrenalin seem depleted. But then I asked for a place on the floor to lie down for a 20-minute nap. The Lord gives endurance strength as we need it, not before it or after it, but just as we need it, when we need it. The Lord and I made it. Or better, I did it through Him.
I get to again say that life is doable. Fortitude for endurance in every circumstance is possible through Christ because of God’s strength. Yes, my faith is fickle and fails often—a spiritual matter; and my frame is frail and finite—a physical need. But each time my phone alarm goes off at 4:13 p.m., I joyfully realize through a daily reminder that ministry is doable, regardless of life’s situations, stages or seasons.
It declares ministryopportunity in all contexts. Since the apostle did not say, “I can do all these things,” to what extent can “all things” be stretched beyond the immediate verse and the preceding passage? As we have noted, “all things” referred not to anything he wanted to do, yet it points to broader notions than internal fortitude and learned contentment. Could “all things” cover any situation in an unlimited way?
Yes, as it relates to the preaching of God’s Word, the planting of churches and protection of new believers. Paul was adaptable enough to find ministry opportunity in any context. He was creative, imaginative and resourceful despite limitations in relation to his ministry responsibilities. That is, through Christ’s strength in personal limitation, he said, “I am able to be content in, endure through and seize all situations for ministry obligations.” He may have been locked up and bound, but God’s Word is not (2 Tim. 2:9). He plainly declared from his prison-hole, “My circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else” (Phil. 1:13). I like those global words “whole” and “everyone else.” He leaves no one out!
Christ’s role as the benefactor of superhuman strength in Paul’s very human need for endurance was not merely for him to feel better about how impressively he put up with the constraints of imprisonment. Instead, internal fortitude was for the sake of ministering to others. An 83-year-old friend who stays in business despite loss of energy and hearing told me, “I need to do this for the sake of what I need to do for others—employees. I must keep doing what I must keep doing for others to keep doing what they should be doing.”
Paul’s secret to endurance in all conditions was sourced in the Lord Christ who gave him sufficient strength to find and fulfill ministry opportunity in any circumstance. Whether positive or negative, he mastered the circumstance to steward his ministry. Without self-power, Paul’s strength was only in the One who empowered him to outpower circumstances for ministry advantage. If he could, I, too, can find ministry opportunities in uncertain contexts, complex realities and constrained situations—including the challenges of a horrific pandemic.
Finally, it declares situational ability. Built on the previous nine declarations is a mood of personal victory over circumstances. No event would beat him down, no situation defeat him, no environment call for retreat from his assignments. He would meet each situation to the measure of its challenge.
In the immediate setting, “all” (pas and its derivatives in Greek) appears three times, referring to living and ministering for Christ in extreme circumstances. A weak Paul became an able Paul because he embraced, experienced and executed everything through strong Christ (Phil. 1:21; 2:24; 3:1). In every situation Christ strengthened him with spiritual, psychological, intellectual, material or physical aid.
This rather personal verse applicable to one person in a particular situation could apply only to Paul. In English, it begins with an “I” and ends with “me.” Indeed, Paul was assuring the Philippians he would be alright. And yet, he was also assuring them that in fact they would be, too. How do we know?
This chapter, and previous ones, are filled with explanation and exhortation to the readers. In dialogue about his personal realities, we discern Paul’s public intent. The readers, too, will be made able to meet obstruction and opposition. Christ will strengthen him and them as well, for they (may) face similar spiritual and situational realities.
We shall not limit God’s ability in us or through us. Neither will we use God for our own ideas and desires as though He can’t detect our manipulation. We won’t turn this declaration into a guarantee for winning spiritual lotteries or conjure success of any kind by applying the verse as a mystical magical wand.
We, limited people, will draw strength from the unlimited God-Jesus who personalizes and customizes His strength to provide situational ability for us to meet, greet and defeat oppositional circumstances.
Your Word: Un-Able or In-Able?
Fail not to read, claim and apply this verse. Otherwise, our focus on earthly finitude, physical frailty, mental fickleness and moral fallenness could adversely affect our
obedience by vacillation
activity by neglect
responsibilities by procrastination
ministry by discouragement
calling by distraction
opportunities by laziness
temptations by yielding
joy by circumstance.
Hence, we need this verse.
When lacking confidence because of risk of life, or fortitude because of fear toward an opportunity to be considered, or conviction about a mission to be pursued, a calling to be obeyed, or ministry to be apprehended, we need this verse.
When we are vexed by circumstances of loss of any sort, we need this verse—and often. When an undertaking is jeopardized by “factors outside our control,” we need this verse most of all. When we need to rise above failure and get back in stride, we need this verse right away.
You can absorb, claim and post this declaration of all declarations anywhere you want. Put it on sticky notes and paste it on mirrors, clocks and bookshelves. Like me, set your phone alarm to 4:13 p.m. and break out into a calm Mona Lisa smile when it rings each day. You can do all things—face all circumstances with contentment, endure all obstacles with strength and find ministry in every situation—through the Strengthener to do all you have been given to do in Christ. By Christ. And for Christ.
Simply speaking, Christ is able, therefore life is do-able; I am able because He is. Can-can, LAH!
1 This personal and organizational practice each year provides focus and inspiration. We have chosen from several word forms: a preposition in 2019, through, to show instrumentality; a participle in 2018, balancing, to align the organization; a verb in 2017, deliver, to inspire activity, etc. This year, I submit a suffix-able adjective!
2 Other promising verses most claimed by Christians include Ps. 23:4, Jer. 29:11, Rom. 8:28 and Eph. 3:20-21. The Bible is full of assurance and reassurance for lovers, believers and followers of God-Jesus.
3 Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, rev. and ed. Frederick W. Danker, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 484.