Scripture startles us when words we've read dozens of times before take on new meaning. Sometimes its "I never realized it said THAT before!". Other times it is "wait, THAT'S really what it says? I've misunderstood all these years."
I've had one of these experiences this week. It began on Saturday, when several different people wrote about the truism that God won't call us to something we cannot handle. The conclusion was this is wrong, God calls people to things they cannot handle all the time. He wants to show us he can handle things we cannot handle on our own. After all, doesn't Scripture say we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us?
But Monday morning, I thought again about that idea. Does that really mean I could become a missionary pilot or a brain surgeon because Christ empowers me? No, I thought, the scope of the promise probably is not that large. Yes God could supernaturally give me the ability of a pilot or a brain surgeon, but he probably won't, and it is not a lack of faith on my part to expect that he won't.
Then I thought of looking up that verse. Where does it say I can do all things through Christ? I found it in Philippians 4:13. But when I looked at the passage, I wondered if I'd been taking it out of context. In verse 11 and 12 Paul is talking about contentment. "I have learned the secret of being content in every and any situation." I thought it would have been more coherent for Paul to have said in verse 13 "I can endure all things" rather than "I can do all things." Then I noticed the Good News Translation says something like this: "I have the strength to face all conditions." This fits the context better.
Then I looked at the Greek. I am not much of a Greek scholar, but I have a Greek version on my computer that lets me look up words in a lexicon. It turns out that the Greek behind "I can do all things" has only one verb, and the lexicons define it mostly as "to be able." You cannot say in English, "I am able all things" but that seems like what Paul actually said in Greek. I also noticed this morning as I wrote this up that the latest NIV version (the 2011 revision) says "I can do all this," not "I can do everything." So I'm concluding the version I've known all these years, "I can do all things" is inaccurate. Paul actually means "whatever happens to me, I can be content."
Does this mean I should go back to believing God won't call me to something I cannot handle? I don't think so. There are lots of stories about God doing surprising things when people ask for help. Jesus fed multitudes from a few loaves and a few fishes. God gave a victory in battle to a king who sent the praise choir ahead of the army. But God also gives surprising contentment in hard circumstances that are not instantly removed. Joseph did not despair in the Egyptian prison, Jeremiah and Ezekiel faithfully proclaimed God's word, and never saw a significant response from most of their audience.