As young people we might have envisioned how our lives would unfold. We looked forward to achieving a college education followed by a successful career. Or maybe as adults we anticipated how the potential we saw within our children or grandchildren would blossom in marvelous ways as they reached adulthood. Still yet, there might have been the expectation for just a normal healthy life filled with a long marriage and children.
Then the unexpected occurred. The dream was ripped from our hands. Neither the specific details how this happened nor the details of our dreams matter. What is significant is that a hammer shattered our aspirations and hope for what would be. Perhaps disbelief turned into bitterness. Can joy ever thrive again?
I do not claim to have all the answers for when life is crushed in a vice. One thing I do know is something that I have learned from God’s word and experienced in life. Joy is still possible. However, it will require a radical reorientation of our mindset.
The apostle Paul wrote what seems like the most unlikely of messages to a church suffering an attack from the surrounding community as well as being torn apart from within its membership (Philippians 1:27-30; 4:2-3). He commanded them to rejoice and to avoid grumbling! That’s right. Philippians 2:14,18; 3:1 and 4:4 all contain imperatives.
When our lives unravel and crisis erupts, the typical response involves fixating upon our own hurt and misfortune. Furthermore, the pain and navel gazing are heightened if we are suffering unjustly. So how can Paul command people under duress to be joyful? Is that even possible?
For starters, he did not command them to do something that he had not already demonstrated himself. When Paul wrote this letter to them, he was in prison without just cause. Yet, as we will see, he was neither sorry for himself nor angry.
Furthermore, some people were trying to make his incarceration even worse for him. They hoped that by clearly explaining the gospel he proclaimed, they could incite more opposition against him. Although Paul had enemies trying to destroy him, he was neither angry nor bitter. Rather, we find him rejoicing in prison (Philippians 1:18). How was this possible?
All rejoicing is based upon something of value. Just try to find something that causes you joy that you do not value. If what is most highly valued is temporary, joy will disappear. On the other hand, if what is most highly valued endures joy can always exist even in the face of negative circumstances.
Accordingly, Paul anchored both his own ability to rejoice as well as theirs upon something greater than one’s circumstances. He centered life upon the greater and enduring blessings of being in Christ and the ever present possibility of following Christ in loving others. Thus for Paul, “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Similarly, rather than having embraced a self-centered attitude regarding his imprisonment, Paul’s focus sought the well being of others. Thus if the lost were hearing about Christ, Paul could rejoice. It did not matter to him that those doing the teaching were trying to cause him harm.
One of Paul’s primary purposes in this letter involved helping that church move beyond feeling sorry for itself to radically begin loving others as followers of Christ. He prayed for this (Philippians 1:9-11). He modeled how a mindset focused upon the well being of others can thrive even when someone experiences adverse conditions (Philippians 1:12-26). He reminded them that Christ was not self-absorbed, rather he looked beyond himself (Philippians 2:1-11).
If the church at Philippi, in spite of its troubles, would latch onto seeking the well being of others because they would focus upon the blessings in Christ, they too could rejoice even when life was rough. Likewise, we can “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4).
What dominates our thinking? Are our dreams and aspirations tied to this horizon or are our minds centered on things above?
Sometimes we may have difficulty in letting go of the temporary, unless we lose it. If our earth-centered dreams are shattered, perhaps there is mercy in losing them. For then it might be easier to embrace what is eternal and to focus upon loving others. Rejoice in the Lord always. And again I say rejoice!