Initiated into Excellence and Failure

“I also know how to be humbled and I know how to excel. In anything and in everything I have been initiated. Either food or hunger, excellence or failure, I can do all things in the one who strengthens me.”

(Philippians 4:12-13)

I expect that it is a fair statement to say that Philippians 4:13 is one of the most misquoted verses of the Bible. This passage is not stating that I can win an NFL contract just because I have faith (truly, I don’t have the skills!) nor is it even stating that Paul can be content in all things, though that statement is closer; the difference being that contentment often implies a degree of acceptance toward one’s situation.

In context, Paul has been stating that there is no circumstance that he fears — whether hunger or an abundance of food — whether success at what he does or failure (at least by human standards) — that he can face all of these things in the power of the one who strengthens him…namely, Jesus Christ.

How often we are tempted to judge success and failure solely on human terms. I recall when I began doing homeless ministry while in seminary, we initially envisioned that we would see revival on the streets of Jackson, MS. We didn’t and the temptation was to be discouraged. At the same time, God used this experience along with our initial setbacks and failures, to teach us an important lesson. My success or failure is not found in numbers nor is it found in terms of one’s fame or reputation; my success is found in whether or not I am being faithful to what God is calling me to do. Regardless of the fruit I see around me, the fruit that is most important is the fruit of my own obedience.

And that, loved ones, is the heart of Paul’s message in these words. The important thing is obedience. And if we face hunger or abundance, human success or failure, whether we are humbled or lifted up…the question that we must ask ourselves is whether we are being faithful to God’s call upon our lives. If we are being faithful, we can face all of these things that the world might throw at us in the strength of the Spirit. If we are not faithful, these things (even human success) will crush us under their weight.

A note should be made in terms of the word “initiated” as Paul uses it. This is the Greek word mue/w (mueo), which is understood to refer to being initiated into or made part of a group of people. The term is only found here in the New Testament, but is also found in 3 Maccabees 2:30 where it is used to refer to one who has learned the rules for living within a particular community. Today, we often use the term “initiate” to refer to one’s entrance into a secret fraternity or organization, but that is not so much the way the term was used in Paul’s era. In Paul’s era it referred to one who was not new to a given lifestyle…Paul was no amateur at ministry and in doing so, had faced plenty and hunger and he had faced successes and failures. Yet, Paul persevered in the strength of the Spirit. That is what it means to say that he had been initiated. Indeed, we should not forget that our Lord, too, endured both good times and bad times, successes and times of great humiliation and suffering, yet was infinitely faithful to the task for which he had been sent — and praise the Lord for that success!

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