Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Stop abusing Philippians 4:13

In 2011, Hollywood director Sean McNamara released the film Soul Surfer, the true life story of Bethany Hamilton who suffered a horrific shark attack while surfing off the coast of Hawaii. It was a wonderful film with a positive, inspiring message. For Christians, the film was especially meaningful because Bethany and her family are devout believers, which while not an overt theme, nevertheless came through in the film in a positive way.

I want to be very clear on this: I absolutely LOVED this film.

Thumbs up! Rent it. Watch it. Own it. The acting is delightful, the special effects are well done, the camera work excellent, and the plot is inspirational. While not a "Christian movie" per se, it is an inspirational story about a young girl who happens to be Christian. Far from mocking her beliefs, her faith actually features as a key component in the story line. I praise God for this film.

But yes, I am going to use it as a negative example. Just know I'm not a hater.

One scene caught my attention. While Bethany lay recovering in the hospital after the accident, she asks her father if she will ever be able to surf again. Her dad, play by Dennis Quaid no less (awesome) quotes Philippians 4:13, "You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength". (OK, the writers of the film replaced "Christ" with "Him", but let's not get sidetracked). In essence, he was saying 'yes daughter, with God at your side you can one day surf again.'

Philippians 4:13 is a popular verse. Tim Tebow, a young Christian man with loads of integrity, regularly placed that reference on the black strip under his eye (alternating with other verses such as John 3:16). The verse is quoted by coaches giving pre-game pep talks and by moms encouraging their little girls to perform well for ballet recitals. Well meaning adults, when counseling teenagers with low self-esteem and who are convinced they will never amount to anything, quote this verse to convince the despondent teen that anything is possible.

The meaning is clear: You can accomplish anything. You can be anything. With God at your side, the world is at your fingertips!

Except, that's not at all what the verse means. Not even close. Let's look at in in context:
"...I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 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. I can do all this through him who gives me strength." - Philippians 4:11b-13
Paul's letter to the Philippians is one of his Prison Letters, so titled because he wrote it while in prison. In fact, he was quite literally chained a Roman guard. Despite the miserableness of the situation, Paul stay positive. In Philippians 1:12-13 he even wrote, "Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the Gospel. As a result, it has become clear to the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ." He goes on in the next verse to say that because of his imprisonment, other believers have become more bold in "proclaiming the Gospel without fear". 

Imprisonment in the Roman empire wasn't a picnic. There was no minimum security prison for white collar criminals, complete with ping pong tables and free college classes. The conditions were brutal. Often they wouldn't feed or clothe prisoners, which is why Paul was so thankful to the believers for sending provisions. Chained to a Roman soldier, Paul would have been beaten, abused, and humiliated.

But Paul was happy. Joyous even.

This wasn't because he felt he could realize any potential or accomplish any task. In fact, there wasn't many tasks he was even considering. Except maybe survival. For Paul, the presence of Christ in his life wasn't the promise that he could accomplish anything, but rather that he could endure anything. In all situations, he could find contentment. No matter the hardship. No matter how far down the rabbit hole one fell, Christ remained his strength. The devil would not win. Sinners would never ultimately triumph. His faith faith and his joy could remain as strong as ever, regardless of what the Enemy threw at him. He could endure to the end.

No promise of freedom was given. In fact, for all he knew he might be killed the next day after enduring a brutal beating, but the point was that he could endure. No matter what, the joy that he found in Christ couldn't be broken.

Paul learned this lesson and he is inviting us to learn it as well. Whatever the situation, no matter how horrific it may be, we can endure.

As far as the movie was concerned, I actually found it very inspirational that a young girl would overcome all odds and surf again. I admire the strength and resolve. I find the dedication and 'can't-keep-me-down' attitude praiseworthy. The movie has much to celebrate.

But surfing was never the promise God made to her. The promise was, despite her circumstances, that Christ was with her. She could endure. She could find joy.

From everything I've read of Bethany Hamilton, God kept his promise to her: her faith remained strong. That's the real story.

Oh, by the way, it just so happens that he let her surf again, too.





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