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Joy Out of Adversity -- a perspective from Philippians 1:12-26

It's not about us; it's about Jesus.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Philippians 1:12-26

Even in great adversity, we can have the joy of knowing that God's kingdom is still coming. And because our eternity is secure in Jesus, we have nothing to fear in the present. (Note: I think that Lifeway's lesson title is poor -- adversity is not joy, but what God can bring out of adversity can bring us joy.)

For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. Phil 1:21

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?

I thought that this might be a fun opening question, and I thought that I could find some fun quotes and data to bolster it. Nope. This topic is a black hole of words.

Basic question: are you an optimist or a pessimist?

First problem: no one can really agree on what these words mean (most common idea: a pessimist expects a disadvantageous outcome), so you'll have to go with a "common sense" understanding, which is what the very few surveys I could find did. "Do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist?" The most recent one I could find, take with a grain of salt, was an "Optimism and Positivity Survey" from 2018 that says that 75% of Americans are optimists (though 54% are negative about world affairs). I guess that's good? (But I'm going to assume that those numbers have dropped since 2020. *sigh*)

Here's a quiz from Buzzfeed that might help (abridged):

1. How are you?

  • Pretty great, actually!

  • Things could be better, but that's normal.

  • Compared to 2020, I'm doing alright...

2. Is the glass --

  • Half full.

  • Half empty.

  • Has some water in it.

3. Your boss has called you into the office. You're thinking:

  • "Today's the day I finally get fired."

  • "Am I finally getting that raise?"

  • "I hope they don't heap more work on me."

4. Do you make New Year's resolutions?

  • Always!

  • What's the point?

  • I make small, achievable resolutions.

5. How do you think you'll be remembered?

  • The things I do will matter to a few people.

  • Nothing I do will matter in the long run.

  • My actions will have a huge impact on the world.

You'll notice three pretty obvious categories: optimist, pessimist, and realist. (Solomon was a pessimist, wouldn't you say?) Rather stereotyped, but self-explanatory.

The problem with those surveys is it's impossible to be a "pure" realist. You'll always tend toward optimism or pessimism (whatever you decide those things mean). Here's an article from "Positive Psychology" that creates three new categories with descriptions:

  • Unrealistically optimistic;

  • Unrealistically pessimistic;

  • Realistically optimistic.

Those terms make sense to me (and no, "realistically pessimistic" was not an option). I put myself in the realistically optimistic category.

And if we tried to label Paul the Apostle, I think we could call him the most realistically optimistic person in history (for reasons we will get to).

(This topic devolves into self-help mysticism pretty quick, so I'm going to leave it at that. If you want more, I'll put some at the very bottom of the post.

But I can at least end with a dash of humor! Do you have any good optimist jokes?

  • The pessimist says, ”Things could not get worse.” The optimist says, ”Oh yes they can.”

  • “Why did the optimist lose his job at the photographic processing lab? He couldn’t focus on the negatives.”

  • “Dear Optimist, Pessimist, and Realist, While you were arguing over that glass of water, I drank it. -Opportunist”

  • "Wife: Why is half my soda gone? Husband: because you’re a pessimist.”

  • "What do you call a Canadian who puts away their winter clothes in May? An optimist."

  • "I’m an optimistic pessimist. I’m positive things will go wrong."

I'm optimistic that you will forgive me for those bad jokes.)


Where We Are in Philippians

A lot of you were traveling last weekend, so a review may be in order. Please refer to last week's post:

Remember some operative words: partnership and joy -- specifically partnership in the gospel, and joy in what God is doing in and through them together.

Also remember that Philippians is what we would call a "family letter", a special category of letter that follows this pattern:

  1. Greeting

  2. Prayer for recipients

  3. Summary of "my affairs"

  4. Request to know about "your affairs"

  5. Information about comings and goings

  6. Greetings for third parties

  7. Wish for health

What we're covering this week is the "summary of my affairs" section. The church in Philippi wants to know how Paul is doing. What's really neat about this section is that even though the word "I" appears a lot, it's not really about Paul. It's about what's happening around Paul and how Paul views it. And what circumstance is Paul most concerned about? The progress of the gospel. Paul's "my affairs" are inseparable from the gospel.


Part 1: Open Doors (Philippians 1:12-14)

12 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually advanced the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard, and to everyone else, that my imprisonment is because I am in Christ. 14 Most of the brothers have gained confidence in the Lord from my imprisonment and dare even more to speak the word fearlessly.

(Note the "brothers and sisters" family language.)

If I were to try to describe "optimism", this would be textbook optimism. "Sure, I'm in prison, and I might be executed, but look at the good things that are happening!" And in fact, he gives us two specific positive outcomes:

  1. "I've been able to share the gospel with my guards, and

  2. Other Christians have been emboldened to share the gospel in Rome."

Do you know people with that kind of mindset? People who can find the silver lining in any storm? I sure do, including many members of this church! Do you have any stories about a person who could see the good in any situation?

That's what Paul is doing here -- he's seeing the good that God has been doing while he has been in prison.

For me, the ultimate example of this attitude is Joseph --

You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result—the survival of many people. Gen 50:13

He wasn't "happy" about the things that had happened, but he was able to appreciate what God had been able to accomplish through his tragic circumstances. That is a very good habit and mindset for all of us.

Paul realizes that he would not have otherwise had this kind of access to the palace guard. The word is praetorium. By Paul's day, the word was the special name for the emperor's personal elite guard (something like the "Secret Service").

[Note: that reference is a key reason why many believe Paul was writing from Rome. While the word could also mean "governor's palace", "whole" refers to people, not place.]

As far as we know, Paul would have been guarded in his house around the clock by soldiers on four-hour shifts. That means he probably had access to a large number of soldiers in (more-or-less) private conversation. Paul was likely the world's most non-threatening prisoner (he was small, soft spoken, and he probably had trouble seeing), so he would have been an object of curiosity. They, in turn, would have talked to others about this most curious prisoner. And who would they have otherwise had access to (as the personal guard of the emperor)? Everyone who had important business of state. Paul was basically planting the seeds of the gospel in the highest levels of the Roman Empire!

And then verse 14 gives the startling outcome: other Christians have been made bold to share the gospel is Rome. Now, why and how could this have been the case? Nero was the emperor at the time, and it is well known that he was suspicious of Christians (though this wouldn't erupt into full-blown madness until a few years later). Christians probably kept their heads down in Rome. So, what changed?

  • Maybe some of them saw Paul and decided that prison wouldn't be that bad.

  • Maybe just having Paul around made them want to be bold.

  • Or maybe seeing Paul in prison helped them realize what their priorities should be.

I think it's the latter. When we read stories of the persecution faced by our Christian brothers and sisters around the world, we should be very emboldened to get off the couch and do something for Jesus while we have our freedom to do so.

And of course, Paul makes it clear that any boldness is not coming from him at all but from the Lord. If good things happen, it's because of Jesus.

Paul is painting an unexpected picture: "I'm in chains, but the gospel is unleashed." That's an optimist's view. But Paul is not an "unrealistic optimist" as the next section clarifies.


Part 2: Mission Accomplished (Philippians 1:15-18)

15 To be sure, some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of good will. 16 These preach out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; 17 the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, thinking that they will cause me trouble in my imprisonment. 18 What does it matter? Only that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice ...

So, there are people trying to stir up trouble for Paul by preaching about Jesus? What does that even mean?

"Envy and rivalry" are on his lists of vices in Gal 5:20-21, Rom 1:29, 1 Tim 6:4, so these are not good Christian leaders Paul is talking about. In 1 Tim 6:4, those words were used of false teachers, so here's what I think is going on: Paul has had opponents in pretty much every city he has planted a church (often "Judaizers"), and so he does in Rome. And now that Paul is in prison, these opponents have been emboldened to preach their version of the gospel, making a name for themselves. So, just basic envy. They want to be as famous as Paul.

I don't think Paul is talking about Judaizers here. He always has nasty things to say about them (and he's going to say nasty things about them later in this letter). Rather, I think these are just rival evangelists, evangelists who are doing it to make money or gain a reputation. Read 2 Corinthians 11 -- there, Paul talks about a group of "super apostles" who are more charismatic, better speakers, better looking, and more fun to be around. In other words, these guys are preaching some kind of gospel of Jesus, but maybe it's some sort of watered down version, or maybe a self-centered version. In any event, I think we can safely say that part of their tactics involves what we call "sheep stealing".

You've probably heard stories of things like this -- a new preacher comes to town and builds a new, exciting church. And maybe the theology is a little off. And maybe the advertising takes a few shots at the old, established churches in town. (To follow Paul's words closely, the new preacher expects to be well paid and have a lot of power.) I think that's roughly what's going on here.

Anyway, how does Paul respond? Very generously. "I know there are people in Rome preaching the gospel with wrong motives. But there are also good people doing it, and in both cases, the gospel is being preached." That's a realistic optimist for you. Paul certainly doesn't approve of "sheep stealing" -- he writes about the need for unity and cooperation in most of his letters -- but his bigger-picture outlook says "as long as souls are being saved, I will deal with a certain amount of sheep stealing".

Remember the background here -- Paul has said that these rivals are "preaching Christ". In a Nero-led Rome where Paul is in prison, that's a key word. It's not like in America where calling yourself a church can mean just about anything. In Rome at that time, there was only one gospel of Jesus, and it was dangerous to preach. Paul is not promoting heretics.

In today's terms: we want all of the Christian churches in our community to do well. When there's a big event being hosted by another church, we want it to go well. Why? Because we're not in competition with the other churches in Thomson. What we want is for people to be saved. If other churches or ministries can be instrumental in that, then like Paul we should rejoice (even if the process of that evangelism smacks of rivalry).

I know I'm beating this drum a lot, but Paul was a realistic optimist. He's in prison. His hands are quite literally tied. If Paul wants people in Rome to be saved, that necessarily means that someone else will have to do it. It's a bummer that the someone elses who are doing it consider themselves his rivals, but the gospel is being preached.

Paul's subtle message to the Philippians (and to us): if you think it's wrong that those other Christians are taking advantage of Paul's situation in prison, then let's not behave similarly in our churches. Don't take advantage of one another. Don't be in competition with one another. Paul is promoting partnership and cooperation and generosity and humility. Those rival evangelists are not displaying any of those traits.

Now -- let's talk about a very important application of verse 18. Paul is not saying that he rejoices for being in prison. There are some people who misunderstand the Bible and believe that we are supposed to thank God for our circumstances, no matter how terrible they might be. That is absolutely not true. Paul rejoices that the gospel is advancing in spite of him being in prison. There is a difference between thanking God in our circumstances and thanking God for our circumstances.

But let's get to the application: Paul is able to thank God in his terrible circumstances (in prison with the real threat of execution) because his focus is not on himself. His focus is on the gospel and the people around him.

This, I believe, goes directly to what we talked about last week: Paul's prayer for the Philippians to "discern what is best" (to know what really matters) can be illustrated by Paul's reaction to his circumstances. What really matters is that the gospel is being preached and souls are being saved, not that Paul is in prison and that people are taking advantage of Paul's imprisonment.

What a great letter!


Part 3: God Honored (Philippians 1:19-20)

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice 19 because I know this will lead to my salvation through your prayers and help from the Spirit of Jesus Christ. 20 My eager expectation and hope is that I will not be ashamed about anything, but that now as always, with all courage, Christ will be highly honored in my body, whether by life or by death.

This passage seems strange. Good thing we read Job recently! Paul is actually calling back to Job 13, in which Job asks to defend himself in God's court:

15 Even if he kills me, I will hope in him. I will still defend my ways before him. 16 Yes, this will result in my deliverance, for no godless person can appear before him.

Job's "this will result in my deliverance" (in the Septuagint) and Paul's "this will lead to my salvation" are identical. The word "salvation" has a wide range of meanings. Obviously, the most important "salvation" is eternal salvation from the consequence of our sin. But another common usage in that day was what we now call "vindication". Job wanted to stand before God because he believed that when God heard all of the facts, God would vindicate Job of the charges his friends had leveled against him.

Similarly, Paul is about to stand trial before the emperor (or some judge), and because of all the prayers (and because the Spirit will help him speak), Paul knows that he will also be vindicated of the charges against him.

And what are those charges? You can go back to Acts 21-26 for the details, but here is a quick summary of the charges brought against Paul by the Sanhedrin in Acts 24:

5 For we have found this man to be a plague, an agitator among all the Jews throughout the Roman world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. 6 He even tried to desecrate the temple, and so we apprehended him. By examining him yourself you will be able to discern the truth about these charges we are bringing against him.”

Paul's defense was very simple:

11 You can verify for yourself that it is no more than twelve days since I went up to worship in Jerusalem. 12 They didn’t find me arguing with anyone or causing a disturbance among the crowd, either in the temple or in the synagogues or anywhere in the city. 13 Neither can they prove the charges they are now making against me.

So, yes, that seems like Paul should be vindicated of those charges in Rome. However, when you throw in politics and Nero's instability, Paul understood that nothing was assured. But because of everyone praying for him, he believed that God would bring about his vindication, which would lead to his release ("salvation from prison").

But verses 19 and 20 are actually one long sentence, and Paul has an even more important outcome on his mind (should you be surprised?): that Jesus will be magnified in the proceedings of the court and also in Paul's behavior. That's really what Paul is concerned about. That's "what really matters" in this ordeal. And because of all of this prayer support (prayer that the Spirit would help Paul), Paul knows that Jesus will be magnified. (Paul's phrase basically means that the Spirit of Jesus will be living in him in a powerful way through this trial as a result of their prayers.)

This is a great peak into "how prayer works" for anyone who is confused by this. When we pray, we should be praying for God to act. Paul believed that the Philippians were praying for the Spirit to give him the words to speak in this trial. Now -- does this mean that if the Philippians did not pray that the Spirit would not help Paul? No, not necessarily. But God wants our prayers to be a part of how He chooses to act. (Plus there are other notable benefits, mostly importantly how the prayers would build a bond between that church and Paul.)

Part of the way Paul expects to glorify God is verse 20, that he won't "be ashamed". In other words, he won't bring disgrace to God by the way he acts, either saying something that is not honorable, or by giving into the charges out of fear. Paul doesn't expect that to happen; after all, he has been in prison all this time and has been shamed or disgraced. What does does expect is the opposite of shame: glory (not for himself but for God).

Paul's emphasis on his physical body is the "realist" part of being a realistic optimist. He is in prison, dependent on the generosity of others, at risk of being executed. Paul is not downplaying his circumstances at all! But Paul still believes that God will sustain him in such a way that he will bring glory to God.

When your desire is to bring glory to God, you can believe that God will bring you through your circumstances, no matter how dire.

What that ultimately means, however, is known only to God ...


Part 4: Christ Alone (Philippians 1:21-26)

21 For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 Now if I live on in the flesh, this means fruitful work for me; and I don’t know which one I should choose. 23 I am torn between the two. I long to depart and be with Christ—which is far better— 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. 25 Since I am persuaded of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that, because of my coming to you again, your boasting in Christ Jesus may abound.

When understood properly, these verses are some of the best in the Bible for coping with the reality of death. There's a wordplay here that we miss in English which might explain what otherwise seems like a strange choice of words:

  • To live: Christos To die: kerdos (gain or profit)

Paul is simply creating a memorable phrase to explain why he's not concerned about the possibility that he might be executed. If he lives, he gets to continue his relationship with Jesus. If he dies, he just gets to have an even better relationship with Jesus. Either way, Paul wins.

What is the power of the court? To take away your freedom, and to take away your life. Well, the court has already taken away Paul's freedom, and that has not stopped the thing that truly matters (the advance of the gospel). And if the court takes away Paul's life, so much the better for Paul. So, what power does the court really have over Paul? None.

Paul talks about this a lot in 1 Cor 15, but I think the easiest-to-follow verse is Heb 2:

14 Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.

When we are afraid of death, Satan has legitimate leverage over us, because the fear of death bleeds into the fear of the unknown (which might lead to death). What are those things that fear keeps you from doing?

Paul does not have that fear. That is the ultimate joy of being a Christian realistic optimist. The reality is that our salvation is secure in Jesus Christ, and nothing can take us away from Him. Jesus Himself said, "Matt 10:28 Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." The only One who can destroy us in hell is God Almighty, and in Jesus, we are now His children. We have nothing to fear.

As a result, Paul is able to view his situation not from the perspective of what will happen to him, but what it will mean to everyone else. He knows that the church in Philippi still needs him, and so he expects that he will continue to live.

So let's talk about that. Didn't the church in Jerusalem need James when James was martyred? Didn't a whole bunch of churches need Stephen when Stephen was martyred? And how about every other Christian who has ever lived and died? Couldn't we say that somebody needed them?

Understand what Paul is and is not saying. Paul is simply being realistically optimistic. He doesn't know what is going to happen. He has no power over God's plan. He's just staying upbeat in the same way that we are all supposed to stay "upbeat" in the face of trials. If Paul did not leave that prison alive, it would not mean that God loved the Philippians any less. It would just mean that Paul's time had come.

Partnership and joy and Jesus.

Ways to Illustrate. There are lots of things you can try to this effect, but a simple one would be to have three or four people pick up a table, hold it, and then have one of them walk away ("called to another field of service"). The remaining folk can probably hold the table, but it would be better if that first person came back or if someone else stepped in their place. That's all Paul is saying here. "It would be better if I could be there to help you."

Who are the people you have worked with in ministry? How are they doing? Do they need your help? Do you need someone else's help? Paul wants us to celebrate our partnerships in the name of Jesus and be committed to them. Let's do that this week.

[Note about death for Christians -- I don't want to get too hung up on this because Paul makes this very clear: when Paul dies, he will be "with Christ", and that condition is "better by far". The words used are personal -- a personal consciousness of Jesus in death (i.e. not a nothingness). When your loved one who is a Christian dies, he or she will be with Jesus and know it, and being with Jesus is better than being in our current, limited body. This should be a great comfort to us.]


Closing Thoughts: The Black Hole of Optimism vs. Pessimism

Most of what I found online was a heap of meaningless words, some of which aren't even coherent. Let's start with the stereotyped difference between optimism and pessimism:

  1. Pessimists find danger in every opportunity. Optimists find opportunity in every danger.

  2. Pessimists are data driven. Optimists are goal driven.

  3. Pessimists see problems. Optimists see solutions.

  4. Pessimists are realistic. Optimists are dream-chasers.

  5. Pessimists keep low expectations. Optimists keep high expectations.

I don't even know what some of that is supposed to mean.

Here are some quotes that sound good if you don't think about them:

  • Be optimistic like a flower. A flower never loses her optimism and will bloom with all of her beauty despite tremendous adversity. - Debasish Mridha

  • Optimism is the foundation of courage. - Nicholas M. Butler

  • Optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable. - Voltaire

  • The optimism of a healthy mind is indefatigable. - Margery Allingham

  • A pessimist is a man who thinks everybody is as nasty as himself, and hates them for it. - George Bernard Shaw

  • If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. - Wayne Dyer

  • I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will. - Antonio Gramsci

  • Pessimists try to convince you the world sucks, optimists already know it does and smile anyway. - Jonathan Harnisch

Not only are some of those quotes jibberish, but they're even dangerously untrue. This is the black hole of the internet. I did find a very interesting intersection of all of our topics. You might remember this book from the 50s by Norman Vincent Peale (the guy who founded Guideposts!): The Power of Positive Thinking. It was trashed by theologians and psychologists but beloved by the general public.

The basic message is that optimistic people are more satisfied with their lives, and there are habits and techniques that anyone can practice to become more optimistic. I'm completely on board with that. I believe it's been true in my life!

The controversy comes with Peale's methods -- when you read them closely, they're not too different from Eastern meditation and self-hypnosis. You're basically tricking your brain into ignoring whatever is going on in the world around you. (Would that be "unrealistically optimistic?") Further, there was no medical evidence in support of Peale's techniques -- just anecdotes.

Theologically, this book drifted into the "name it and claim it"/"word of power" view of Christianity. We have the power within us to overcome our obstacles and reshape the world around us. To use a phrase from someone who has reappropriated this book, we can "live our best life now". The biggest problem with this view (and any view that makes human happiness an end goal) is

  • it ignores the fact that evil is a part of our world as a consequence of sin;

  • it forgets that God can (and frequently does) use negative circumstances to make Christians more like Jesus;

  • our "power" over our world is actually God's, not ours.

I completely believe that Christians should be optimistic, but that's because we believe that God's kingdom is coming, not because "we can make our dreams come true".


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