By James Metsger
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. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. (Philippians 1:12-14)
Philippians is considered one of Paul’s prison epistles because, as you could probably deduce, Paul was in prison when he wrote it. I don’t want to give the impression that Paul visited prison more than I visit Starbucks, but he certainly spent a lot of time locked up. It should go without saying that prison isn’t exactly a destination location. No one checks for an Airbnb on Alcatraz. For Paul, a comfortable backdrop for his writing wasn’t an option. Nevertheless, notice how Paul reframes his circumstances to see the good in a lousy situation.
Paul points out two significant results of his time in prison. First, he notes that his imprisonment has served to advance the gospel. Second, he mentions that confidence in the Lord has caused others to speak boldly for Christ. Gospel advancement and holy boldness in the Lord. I can’t help but wonder if our uncertain times could produce similar results in our lives.
Suffering can seem cruel and unjust suffering seems even worse.
Suffering as result of personal sin at least makes some sense, but suffering as a result of another’s sin is so much harder. Paul is not suffering for his own wrongdoings but because of his message. His listeners hated his message, so they hated Paul. However, we learn from Scripture that Paul’s suffering was not wasted or without purpose, and the same can be said of your suffering. There can be purpose in the pain because God is sovereign in the midst of suffering.
Paul was a faithful sufferer. He trusted and loved God despite the fact that he was in prison for testifying about God. Because he was so focused on God, he was able to connect the dots of his suffering. God graciously allowed him to witness the spread of the Gospel “throughout the whole imperial guard and the rest” (v. 13). Admittedly, we don’t always have that luxury. We don’t always see what God is doing in our dark days. We know intellectually that suffering is a tool used by God for our sanctification, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. If you’ve lost a loved one, been abandoned by a friend, or had your good name dragged through the mud, you know the pain all too well. Sometimes, mercifully, we can see in part what God is up to. But the unseen fruit of suffering should not stop the downtrodden from pressing on when the enemy presses in. Paul seemed to understand Peter’s admonition to Christians encountering suffering: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (I Peter 4:19). Paul trusted God and saw the gospel advance despite the fact he was stuck in prison.
Not only did Paul rejoice in the gospel advancing, but he saw the church made bold because of his own courage. Paul was always bold in preaching Christ. He did not hide from controversy or flee from the mobs. Even after being imprisoned for preaching, he went right on proclaiming Christ to those around him; in this case, the very men who were keeping him in that prison. Courage births courage. Boldness begets boldness. It must be one of the many reasons God made us to live in community. You want a dose of courage? Hang around some courageous people. Later in his letters, Paul said he wanted to hear that the Philippians were “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents” (1:27b-28).
Courage is contagious, and it is key when we’re called upon to suffer. We know suffering visits us all, so take courage in responding to it by trusting God’s purpose and his plan. Paul trusted God confident in the knowledge that his suffering wasn’t for him alone. It was used by God to strengthen the church.
God is in the business of taking what is not good and using it for his good. He does it all the time. Today, maybe you find yourself in a prison of suffering. May God give you the freedom to see that your suffering is not wasted. It can be used by God for eternal good and for his eternal glory
Consider a time when God has used circumstances that were not good for His good. Give him thanks.
Do you have a friend who is suffering? Call him or her and share how God has used them to develop courage in you.