In the Bible, “all” sometimes means all, and sometimes it has a much more limited sphere. This is also true for “whatsoever” and “everything.” In many cases, these all-inclusive words are not referring to everything in every possible scenario in the world, but everything in a defined, limited application. In other words, the Bible uses these words the same way we use all, whatever, and everything in normal conversation.
When things go very wrong, for example, we may say that “Everything’s falling apart.” Do we mean everything in a manner that includes the whole world? No; we are declaring that a large part of something we are involved in is coming undone; we are declaring how overwhelmed we feel about it. This is what I mean when I say that these words have a defined, limited sphere. So it is with several uses of the word “all” in the Bible.
Another example is if I show you five pieces of my calligraphy and ask you which ones you like. You reply, “All of them.” Does all mean every piece of calligraphic work in the country? No; all encompasses just five pieces.
The people in the Bible incorporated literary elements similar to ours, including satire, idioms, euphemism, metaphor, simile, hyperbole, personification, and allusion, which are not to be taken literally. Their use of language is very similar to the way we use it, with a few differences. So it’s not a surprise to find “all” being used in a limited sense in the Bible, since we use it in a limited way in our conversations.
What brought on this topic of “all”? I was talking to a man I’ve known for over ten years who was disabled in several ways, both physically and mentally. He said he was going to try for a driver’s license, which had been denied him before. Ignoring the past reasons why he was denied (which still applied to his current case), he justified his trying again with the above verse, “I can do all things through Christ.” He thought that “all” covered the issues in his situation.
Was that verse pertinent in his case, or was this a case of misplaced confidence? Did the Holy Spirit intend for the verse to be used in a faith-building way when everything seems to be against us, and we need encouragement to go forward? As usual, we need to see the verses before that gave rise to this statement to see the contex:
“But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:10-13).
Paul is not facing a superhuman task ahead of him and is now using this latter verse to build up his confidence. Rather, he is looking back and acknowledging the lessons he learned when his financial needs were met and when they weren’t. He first thanks the Philippians, to whom this passage was written, that they have started giving him donations for the work (“at last your care for me has flourished again”). Then Paul writes to encourage them that whether he had plenty or not, God had still helped him with the work. Perhaps Paul wrote this because he sensed that the Philippians were worried about him not having enough and they felt guilty for not helping him earlier. So he encourages them that abundance of provision or lack thereof did not hinder his work in the gospel.
In this case, “I can do all things” did not mean all the things that Paul felt like doing. He is saying that Christ strengthened him to do the work no matter what the provisions were, low or high. If he did not have enough, he was content; God will still help him. If he had a lot, he was content.
This verse can be misused when people are discontent and want more out of life. They may use this to break into territory God is not leading them into.
Paul had a single-minded determination to do the Lord’s will and fulfill his calling, which was to preach the gospel among the Gentiles. No matter what sustenance he received from the outside world, the work never suffered; Christ was always there to see him through. Has this been your experience? Did you find God a very present help in trouble in good times and lean?
“I can do all things” does not refer to the human potential movement in which people challenge themselves to be the utmost they can be in life. Paul accepted it when he did not have enough provisions for God’s work, not when he did not have enough muscle or stamina to better himself. I admire the human potential movement in part, for it shows us what is possible with the built-in abilities God has given us. But how much more greatness is possible when Christ strengthens us where we are to spread the good news over the world?
My friend was using the verse as though his mental and physical impairments will be automatically recompensed by the Lord’s miraculous power. Our confidence is misplaced when the Lord has not given us such assurance of miraculous intervention (as He promised with young Jeremiah, for instance, in Jeremiah 1:8, 18-19). Since my friend lacked this assurance, this “all” did not apply.
He is assuming that the passage means that he can do whatever he puts his mind to do (the Lord will support whatever choices he makes); but scripture does not support this, especially in light of his disabilities. Miraculous deliverance from our physical disabilities is not guaranteed in this lifetime.
Lest the previous two paragraphs be misunderstood regarding faith and disabilities (of which I myself am deaf), answer this question: would you trust your bookkeeping to a man who has shown that he has no aptitude for math or the computer, even though he is confident that he’ll be able to do those things because Christ will strengthen him? If your answer is no, then you understood my point. Would you trust a man to drive you who has been denied permission to drive due to poor cognitive abilities, slow reaction times, and slow motor skills, even when he says, “I can do all things through Jesus. Jesus will strengthen me”? If you would not trust him to drive you safely, then you understood my point.
I’ve written two other articles in which I dissected verses containing “all,” and showed its limited use. You might be interested in seeing how those popular verses have limited application as well.
1. I covered “all” things are working together for good in Romans 8:28 here: http://www.stevehusting.com/doubtbusters/2013/11/23/is-everything-really-working-out-for-our-good/
2. I covered the love of money is the root of “all” evil in 1 Timothy 6:10 here: http://www.stevehusting.com/doubtbusters/2011/01/18/is-money-the-root-of-all-evil/