Christianity 201

April 29, 2022

A Thing About “All Things”

Having spent the better part of my lifetime in close proximity to the Christian giftware industry, I’ve seen my share of Bible texts plastered on mugs, key chains and picture frames which have been presented without proper context. The most often referenced is Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you…”) I am certain that God does want to give us a hope and a future, but when people read that God wants to “prosper” them, it can send their thoughts down a doctrinal rabbit hole.

There’s also the issue of “the plans” God has for us. People rail against “open theology,” but decades ago in the book Decision Making in the Will of God, Garry Freisen argued that being “in God’s will” doesn’t mean there is only one place you are to live, one vocation you are to pursue, and one coffee order you are to place today at Starbucks. (Or to rephrase it, God’s will is a circle not a dot.)

But today we want to look at “all things.”

The first “all things”

The first is Philippians 4:13. The familiar King James rendering of this is, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” Perhaps you memorized that as a child, or it appeared on a plaque in the home in which you were raised.

Before moving forward, the post-Charismatic in me wants to remind you that there are no limits with God. Empowered by his Holy Spirit, there are stories of people who accomplished things which would normally have been physically or intellectually impossible. The “God of miracles” about which the TV preachers testify is, literally, a God of miracles.

But the immediate context in the prior verse (4:12) is, “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.” (NIV)

Think about that. Being booked in a luxury hotel one night, and spending the next night sleeping in a tent. Eating at a five-star restaurant one day, and the next day subsisting on peanut butter sandwiches. Having had a huge bank balance one year, and the next year struggling with how to make the month-end rent payment.

The NIV forces us to consider the verse in context by responding, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (emphasis added). But most of the other translations perpetuate the KJV’s take on the verse, perhaps in the interest of not tampering with a text that is extremely familiar. We do however see,

  • I can do all things [which He has called me to do] through Him (AMP)
  • Christ gives me the strength to face anything. (CEV)
  • Christ is the one who gives me the strength I need to do whatever I must do. (ERV)
  • I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me. (GNT)
  • I am ready for anything through the strength of the one who lives within me. (Phillips)
  • I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am. (Message)
  • I can be content in any and every situation through the Anointed One who is my power and strength. (The Voice Bible, which combines the two thoughts into a single verse)

If you’ve ever heard of real estate agents saying, “Location, location, location;” then think of scripture this way: “Context, context, context.”

As I said above, I think you can read the verse more broadly, but you shouldn’t try to force the verse into situations where you’re being presumptuous. A good verse to read in parallel to this one — again with a unique context, as Paul considers his “thorn in the flesh” — is 2 Corinthians 12:9 “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

The other “all things”

By now you’ve figured out that the other verse we’re thinking of is Romans 8:28. Again, we’ll start with the familiar KJV, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”

The NIV states, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

This verse has led to the maxim, “Everything happens for a reason,” a saying which doesn’t allow for the possibility of some things happening by virtue of random chance but consistent with keeping the idea of God’s sovereignty.

The opposite situation however can be equally distressing. If some things are a product of random of chance, this may not bring comfort to someone who has lost a loved one through an act of mass gun violence, or an earthquake, or in the case of a woman I follow on Twitter, a rogue wave at the beach.

However within the random events of life, God can still be working; or to say it differently, given what has already happened, God can work to form good out of those circumstances.

Again, the question will follow, ‘If God can orchestrate the events of life so that the good shines through tragic events, why could he not have orchestrated things so that the situation never happened in the first place?’ It is a fair question, but it says more about the problem of evil and suffering in the world than it does about the ability of God to shape present realities for good.

A parallel perspective is found in Philippians 1:6, And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” (NLT)

If you want to go even deeper on this, the prophet Jeremiah, in chapter 18, tells a story — a beautiful analogy to how God is working — in the section headed in the NIV as At the Potter’s House.

If ‘I can do all things’ is about getting the context from the previous verse, ‘All things work together’ is more about the tense of the verb. Some commentators have suggested that a better translation might be “In all things God is already at work…” or “is working” which creates the visual image of God coming alongside us.

Also, before you start to send me an email, yes, it must be said that if you are claiming the promise of this verse, you must remember that it is a conditional promise, the conditions being met by those who

  • love god and
  • are called according to his purpose

We tend to lean in to the first part of the verse, and gloss over the conditional part.

Finally, here’s how Eugene Peterson renders the passage in The Message:

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

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