How Can I Have Joy in Difficult Circumstances?

Are you in a situation you'd rather not be in? Have you been given a hand by God and you'd rather just fold and give up? There are always situations that God puts us that are not how we want them to be. We question.

We get angry.

We doubt God's goodness.

Needless to say we have terrible attitudes and we often begin to find our wicked hearts rebuking God.

This is why Paul's attitude in the book of Philippians never ceases to amaze me. Paul is writing this letter in prison, yet it is one of his warmest and joyous letters he ever wrote. I'm not sure what situation you find yourself right now, but I doubt you are in chains being guarded by a burly Roman guard.

So what is Paul's secret?

What does he know that we need know?

What is he believing that we are not?

Well as we begin to look through the letter of Philippians, we begin to see why Paul is so joyous despite his circumstances. Here are three ways you can face whatever situation with joy.

1. Make Jesus Your Chief Treasure

Paul loved Jesus. Not only did Paul love Jesus, he counted all his worldly accolades and his prestigious reputation as rubbish in order that he may gain Christ (Phil 3:8). If Paul's whole life could be compared to a shelf, Jesus was not just an item on the shelf of Paul's life. Jesus is the shelf itself. Paul had a laser focus on Jesus, and ultimately nothing else mattered as long as he had Jesus.

When Jesus is all you live for, you will be surprised what you can live without. There is not cost to high, no persecution to great, and no suffering to overwhelming when Jesus is your treasure.

In fact the great irony is that it through those difficulties that the ecstatic joys of Christ increase. Just like a fine wine cleanses the palate and accentuates the flavor of the meal, so does suffering accentuate the depths of our knowledge of Christ. This is why Paul longs "I want to know him and the power of his resurrection, and share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death" (3:10). Paul wants to experience the joy of the resurrection of Christ and he knows that that joy comes through suffering.

Paul saw his chains not as obstacles to his joy but as catalysts. When you begin to see your trails not as obstacles in the way of your joy, but pathways to deeper joy there is nothing that life can throw at you that wills shake you.  The obstacles we fear become tools in God's hand for our joy and His glory.

2. Live Believing Dying is Gain.

Because Christ was Paul's chief treasure, he had a reckless fearlessness concerning his own life. Paul's chief concern is the glory of Christ and knows that Christ will be honored in his body, whether by life or by death (1:20). This is why Paul could say so boldly and confidently "to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (1:21).

Can you imagine that sort of freedom? Though Paul was chained to the imperial guard he was the freest man in the room. What could they do to him? If they keep him alive, he was going to live for Christ. If they kill him, great! He gets to be with his savior.

Christians should be the most fearless people on the planet. Because Christ has redeemed and set us free from the condemnation of our sin, the penalty of death is removed. There is no condemnation for those in Jesus (Rom 8:1). Therefore death is not a horrific, tragic end but a beautiful, new beginning. Paul, with Christ as his chief treasure, got this. Do you?

This is why he could go on to be content whatever the circumstances (see Chapter 4). Whether his stomach is filled or he hasn't eaten for days, Paul says he is content. Why? Because he is a man living for eternity. He is a man with his eye on the prize. He is a man striving for Christ and there is nothing on earth that can get in the way of his pursuit. He is running the race and pressing on to cross the finish line of death and receive his prize–his treasure, Jesus.

Do you live with such laser focus on Christ? Are you living as if dying is gain? Do you see the world through the lens of eternity? If so, there is no situation of your life that can still your joy.

3. See Your Hardships as Opportunities

I love Paul, because the man is sitting in prison and in chains. Though Paul is bound, the Gospel is not. In fact, it is spreading ever the more rapidly while Paul sits in his cell. Paul tells the church,

"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 imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers having become more confident in the Lord by my imprisonment are much more bold to speak the word without fear" (1:12-14).

Isn't that amazing? When Paul gets locked up he doesn't throw a pity party. He doesn't say, "Ok God, I'm not sharing the Gospel with anyone until you get me out of here. I don't deserve this!" Nor does he say, "If God really cared about me he wouldn't have let me get arrested". No! Paul with Christ as his treasure continues to proclaim the Gospel to the audience the Lord has given–the prison guards. Even in his imprisonment, the Gospel was going forth and God was converting the guards. Not only that, but the Christians in the city are being stirred to evangelism through the example that Paul is setting. Rather than seeing his imprisonment as an affliction, he saw it as an opportunity to boldly proclaim Christ.

You're Right Where You Need to Be

I'm not sure what sort of situation you have found yourself. Maybe it is not ideal. Maybe it is not what you wanted. Maybe you are frustrated and burned out. Learn from the apostle Paul's example. Live with Christ as your treasure. Live knowing dying is gain. Live looking for opportunities to proclaim Christ. As you do you might just be surprised that this difficult place the Lord has placed you is right where he needs you to be.

The Antidote to the Me-Centered Church

This Blog Post is an excerpt from my sermon on Philippians 2:1-11, "The Gospel, Humility, and Unity". You can listen to the sermon audio here. Humility is a bizarre concept for modern people. It is a difficult idea to wrap our minds around. Modern people have been indoctrinated with enlightenment idea of progress striving to be better than one another, but most significantly is the Darwinian idea of the survival of the fittest. Many people see rising to power and promoting self as the chief purpose of life. To be great is to be powerful, respected, feared, and wealthy. So for many of us greatness and humility are two traits that do not go together. Indeed humility is against our very nature. We are prideful beings constantly seeking our own fame. We often beg for compliments and perk up when someone gives us a word of praise. We like to be in the spotlight and we like to be the center of attention. We like for people to serve us, so we created a whole service industry of waiters, customer service representatives, and hospitality to pamper us and to meet our every want. Our sinful instincts are not naturally drawn to humble service but prideful entitlement!

Yet for the Christian, one born of God is to be characterized by radical humility. Christians are to be made servants, not consumers. The Christian lays down his own wants and desires for the sake of others. Since he has been given everything in Christ it is his joy to give himself to others. The Christian is to do nothing from selfish ambition. He is to do nothing to advance his own reputation. He is not to seek his own glory or fame. The Christian is to abstain from conceit. He should not think of himself more highly than he ought. He is to realize that he is not the center of the universe. Rather than thinking much about himself he is to think much about others. What about you? Do you think of yourself more highly than you ought? Do you desire your own fame and glory? This is not the way of the Christian.

Rather than self-exaltation Paul encourages the church toward other-exaltation. We must see the significance of our brothers and sisters and must value them above ourselves. We are to look out for them, care for them, and serve them. We are to look not only to our own interests but also the interest of others. The humble servant is to look for ways to serve and to meet the needs of those around him. Rather than being absorbed in narcissistic individualism we are to be marked by generous radicalism.

The Struggle of Humility

But lets be honest. Isn't it so difficult to be a humble servant? I struggle with laying down my wants for the sake of my brothers and sisters. So often I want to look out for myself and my own needs! I want to look after my own interests, and if I have time maybe I'll look after yours. My heart fights to find others as more significant than myself. The spirit rages in my heart convicting me of my pride. Humility is difficult and as pastor and writer CJ Mahaney said in his little book on humility, "I am a proud man pursuing humility by the grace of God". I want to be humble, but I need God's grace to help me in my sin and to help me realize who I am before Him. He is the creator I am the creature. I am the sinner and He is the savior. I am the rebel, He is the peace maker. He is the judge and I am the felon. Humility is not some sort of melodramatic self-loathing. Humility means understanding who you are in relation to God and others.

The Disdain of the Me-Centered Church

If a church is to be unified, on mission to advance the cause of Christ, there must be humble service among its members. This humility must define the culture of the church. The body of Christ is not to be made of entitled egoist, but self-denying servants.

Yet how far many churches are from this picture! We've turned our churches into consumer businesses where you come to church to be served rather than to serve. We've traded in the great commission for attractive products the church can offer you. The Great Commission has become the Great Suggestion. So churches come up with the latest and greatest way of catering to your needs with multi-million dollar buildings, a large menu of programs for your choosing, and worship services with watered down lyrics, flashing lights, a funny speaker, but very little Jesus. Perhaps the reason the mission of God is not being accomplished today is because our churches have been training a generation of believers that the church is here to serve them, not them to serve the church!

So a me-centered Christianity has cropped up where we demand from the church to do it my way or I'll hit the highway. I want my style of music, I want this sort of ministry, I want this length of a worship service, I want this sort of pastor, I want this sort of children's ministry. So in a never ending aim to appeal consumers churches run the rat race of conforming the church to what me-centered Christians want it to be, rather than letting God define what the church should, how we conduct our worship services, or what sort of ministry philosophy we will have. We take God's word and throw it into the metaphorical drawer and do church the way we want to do it.

So what is the solution to the plight the church of america has gotten itself in? How do we guard against our own hearts form this me-centered Christianity? How do we get our churches to look more like Philippians 2? Well it starts with a profound knowledge and deep conviction of the truthfulness of the Gospel. Humble service is a result of Gospel transformation. The antidote to the me-centered church is the self-sacrificing Christ! How do we learn to serve? How do we learn humility? How do we stay unified on the mission God has given us? Well it comes by looking to Christ!

The Example of Jesus

Paul turns our attention to Jesus, highlighting him as the example, the epitome of humility. Jesus though God did not cling to his divine prestige. If anyone had the right to be served by others it was Jesus! He is God! All of creation was created by his word! He sustains the universe by the word of his power. Yet, he was willing to take on the form of a servant. He was willing to step down from the glory of heaven, to become a human being and be born to a teenage girl in a stable. Rather than coming as a King, Jesus came as a servant. He came as one who would give up his life. Jesus was obedient even to the point of death. He humbled himself to the point of death, but not just any death, a death on a cross! The most horrific, violent, bloody, and painful inventions of torture humanity has ever come up with. He goes to the cross of his own volition and dies in the place of sinful man. As Jesus says, "The son of man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many". Jesus served us in our greatest need and in our greatest weakness. We are sinners who stand condemn before God. There is no one righteous, no not one! We stand before God and we are unrighteous, unworthy. We deserve hell and punishment. Yet the servant Jesus sees our need, humbles himself by taking on humanity and the Father sends Jesus on a rescue mission. God crucifies himself at the hand of his created image bearers so our sins could be paid for. God endured the wrath you deserved by taking it on himself. At the cross Jesus in humility laid down his life for us. The great God of the universe humbled himself and became a servant of man.

Here is the power of the Gospel in our lives! When we understand the astonishment of God's grace to us, when we stand amazed at God's service to us, our response is genuine humility. As we look to Calvary we see a gift we do not deserve. When we see the wonder of God's grace to us we become aware of our smallness. The reality of our tiny existence is made real, and we are amazed that God would take me and save me and restore me. When that truth sinks in and you feel the weight of God's love towards you in Christ, you are left standing with eyes gazing, falling on your knees in humility!

Do you desire humility? Do you desire to be a servant to others? Look to Christ our example! He is the suffering servant who demonstrates humility for us. Soak in this truth and as you do humility will be your response. For those who have genuinely put their faith in Jesus and have trusted in this good news humility is the only response. As we are humbled by the Gospel we will in turn be a servant to others. Why? Because Christ was first a servant to us. So look to your savior you who are proud at heart! Look to his nail pierced hands and feet you who seek to be served! For if the God of all the earth has stooped down to serve you, shouldn't you the dust of the earth serve your neighbor?

Church Unity and the Advancement of the Gospel

In churches we tend to get distracted.  Events, activities, committee meetings, budget meetings, church council, youth committee meetings, children’s committee meetings.  Did I mention committee meetings?  Needless to say, churches can quickly become busy with the hustle and bustle of church activity.  In fact, it can get to the point where the church is so busy doing church, that we don’t take the time to reflect on whether we are actually accomplishing what we set out to accomplish.  Often, we tend to find ourselves defining our church by what programs we offer or activities we perform.  In fact, we tend to fall in love with our methodology of ministry and it becomes an functional idol.  As a result, what tends to happen is that the congregation becomes disunified as people argue over the proper methodology of doing church.

Paul in his letter to the Philippians stresses that the church needs to remain unified for the sake of the Gospel.  Apparently there is a bit of conflict among the congregation among two women, Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 3:).  It is not clear what the problem between the two was, but what is clear is that the disunity was distracting them from the churches primary mission, the advancement of the Gospel.

As a church, that is our mission isn’t it?  The ultimate goal is to see the Gospel go forth, and to see lives changed by the grace of God found in Jesus Christ.  How come we get so hung up in our methodology, that we forget this?  Churches divide on worship style, sunday school curriculum, services, or even changing the color of the carpet.  Why should any of these issues be so divisive amongst the body?  This is why we must constantly remind ourselves of our mission and goal, the advancement of the Gospel.  The correct question to ask is not which worship style do we want our church to be, but what worship style will be most effective for the advancement of the Gospel in our community? In other words we should be constantly evaluating all our busyness and asking how this particular activity is helping to advance the Gospel of Jesus.  We must pause and evaluate and not let the busyness of activity fool us into thinking that we are actually being successful. There are too many people in our cities that need the Gospel to waste time.  The urgency is great, and we don’t have time for petty differences in methodology.  So pause and ask yourself the question, how can you best advance the Gospel in your church?

The Mystery of Christ

Philippians 2:5-11 is one of the most beautiful passage of Christ found in the New Testament, but it is also one of the most debated.  Paul's ultimate purpose in presenting this hymn is not to provide a clear, systematized theology of Christ, but to encourage to church at Philippi by providing an example of true service and humility.  However this passage does provide a wealth of information about who Jesus is.  Within these few verses several key doctrines about Christ are contained.  The first is that Jesus was God.  He was in "very nature God" or "in the form of God" (2:6).  However although Jesus was 100%, all the way God, he was 100%, all the way man.  Paul writes that Jesus "took on the very nature of a servant" that he humbled and was "made in human likeness."  When Jesus took on the form of a man, he did not become any less divine.  He did not drain the divinity out of himself, he simply took on the appearance of a man.  This idea may certainly seem hard to understand, and that's because it is!  But some things about God are a mystery to us and we can't understand them fully.  God's purposes are unique and mysterious.  Paul admits this in Ephesians 1:9 that God's will is a "mystery".

In all honesty, this is good news.  Who would want to follow a God in which you could completely figure out and understand?  That God certainly would not be a very big God, if my feeble, fragile, and incompetent mind could figure him out.  Our God is a God who's purposes and ways are not our own.  Although we can't fully understand what He has already done through redemptive history, or what He continues to do in our individual lives, we must always come to the conclusion that he is working all things together for his glory.  Even though His ways don't always make sense, or are even sometimes painful to us, we must rest in the sovereignty of God, and rejoice in the glory he revealed through the mystery of his beautiful son Jesus Christ.