Sunday, February 17, 2008

Unfrustratable joy

12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice...(Philippians 1.12-18a, ESV).

Allow me a Piper moment: we all want to be happy. We choose the things we'll pursue based on the joy we believe these things will kick back to us. But we're not always happy, which means one of two things has gone wrong. Either we've grasped the thing that was to make us happy, and it turned out it didn't, or our circumstances frustrated our attempts to grasp it, so that the thing we believe will make us happy has thus far eluded us. Obviously the critical matter in this pursuit of happiness is that we choose something that will indeed give us joy when we've attained it, and that we choose something that is attainable.

We have to remember in Philippians that we are reading a letter. And in a letter people sometimes tell their friends how they are doing. That's exactly what Paul is doing in 1.12-26. He tells them how he's doing regarding his present circumstances (vv.12-18a) and regarding his future (18b to 26). The Philippians will be listening with great interest to this part. They know Paul is imprisoned, and they love him dearly. How is he doing? Is he down or discouraged? It must be so hard for him, he always likes to be on the move. He won't even be able to do what he loves the most: preach.

To their relief, the word back from Paul is extremely positive: "I rejoice" (1.18a). How is this possible? How can someone be happy in prison? Even a Canadian prison? Especially when the man is innocent of any crime? Doesn't he know that he has rights that have been violated to be indignant about? What has he chosen to pursue that can give him such joy in such unenviable circumstances, and is attainable in such circumstances?

Thankfully, Paul does not leave us to guess the answer to that question. But before he gives us the answer, he'll fill us in on the details of the situation a little more. First, those outside of Christ are against him, and he is imprisoned under Rome. And secondly, to make matter worse, there are some from the inside, from his own family, the Christians, who are trying to rub salt in his chain-wounds to increase his pain. Some of his own brothers are preaching "out of envy and rivalry...not sincerely, but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment" (vv.15 and 17).

Of course, the situation isn't all bad. Some of his brothers are preaching "from good will" (v.15) and they're doing it "out of love, knowing that [he is] put [there] for the defense of the gospel" (16). Which leads us to the reason Paul gives for his still being joyful in this whole thing:

What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice... (v.18).

In that I rejoice. In what? In that Christ is proclaimed. Not only that, but Paul rejoices in every way that Christ is preached. These are the ways that Paul is referring to:
  1. Christ is being preached by Paul in prison: "it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ" (v.13).
  2. The Lord <1> is using Paul's imprisonment to make the other Christians more confident, so that they are "much more bold to speak the Message without fear" (v.14).
  3. Many of these Christians with extra boldness are preaching Christ out of love for both Christ and Paul (vv.15b and 16).
  4. Some of these Christians are preaching out of a desire to further afflict Paul (vv. 15a, 17).

So, Paul's greatest goal and passion is Christ, and thus also the proclamation of the good news of Christ. Because that is his pursuit, he is in chains. But because this is his pursuit, he is rejoicing in chains. Paul has chosen a pursuit which cannot be frustrated by any circumstance. He has chosen a pursuit which is the very pursuit of God himself. Thus, the only thing that can frustrate Paul's joy is that which can frustrate the efforts of the Sovereign omnipotent God of the universe:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8.28).

I used to follow hockey. I loved the Winnipeg Jets. I can remember listening to the games on the radio (we didn't have TV!) and wanting them so badly to win. If you know anything about the Jets you know how often I was frustrated! My pursuit of pleasure was consistently being frustrated by circumstances completely out of my control (I couldn't, in good conscience, even pray for them!). So it is with everything else. Wanna live a long life? Be rich? Be successful? Have a family that loves you? All these pursuits can be frustrated in an instant by circumstances we can't manage. But when we adopt God's pursuit as our own, we can be sure, that while life's circumstances remain as uncontrollable to us as they are to everyone else, we have Someone with infinite power and wisdom who will work out every circumstance to the progress of our pursuit.

As Gordon Fee has observed, and as I noted in my one of my first posts in this series, Paul is doing more than just telling his friends how he's doing. He sees in his own situation deep parallels with his friends' situation. They too are suffering from Rome on the outside, and are experiencing some rivalry amongst each other on the inside. Thus Paul is gently offering himself as a paradigm to them and to us. If our common goal is Christ and his Message, no circumstance—persecution or internal tension—can rob us of our joy, for this is God's goal too. When our joy is gone, it is never because of our circumstances <2>; it is always because of our goal.

<1> I take it that it is not "brethren in the Lord" (KJV) but "many brethren, in the Lord waxing confident".

<2> I do not say this naively. At least, I hope I don't. In Philippians 2.27 Paul reveals that, if Epaphroditus had died, he would have had "sorrow upon sorrow". We're talking about a deap-seated joy here as in 2 Corinthians 6.10, "sorrowful yet always rejoicing."

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