I recently graduated with a PhD, and I have been fortunate enough to have many occasions to celebrate this milestone within the past month. At the beginning of this month, I visited my parents in my hometown, and they threw a graduation party for me. In addition to a great number of family members and friends who came to the party, several members of the Baptist church I attended in my 20s and early 30s came to celebrate as well. I received many wonderful graduation gifts. Surprisingly, some of the gifts led me to reflect on my faith convictions, namely some of the tensions I wrestle with.
A woman whom I had served on many committees with and worked closely with on plays and other artistic activities gave me an especially thoughtful gift. It is a beautiful wooden plaque with the word “STRENGTH” at the top in capital letters and my name at the bottom in capital letters. In between the two are decorative flourishes and these words from the New King James Bible: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13)
It is a common verse, one that is recited often by well-meaning Christians in difficult times. I was delighted to receive the gift that features this Scripture verse. It seemed to me an acknowledgment of God’s presence with me through the degree process. And I have to admit, I do feel stronger now that I have emerged from it than I did much of the time I was in graduate school. But that verse prompted me to ponder this question: Does God give me supernatural strength, support, or some kind of divine favor?
I feel God’s presence, and this is itself a blessing, something that strengthens me and supports me. But there are also times I feel like God has made my path a little easier, put key people in my path, and placed me in the right place at the right time. Also, as I admitted to many of my close friends and family members as we were celebrating, I have also felt that God granted me the innermost desires of my heart (another common church phrase based on Scripture) when unexpected things that I hoped for have occurred.
One tension that I struggle with in claiming some kind of special blessing, divine favor or assistance as a Christian is the seeming unfairness of it. Why should I get some sort of special treatment from God? This question presumes that God does not give the same kind of treatment or favor or assistance to others who do not share my faith. I do believe that God blesses non-Christians. But the tension is in this passage: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. The assumption is that those who do not have a relationship with Christ to not have the same strength.
That this passage comes from one of Paul’s letters also complicates my reading and interpretation of it. Paul has been accused of being sexist, misogynistic, extremist, and many other things my feminist self challenges. So to hang words attributed to him on my wall could present a conflict. But I look forward to hanging this gift in my office, despite the questions intentions it raises.
I feel happiness when I look at the plaque–and that emotion is not conflicted. The gift is a visible reminder of a friendship that endures despite time and distance. And as it relates to my faith, it is a reminder that God stands with me, as does a loving faith community. Philippians 4:13 is at the end of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, as he is thanking them for thinking of him. In the New International Version, the Bible I use for personal reflection, this verse and the one before it read: 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.
By no means have I mastered contentment, but I have learned some key lessons in it during graduate school. I am grateful to have a visible reminder of the strength that God has given me because I think it sustains even a mind who wrestles to accept it.
Elise M. Edwards is a recent graduate of Claremont Graduate University, where she recieved a PhD in Religion with an emphasis on Theology, Ethics, and Culture. In her dissertation, she acknowledges “I owe sincere gratitude to the faith communities that have lifted me up in prayer, equipped me spiritually, and reminded me who my work is intended to ultimately serve: Clifton Park Baptist Church, The Church at Convergence, SHE Mosaic Inland, and a women’s prayer group in Cape Town, South Africa.” Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.