Monday, June 20, 2011

Philippians 1 - Joy from Suffering

A couple Sundays ago one of my pastors preached a sermon on 1 Corinthians 4 that was deeply challenging to me.  At this point, I'm still thinking through it all, but the core of the sermon was that our lives should look more like the Apostle Paul's life.  Obviously, Paul lived a difficult life that was full of suffering, yet it was also full of joy.  I'll admit, I was initially a bit skeptical of the idea of seeking to live a life in which suffering naturally follows, but I have since come to realize the selfish sinful nature playing a large role in that skepticism.

As a result of that sermon, I've decided to spend the next month in Philippians, meeting weekly with a brother (and hopefully some more, eventually) from my church to spend some time in it, seeking to submit myself to the Word of God in these matters.

Upon reading the first chapter, it is clear to me that the joy Paul experiences is not what many of us would initially consider joyful.  He is suffering.  His church is suffering.  Yet he rejoices!  He rejoices in their partnership in the gospel, that the gospel is being advanced, and finally that they are suffering for the gospel.  In fact, it has been "granted" to them by God.  This leads to an important conclusion - Paul is not joyful in spite of their sufferings for the gospel, he is joyful because they are suffering.

This begs the question - what could Paul possibly be thinking?  Really?  Is he a glutton for punishment or something?  Why should we rejoice because we are suffering?  Suffering is evil, is it not?

Well, yes.  Suffering is evil.  This is one of the purposes of the coming Kingdom - to end suffering once and for all.  But herein lies an important distinction to be made - we are not rejoicing because evil is being done, we are rejoicing because evil being done to us means the Lord is working in us.  Paul begins this book by writing about the work that God is doing in the Philippians, that he will "bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus" (1:6).  The perfect picture of God working by His Spirit is shown in our Lord Jesus Christ.  What was the conclusion of God's work in Christ in the Gospels?  If you answered "the Resurrection" then kudos.  So what came before the Resurrection?  Crucifixion.  Likewise, if the Lord is working in us, to live the cross-centered life that Paul is writing about and rejoicing in, we must pick up our cross.  We must suffer.  Our Lord Jesus suffered, Paul suffered, what makes us think our lives should look any different?

So, brothers and sisters, what then shall we do?  Simple, "let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ" (1:27).  If we seek to live like Christ, if we seek righteousness, if we desire ever-increasing outpourings of the Spirit of God on our life, if we seek any of the fruit of the Spirit, if we seek wisdom, if we seek humility, if we seek holiness, then we will be opposed.  We will suffer, because we live in a world that considers this folly.  But we can rest on this - "This is a clear sign of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God" (1:28).  By our suffering brought as a result of ever-increasing Christ-likeness, we can be sure of our salvation, and we can be sure that one day the unrighteous will be subjected to the glorious judgement of our Lord, and we will suffer no more.  

The seeds of Christianity were watered by the blood of the martyrs.  Worldwide, people living lives worthy of the gospel of Christ are being martyred.  Why are we different?  What does the lack of suffering in the American Church say about American Christianity?  What does a lack of suffering in my life say about my faith?  What does a lack of suffering in your life say about your faith?  Let us pray.  Let us entreat our God to cultivate the same faith in us that we see in our past and present brothers and sisters who were martyred.  Let us pray for the Holy Spirit of God to fall on us, for without the power of the Spirit, this kind of faith is impossible.

"The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer"


  1. I think another major reason Paul rejoices in his suffering is similar to his highly politicized gospel (i.e. Jesus is Lord.). In the suffering of the saints, the powers that be are made a mockery of and shown to be what they truly are: powerless.

    You ask what the lack of suffering says about the American church (I hate that about "the church in America," I like that much better). Simply put, the American Church (that is, the civil religion) doesn't suffer because the American Church preaches America and American values as lord. Start preaching "Jesus for president!" and insisting that allegiance to any kingdom of this world is idolatrous and anti-Kingdom of God and you'll get a few raised eyebrows, if not some good ol' fashion persecution.

    It goes way back and it's perfectly understandable. Christians preached this highly politicized gospel for centuries until finally getting fed up with persecution. The Church was co-opted by the state and the legitimization of things previously considered antithetical to Kingdom life followed soon after.

    What does a lack of suffering in your own life say? I don't know. I'll leave that one to you. But I will add that you may not be aware of suffering you already endure (and joyfully so). I encourage you to reflect on the meaning of suffering and ponder how it may already manifest itself in your life and why. You may be surprised.

    Peace & Love

  2. This is a great topic. In America we don't like to be inconvenienced much less persecuted. I agree with you that we don't want persecution because of a faith issue not a fear issue. We think God doesn't love us or we don't believe that God has our best interests at heart when we face difficulties. In America it seems we have been conditioned that if all is not well we are somehow on the outs with God. I guess we don't understand God's sovereignty or his deep love and affection for us as we should.

    Kelsey Wakefield