Thursday, January 15, 2009

Self-Help Christianity: Why Philippians 4:13 is So Popular

In many ways, religion exists in America as marketplace. We have the freedom to pick and choose what we like about it, and what we don't, and we shop and buy accordingly. Its moralism is, one might argue, deeply stained into the fabric, the culture of America, and this is most apparent by what a "religious" country America is. America is far from morally perfect, but it can be a convincing argument that much of America is a morally positive place with a strong religious component. But, without borrowing from pietist or legalist strains, and without trying to ride too proudly on my high horse, I wonder how deeply that religion runs. It often just feels like a superficial clothing to an otherwise secular body, a moral garment to a wordly wardrobe.

One of the quickest ways to know which religious currents are making waves is to tally the most popular Bible verses. A few years ago, it was likely the prayer of Jabez, the promise that God answers prayer, especially materially-driven prayers. Perhaps the most popular today, and by popular I mean in a true "pop" sense, is Philippians 4:13: "I can do all things in him who strengthens me." "Him" refers to Christ and is often translated that way, even though Paul doesn't mention Christ by name in the verse. I don't know where I hear or see this verse, it just seems to be everywhere. And even if someone doesn't volunteer it as a favorite, I'm quite confident if I quoted it, many would nod and say, "Oh yes, I like that one." I mean who wouldn't like it? We all want to think we can do anything, even if most of the time we do next to nothing.

I was particularly struck by the popularity of this verse when I noticed it in bold white letters across the black backdrop of glare reducing strip as seen on the face of Florida Gator quarterback Tim Tebow. The guy has been roundly praised by the media and I have no sour grapes over his success. He's a public Christian, even if perhaps a different strain from me, and he deserves all the recognition he gets. But there it was, in several high profile games: "Phil. 4:13". (He used John 3:16 for the National Championship game.) Either he has a friend named Phil whose April 13th birth or death he was commemorating, or he was telling the world of his Samson-like source of strength. No doubt his faith, and this verse, was an inspiration for him, a reminder that he is never alone, that Christ does truly empower us in our daily lives to overcome challenges and press on towards the goal, in the words of Paul.

But there is something that irks me about this verse being so popular. It's starting to feel a whole lot like inspirational, feel good, lollypop, band-aid Christianity. It's so attractive because it's so self-empowering. We've even managed to make our favorite Bible verses ultimately about us, and about achieving. Has our need for success and material validation gotten to the point where we just select those verses that give us the power to carry on in our weary suburban lives? Where is the cross? Where is the sacrifice? And what is it we're supposed to be achieving, anyway? I have no problem with achieving excellence in life and being inspired by faith. I do think that, perfectionism aside, God calls us to excel, to maximize our talents, weather on the football field, in the marketplace, or as a parent. "Chariots of Fire" demonstrates this better than I can say it. But I also want to be honest to scripture, and I can't say that our use of Philippians 4:13 as self-help empowerment is exactly what Paul had in mind.

Paul was writing to a church in conflict, as many of them were. He was encouraging the Philippians to be of one mind, which in itself is an act of sacrifice. Jesus clearly told his disciples to carry their own cross, not exactly what we would call self-help. Indeed, the common refrain of biblical repentance, of changing direction, of living a life of service worthy of God, speaks not of self-aggradizement, but of self-sacrifice, so that one's true call might be revealed. I'm not trying to be preachy. I am trying to say that Christians, if we are to have relevance in an already narcissistic age, would do well to model how we find meaning in service, in losing ourselves to some degree rather than empowerment. "I can do all things"? Great. Just don't forget "all things" includes visiting the dying in isolation as well as running the 40 in under 5 seconds.

I suppose I can't complain that millions of people are exposed to what is a wonderful verse of scripture. And I shouldn't complain that many thousands may have been curious enough to actually dust off their Bible to see what Phil 4:13 had to say, even if they hadn't been to church in years. And, again, I won't fault Tim Tebow for being public with his faith. But I think it's worth asking if faith is really worth much if all it is a motivation to succeed. It's great if we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us if we really intend to do anything and everything, from winning a football game to speaking the truth to risking humiliation if and when the time comes. But if all things really only means material success, it is making Philippians 4:13 a terrible idol, and an unwilling companion to our sin.

1 comment:

Richard Krupp said...

I think this video truly explains that success is not necesseraly a material value, but can be something far more important, far deeper; "him" does refer to the love, to the love christ gives us, to the love we give to others.
God bless you from Germany