As my wife Grace and I were reading through the book of Philippians, I was struck once again by the stunning way in which the Apostle Paul expresses his affection and love for the church. What is most remarkable is the context in which Paul offers such great words of encouragement: prison.
Paul was able, no matter his circumstance; no matter how bleak, lonely, abandoned or hard his imprisonment, he was able to view it as a Christ-ordained opportunity to share 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." - Philippians 1:12-13
Paul saw whatever happened to him as an opportunity for the gospel. But this secret can only be learned through difficulty and need.
"I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me." - Philippians 4:12-13
Because of the powerful resources of the gospel, even at his lowest, Paul is able to encourage. His focus is singular, his affections overflow, his resolve is strengthened not weakened. Paul knows how to look out and up. Out, to what lies ahead. Up, to the call entrusted to him.
"Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." - Philippians 3:12-14
Since Jesus has made us his own, we must press on to make the glories of the gospel our own. It is true, we don’t need a change of circumstance, but perspective. When we are apprehended by all that Christ is, has done, is doing and will do, we are changed—changed from looking in and finding despair and fear—changed to looking out to Christ in hope. Our greatest growth will not come as a church through comfort and safety, but by hardship and obstacles. God ordains our sanctification by planting us in the soil of affliction. In this way, we learn how to stand firm and press on so that our faith becomes mature and immovable.
We have an opportunity, like Paul, to encourage one another in our difficulty. In doing so, we find our own hearts lifted and healed. Let’s not waste the hardship. If we’re going to be troubled, let’s make it count and collect joy from our investment.
Lastly, the Apostle Paul brings his letter of encouragement to close by sharing his heart with his beloved church in Philippi. These words articulate the same feelings I have for ours.
"Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved." - Philippians 4:1