One of the happiest letters that the Apostle Paul wrote in the New Testament is Philippians, and he wrote it from a jail cell while his work was being attacked by others. However, after twenty years of faithfully serving Jesus Christ he never allowed his circumstances to set the stage for his joy or his happiness. No, his joy came from serving Jesus Christ without regard for his circumstances–even in a jail cell (Phil 4:11-13): “Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
As I read his words this morning I was humbled by the fact that after almost three years of unemployment (which I now consider to be much like a jail cell that I can’t seem to escape), I could not say the same thing nor was I feeling joyful or happy about my circumstances. In fact, I fail to see the purpose of why it continues on after so long. And, I’ve lost sight (at least this morning) of the “bigger picture” of what God is doing in the world beyond my small jail cell. However, the Apostle Paul viewed his jail cell as an opportunity to advance the gospel. Here’s his account in Phil. 1:12-19:
“12Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. 13As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.
15It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.”
Granted, I, in no way, can compare my life with Paul’s in the way that he advanced the gospel ever since Jesus showed Himself to Paul on the Damascus Road many years earlier. However, clearly Paul could see beyond his circumstances, knowing that even in a jail cell the gospel continued to be advanced while he awaited his deliverance.
As I look back on these past three years, and if you’ve read any of my previous posts, it is clear that the power of Jesus Christ has been at work in my life pulling me out of the mess I was in back then and cleaning me up from sin that had invaded my life over the previous years (see posts titled Second Chances, Zero Tolerance, and Don’t Lose Your Soul At Crossroads). And, it is this “jail cell” of long-term unemployment that has been the vehicle God chose to get my attention.
I can honestly say that if I had been able to secure employment within the first six months after I lost my job in Houston in April 2009, I would have totally missed all of the vital lessons Jesus has been showing me over this very long period of unemployment. He had a much bigger picture in mind for me when I lost that job, but I just couldn’t see it. All I could see at that time was the desperate need to find another job and income.
Indeed, His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). When any kind of tragedy strikes, we only see and experience the immediate tragedy and just want to “fix it.” However, God is not into “quick fixes” but long-term change, and His purposes go way beyond the immediate tragedy. Romans 8:28-30 states, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”
Here’s one of the keys to understanding the trials that come into our lives–“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” It is not when our lives are going well or we are just coasting along that we are being “conformed to the image of his Son” but rather in the tragedies and trials of life, and the deep valley experiences. And God never tells us the length of time involved in any of them. He gives us no deadline in advance but tells us that through trials and adversity it is the “testing of our faith that develops perseverance; and that perseverance must finish its work so that we may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:3-4). Yes, indeed, we are being conformed to the image of Jesus.
In Paul’s case as a prisoner in the Philippian jail, he knew that even while he was in jail it advanced the gospel to include his witness for Christ to the palace guards and everyone else around him. And because of his chains, it gave confidence and courage to his brothers on the outside to speak the word of God with more boldness and to do it fearlessly. Even his opposition (his rivals) who preached Christ out of envy and selfish ambition were used to advance the gospel regardless of their own personal motives. So, yes, even in a jail cell, he could see how the gospel was still being advanced in the lives of others.
Now in my case, God first had to pull me out of the mess I had made of my life (through repentance) and set my feet back on solid ground (through daily Bible reading and prayer–communicating with Him). And all during this time He has not only been perfecting my faith (see post titled A Season of Faith’s Perfection) but building in me a perseverance so that I can become mature and complete, lacking nothing. Obviously, I’m not quite there yet since my trial (e.g. unemployment) is still ongoing. However, starting today, I plan to work on maintaining an attitude of praise, thanksgiving and joy, even when the sheer weariness of this long trial attacks it.
I don’t know where you might be on your journey today–whether you are in the midst of a trial or tragedy, or whether your life is going okay right now, but I know the One who holds the future, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). So keep holding on to that hope, no matter what comes your way.
“Good and upright is the LORD;
therefore he instructs sinners in his ways.
“He guides the humble in what is right,
and teaches them his way.
“All the ways of the LORD are loving and faithful
for those who keep the demands of his covenant.”
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