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Suffering and Joy: Two Odd Friends

The God of Paradox

The world is filled with great uncertainties in these days. The Lord places paradoxes in our world. One such paradox is finding joy in the midst of suffering. These two truths seem at odds with each other but, as with all of God’s paradoxes, God often places seeming opposite ideas side-by-side to display His glory. In the letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul gives us various snapshots of how we can respond to difficult circumstances.

Joy is not the carefree giddiness that one may assume at first glance; nor is it based on good circumstances. Joy is a spiritual gift that all believers have been given. It is found in the grace of God, through the atoning work of Jesus Christ, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross” (Heb 12:2). Paul followed Christ’s example. The letter to the Philippians is known as “the letter of joy”. The word joy (and its derivatives) occurs 12 times in this short letter. Philippians was written during one of Paul’s imprisonments (1:13). In addition to the work of Christ, Paul offers us examples of the paradox of suffering and joy. How can a man in an ancient prison rejoice? Are we allowing our confinements to teach us about true joy?

Paul suffered well. One way he did this was by the confidence he had in the Lord’s work. In other words, he was completely assured of God’s sovereign work, not only in his life but also in the lives of the Philippians (1:6, 14). Paul trusted the Lord completely and submitted to His perfect will for his life, even if that meant he was to be in prison. His life’s focus was not on himself but on being a willing servant of the Lord. He knew, whether he lived or died, he belonged to the Lord. Paul’s imprisonment was not a walk in the park. It was difficult. Because he had a submissive attitude, he was able to continue to preach the gospel regardless of where he ended up. He knew his citizenship was in heaven (3:20) and that one day he would be with Christ at his death (1:23). How about us? Are we submitting to God’s sovereign purposes in our lives? Obviously, we are all affected by COVID-19. Are we confident like Paul that the Lord is working? Or are we so focused on what we are lacking (ability to provide for family, freedom to leave homes, health, and the smaller issues like toilet paper, bleach, wipes, etc.) that we cannot see how the Lord is using this for His glory?

Connected to a submissive attitude is humility. Without humility no one will submit to the Lord. Paul demonstrated a humble attitude. He followed Christ’s example of humility (2:5-11). He suffered willingly for Christ’s sake. In fact, he noted, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (1:29). This proclamation is for all believers. He did not allow his imprisonment to make him anxious or bitter. He could easily have questioned God’s purposes for his prison sentence. He did not boast that he could do more work for the Lord outside of the prison confinement. At one point, Paul discusses two groups that were preaching the gospel. One group did it out of love, knowing that Paul was in prison to defend the gospel (1:16). Paul responded to this situation not by leveling the group who wanted to do him harm but with humility. He concludes, “Only that in very way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (1:18). He rejoiced! Are we allowing our confinements (though not as harsh as Paul’s imprisonment) to make us grumble and complain (2:14)? Are we seeking the Lord for the opportunities to share the gospel? Are we living out our faith when no one but God alone is watching? 

Philippians has many more things to teach about the proper responses to difficult circumstances. Paul, though he was imprisoned, found great joy in the Lord. He understood that submission and humility are key attitudes in living a life of joy.

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