Life is hard sometimes. (Typing that felt like the understatement of the year and we’re not even a month in haha.) Life can be hard, suffering comes, anxiety rises. The deadlines approach, the family member gets sick, the friendship is on the wire. Suffering and hardship are part of the human experience. One of the reasons I was drawn to the book of Philippians is because I know it talks a lot about suffering, and as a Christian I want to know how to go through the hard times well. Philippians doesn’t beat around the bush in admitting that life is hard, and for those of us who are struggling that is honestly refreshing. Paul doesn’t water down the fact that his situation sucks. He is in prison for speaking the Truth about Jesus. He doesn’t pretend that everything is fine. He doesn’t hide his problems and try to deal with them in isolation. He doesn’t act like he has it all together so the church people won’t judge him. No, Paul is willing to acknowledge his situation and his suffering. What he does, though, is he sees his suffering for what it is. Paul sees his suffering as part of a story that God is writing in his life. He sees his suffering through a gospel lens, and he shows us how to do the same with the hardship in our own lives.
“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” (Philippians 1:12-14 ESV)
Seeing the Story
So often when we are in the midst of troubles, we do not see past them. We do not look past the thing that happened, the thing we did, or the thing that was done to us. We get so caught up in our micro-story that we don’t even notice the larger macro-story that God is writing in our lives and in history. We think that if everything is not going great that must mean that God is forsaking us, forgetting that God uses hard times to purify our faith (1 Peter 1:7). God knows every one of our days before we even take our first breath (Psalm 139:16). God is in the business of using things that others intended for evil for good (Genesis 50:20). God is sovereign and is working all things for his glory and for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). God knows suffering, He has suffered with us in Jesus, and he has told us that this story ends with all things new, with no more tears, with no more pain (Revelation 21:4-5). God is in control, and He is good in the midst of our hardship. Paul sees that, and he tells his friends “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel” (Philippians 1:12 ESV).
Cynicism comes when we no longer believe that God is going to work something for good. Anxiety and despair come when we don’t believe that God is going to work at all. As Christians, we know that God can work suffering for good, we’ve seen it in Jesus. Jesus took on the sins and suffering of all mankind, the eternal judgement of God against sin. He took that upon himself on the cross and died. The story does not end with suffering though. The story does not end with despair, Jesus gets up out of the grave. He is the conquerer of sin and death. God works suffering for redemption. God uses the bad for good. We need to believe that God is a Redeemer. He is in the business of making bad things good. We need to look for God’s purposes in where He has us. We just need to become aware of the story.
Seeking the Story
What I find remarkable about Paul’s imprisonment is that it does not stop him from pursuing God’s purposes. He does not merely sit in the corner saying, “God I know you’re going to do something here.” He doesn’t just write his letter to the Philippians saying to pray for him and keep sending money, but he tells them that he is still working for God and God is working through him in his suffering. He is active in being part of the redemption God brings through his story. Paul knows that God loves to use us to accomplish His plans. He knows that God loves to move through His people. He declares this in another letter he wrote to the church in Corinth, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20 NIV). Paul doesn’t let his suffering cripple him. Instead, he uses his suffering to make it “known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that [his] imprisonment is for Christ” (Philippians 1:13 ESV).
We have a tendency to let hard times silence us. We don’t speak of what Jesus has done in our lives because we are so focused on what we think he’s not doing in our lives. We think if our lives don’t look great and polished on the outside that people will be turned away from Christ. That is a lie. One of the biggest reasons that people object to Christianity is because they see people who call themselves Christian acting as though they are perfect and have it all together, but know that they are lying. If you know Jesus, then you know that He has “not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17 NIV). He didn’t come for the people who pretend they have it all together, but for those who know they are broken and need a savior. Paul is confident that everything, even his imprisonment, is for Christ’s glory and purpose, and he wants people to know that his savior is worth following even in the suffering. Paul is active, not passive, in seeking good through his suffering. He doesn’t just see the story, but he takes a role in it as a faithful worker and agent of redemption for God’s kingdom.
Sending the Story
How often when we are in a hard time do we forget to look outside ourselves? When something bad is happening to me, my first reaction is not usually to think about others. As humans broken by sin, we have a tendency to be self-centered. Our only focus is “what is happening to me and how do I fix it so it’s what I want?” Sin and Satan point us to pride, but one of the major themes that God communicates through Philippians is humility. What Paul shows us from his imprisonment is that Paul should not be his first or primary concern. What we should learn from Paul’s imprisonment is that we should not look to ourselves as our first or primary concern. Paul knows that the story is not about him, it is about God and God’s purposes for God’s people.
“And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Philippians 1:14 ESV). When Paul is in prison, he is not focusing on how uncomfortable he is, or how bad the food is, or what might happen to him. Instead, he is focused on God’s people being encouraged, and God’s word going forth. Paul uses his story to encourage and mobilize others. In fact, in this whole section you hear nothing about his physical circumstances, pains, or feelings. You only hear about God and others. This doesn’t mean that Paul likes his circumstances, it means that Paul is not thinking about himself in his circumstances. When we stop worrying about ourselves so much and start thinking about how to love and serve others, our situation becomes less important to us and we start seeing the story grow. Our suffering can be used to encourage others. When we trust God in hardship we are building our brothers and sisters in confidence in Christ. Paul’s story sends others to speak God’s word without fear, ours can do the same. Like our savior who came to serve rather than be served (Matthew 20:28), we should look outside ourselves even in the midst of hardship and suffering.
The things that happen to us, good and bad, are part of a story that God is writing through our lives. Hardship comes. For every mountaintop we stand on we must trudge through many valleys. In the midst of this God is in control and He is good, and so we can trust him. Let us look for the story, and join in it for the sake of the gospel.
“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.”(Philippians 1:12-14 ESV)