Thursday, March 18, 2010

Hallmarkinizating Scripture

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Philippians 4:13.

This is one of those calendar Scriptures. You know, the little daily flip calendars with pretty pictures and a different Scripture each day which inspire us to face our day with courage, optimism, and a go-get-‘em attitude. I doubt there is a daily Scripture calendar anywhere that doesn’t include this verse.

It’s one of our favs.

But we have to be careful whenever we pull a verse out of its context, because then it can mean almost whatever we need it to mean. Not that we do this intentionally, but it’s a danger that is present whenever verses are used individually as captions for pictures, calendars, even daily devotionals. Or as illustrations for sermon points. Yeah, as much as I dislike the Hallmarkinization of Scripture, pastors are among the most egregious of offenders in this regard.

I’m not talking about proof-texting here; that’s a more overt form of what I’m talking about, where you have a point to make and so you go looking for a verse to make that point, regardless of whether the Scriptures as a whole support the point or not. No, this is more subtle, less conscious. It’s when we find a Scripture standing all alone, and we take it to mean something that may very well be true and valuable, but it’s not the point that the writer was trying to make when he wrote the verse.

Take this verse, for instance. On our best days we use it to encourage us to achieve mighty things for Christ, to have faith to move mountains, or to be sure during difficult days that brighter days are ahead. On our not-so-good days we use it to mean that Christ will give us the strength to pursue and achieve our greatest goals and wildest dreams—a better job, a promotion and raise, health, wealth, and the American Dream. I can do all things!

Well, sometimes “all” doesn’t necessarily mean “all”.

In the section in which this verse is included, Paul is writing to the Philippians about their concern for him when he was in a difficult spot. First of all, he’s writing from prison, but before that he has experienced poverty and hunger as a result of the Gospel. Now, anybody in prison wants to get out. Anybody who is hungry wants to be full, anybody who is poor wants, if not wealth, at least some measure of financial stability and security. As this verse is often interpreted, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me means that Christ will give me the strength to get out of prison, or to achieve financial stability, or get to the point where the issue with the next meal is what to eat rather than if you’re going to eat. Or that Christ will at the very least give me the strength to endure prison, to endure hunger, to endure poverty until brighter days come.

But that’s not what Paul is saying. It must first be noted that Paul in a sense chose these situations for himself. He knew that in pursuing the Gospel that he would face strong opposition from those who had the power to arrest him. That in choosing to follow Christ’s he would not only have to give up any worldly dreams of wealth but that he would probably end up poor, not knowing where his next meal would come from or when it would come.

And there might have been a time when that bothered him, when he worried about being in prison or worried about being poor and hungry. There might have been a time when, finding himself hungry, all he could think about was food. Or finding himself in prison all he could think about was getting out. After all, he was called to be an emissary of the Gospel to the Gentiles—that meant he had to go to the Gentiles, and he couldn’t go anywhere when he’s stuck in prison.

But not anymore. These things are no longer an issue for him. He’s moved beyond merely enduring hard times; he’s learned that he is actually all right during hard times. Here’s what he says: I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

“I’m all right with this. I’m so all right with this that I can choose it if need be. And it is Christ who gives me the strength to be all right with this.”

This is what Paul is saying. I just don’t know that it will fit on a Hallmark card. Or that anyone would buy it if it did.

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