In the first chapter of Philippians Paul mentions “my imprisonment” (v.14), which is just one of a whole catalogue of difficult situations Paul found himself in because of the gospel. We know a little bit about how he was feeling at the time, or at least where his thoughts were, from a little hidden Bible echo in verse 19 where he writes, “for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.” The phrase “will turn out for my deliverance” is the exact same phrase as the Greek translation of Job 13:16 (“This will be my salvation” in the ESV), a chapter in which Job, in the midst of his suffering, feels like he’s in prison – “You put my feet in the stocks” (v.27).
Neither being imprisoned or going through what Job experienced would have been easy. Sometimes we feel like we’re imprisoned, and our feet are in the stocks. Whether that’s being confined to our homes under threat of a pandemic, struggling with the infirmity of the flesh, or feeling shackled by sin and death, we can feel a little like Paul and Job.
But what’s remarkable about Paul’s letter to the Philippians, despite how he’s feeling, is that one of the key words found scattered through the epistle, is joy. For instance, Paul told his readers he prayed for them with joy (v.4). Then in another echo with Job 13 where he talks about those who “proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely” (v.17 – see Job 13:7 for a comparison with Job’s three friends) but he says of this, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice” (v.18). The word is also found in verses 25 and 26, seven times in chapter 2, three times in chapter 3 and four times in chapter 4. He keeps telling the Philippians to rejoice despite the circumstances he and they were going through.
The greatest example of joy during adversity is our Lord Jesus Christ who “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2). It’s not so much that we find joy in the difficulty circumstances themselves – Jesus wasn’t looking forward to the cross, and Paul didn’t enjoy having his feet in the stocks – but it’s a frame of mind we can get into where the light at the end of the tunnel completely overrides whatever it is we’re experiencing. Jesus’ vision of sitting at his father’s right hand was so intense that joy overcame the depths of fear and pain.
How do we get to experience that same sense of joy while going through our own problems in life? I must admit, when this pandemic began, the last thing I felt was joy. The thoughts that went through my head were “what if this is a sign of Christ’s soon return, or I die from the virus, I don’t feel ready!” The feeling I had was very much like being trapped and imprisoned. Which is why the definition of the Greek word for joy in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament is so interesting. Part of the definition there is about the opposite of joy and the negative thoughts we might have – “These arise only when man in ethical self-reflection sees himself as mastered by desire and plunged into bondage”. I was mastered by desire in the sense that I felt like my body was turning against me. My natural hypochondria set in, and I felt anxious as everything became surreal. It felt like my feet were in stocks and I couldn’t move. But in the past few weeks I’ve gone from wanting to avoid all news outlets in case I see a pandemic statistic which scares me, to keeping up with what’s going on, on a daily basis. What changed was looking at the situation through a different lens which allowed joy to conquer fear and anxiety.
Paul said to the Philippians, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (v.21). His perspective was no matter what happened – if he stayed in prison, or was released, or died – all was in God’s hands, the kingdom is coming and there is nothing to fear. If we’re focusing on the right things – keeping our eyes fixed on the return of Christ, submitting to God’s discipline in our lives as he shapes us for eternal use, treating one another with the spirit of Christ and doing our best to follow Christ, then no matter what life throws at us we can view it all through the lens of the joy that has been set before us.
Simi Hills, CA