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. (ESV)
When Life is Hard
Last July, Pulse Asia released the results of their survey about Filipino perception on the improvement of their life compared to the last twelve months. Three out of four (75%) believe they are worse off today than they were a year ago while a little more than four out of five (84%) believe that other Filipinos were worse off today than last year. This survey indicates not only that life is hard but it is getting harder. This is not surprising because rice prices are 60% than last year and 100% than in 2001. Oil companies carried out about 20 hikes in oil prices, equivalent to about 20 pesos/liter. The unemployment rate last April 2008 is 8% or 2.92 million. In general, the life of the Filipinos are getting harder. But we can say that the life of Filipino Christians are harder. The world’s value system conflicts with our Christian values. Our commitment to love Christ makes others hate us. We have problems greater than the country’s economic problems.
How do life’s hardships affect most Filipinos’ happiness? In a survey a few years ago, Filipinos ranked sixth among the happiest people in the world. In the most recent results, our ranking plummeted to 38th. But still, Filipinos can be considered a relatively happy people. In fact, the March 2008 Social Weather Survey indicates that 34% of adult Filipinos are Very Happy, 46% Fairly Happy, 16% Not Very Happy, and 3.6% Not At All Happy. When you asked most Filipinos, they will say that the number one factor that makes them happy even when life is hard is family or relationships. Sadly, spiritual reasons ranked sixth. Filipinos can sing, laugh, make fun, and amuse themselves during hard times. We Christians are called not just to be happy and smile during times of hardship, we are called to rejoice. And I know we are and we can. But what God wants from us is to have different reasons, deeper and greater, than most Filipinos.
This message entitled “Rejoicing when Life is Hard” is the first of four parts in the series “When Life is Hard.” My goal throughout the month is for us to see how we can glorify God in our response to life’s hardships, by learning from Paul’s example and exhortation to the Philippians in the first chapter. This morning, we will look at three reasons why we can rejoice during hardship, and not just after. Next week, we will discover the single passion Paul had that sustains his joy – “Magnifying Christ.” The third and fourth parts will focus on our ministry to other people and our unity as an expression of our passion to magnify Christ – “Serving Others When Life is Hard” and “Standing Together When Life is Hard.” I hope that you can pray with me as we go through these sermons together.
Rejoicing and God’s Good Purpose
We must rejoice when Christian life is hard, even when it gets harder and harder. Paul’s imprisonment was one of the hardest he had experienced. When he wrote the letter, he was probably imprisoned in Rome. Some believers were probably saddened by what happened. They thought that the spread of the gospel would be hindered. But God has other things in mind and Paul was aware of that. “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel” (v. 12). Because of this and because Christ was being proclaimed he can say, “in that I rejoice” (v. 18). Paul wrote this to encourage Christians who may have been suffering in the same way (1:30) to stand firm and to rejoice. By saying his perpective on his own hardships, he is in effect telling them how they also should rejoice even when their life is hard. “Brothers, join in imitating me…” (3:17). “Rejoice in the Lord always” (4:4; cf. 3:1).
What happened as a result of Paul’s imprisonment did not just happen by accident. It was designed by God. God appointed suffering (1:29) for his servant to serve his good purposes in their lives and for others as well. He is the God who will bring to completion the good work he has began in us. Hardships won’t hinder that. In fact, it will serve that. The word used for “advance” describes not merely moving ahead but doing so against obstacles. He did not merely say that the gospel continued to progress in spite of the obstacles; he said that the obstacles have turned out for its advancement. It is like an Olympian running faster in the 100-m hurdles than in the 100-m dash. Humanly that is impossible. But this is God’s design – to advance his good purposes. This is the reason why Paul is rejoicing. This, too, must be the underlying reason for our joy. Now, what are some of God’s good purposes we need to know to sustain our joy when life gets hard?
God Uses Hardships to Expose Unbelievers to the Faith (vv. 12-13).
First, we must know that God uses hardships in our life to expose unbelievers to the faith. Paul said, “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” (vv. 12-13).
In verse 13 Paul said that his imprisonment advanced the gospel because through his imprisoment many unbelievers, in prison and even outside the prison, have known that he is suffering not from a crime he committed but because of Christ. Many have known through his own witness most probably that his commitment to follow Christ moved him to preach the gospel even if it will result in imprisonment, and eventually, his death. People will ask questions who this Christ is and why he is worthy to be proclaimed even at the cost of one’s life. It is an opportunity to speak Christ, to show the way of life of a follower, and to show to others good deeds even if maltreated. Many believers have probably been praying for others like the imperial guards or others in high government position to be exposed to the gospel. Well, Paul’s imprisonment might have been God’s answers to those prayers. What others thought might hinder the gospel message turned out to advance it rather. Some of the things happened might not happen if Paul did not experience hardships.
This is also what happened to John Bunyan, the 16th century Puritan preacher in England who was imprisoned for not making compromises in preaching. His stay inside the prison may be considered as the most fruitful times in his ministry. He continued preaching Christ by shouting through a small window in his cell. Many have heard the gospel. During that time also, he wrote the The Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory about the Christian life. Millions of copies of that book has been printed in many languages and it has been rated next to the Bible as the most influential book of all time.
We may not be imprisoned like Paul but we also experienced different degrees of hardship because we are believers to whom suffering is a gift just like our faith (1:29). But we need to realize that the hardships we experienced can be a powerful testimony to other Christians about the faithfulness and goodness of God in Jesus Christ. We may face times when we find it hard to decide, family conflicts, relationship problems or loss of jobs. Our reactions in such situations will demonstrate to those who do not know Christ what kind of faith we have. See that as opportunities to communicate your faith to those who do not yet believe and therefore, do not have lasting joy. See that as opportunities to rejoice in the Lord because of what he will do through you when life is hard, even when you do not see any hope of improvement in the coming years.
Our hardship does not just have a good effect on the unbelievers, but also on the believers.
God Uses Hardships to Encourage Believers in Their Faith (v. 14).
Second, we must know that God uses hardships in our life to encourage other believers in their faith. Paul adds, “And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (v. 14)
The effect of Paul’s imprisonment is pervasive. It does not just communicate the faith to the unbelievers. It also strengthens other believers faith. Note that he influenced not just some of his brothers and sisters; he influenced “most” of them. Although some still criticized him, but they are in the minority. Some of the enemies of Christians wants to instill fear in the hearts of Christians by putting Paul in prison. Rather, the opposite happened. Their enemies wanted to put out the fire with water, but God turned the water into gasoline so that the fire will spread and burn the whole forest of unbelievers. The fire is the fire of the gospel that is in the hearts of the believers. The word of God spread because they got more confidence in the Lord as they saw what he was doing in Paul’s life. Those who are previously mute were now shouting God’s words. Those who were cowards then became warriors in the Lord. Luke recorded in Acts 4 that Peter and John were put in prison and persecuted by the authorities. When they were released, they reported to the believers what happened. After praying, they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.
Like what happened to Paul, one reason God allows hardships in our lives is because it can encourage our fellow believers who may go through the same or worse situations many of us faced. One fellow believer shared to me the kind of problems they have faced. They are now experiencing financial difficulties unlike before when they little money-related worries. She testified to me how God has strengthened their faith during those times. She may not be aware of it but what God did to their family increased my confidence in what God can do and will do. Many of you are aware that a young believer from another church died because of dengue fever. He was an active youth leader and some of you knew him and used to work with him. His death did not imperil the ministry he had left. Rather, it encouraged his fellow youth leaders to continue the work and be more passionate to serve the youth. One member of our care group testified about how his death made him rethink his life and how he can live it in such a way to glorify Christ in all things.
We felt joy when we testified to other believers what kind of hardships we experienced and relate to them how we met God in some way and experienced his wonderful love and goodness. Are not those who will hear you testimony also rejoice with you? Is it not joyful that when life is hard, we know that God can bring his joy and increase other’s faith through our own hardships? Rejoice when life is hard because you can be God’s conduit of his overflowing goodness and faithfulness in your brother’s life.
In the first two reasons, the hardships Paul experienced referred to that caused by unbelievers and therefore, to be expected. But what if a fellow believer make your life harder than it presently is?
God Uses Hardships to Exalt Christ in spite of Impure Faith (vv. 15-18a).
Third, we must know that God uses hardships in our life to exalt Christ in spite of the impurity of other’s faith, or ours. “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (vv. 15-18a).
MacArthur observed that “one of the most discouraging experiences for a servant of God is that of being falsely accused by fellow believers, especially coworkers in the church. To be maligned by an unbeliever is expected; to be maligned by another believer is unexpected. The pain runs very deep when one’s ministry is slandered, misrepresented, and unjustly criticized by fellow preacehrs and teachers of the gospel.” This is what Paul experienced. Aside from the suffering he experienced at the hands of those who opposed the gospel, there is added hardship coming from fellow believers that should have been the ones comforting and encouraging him. They proclaimed Christ also and the message of the gospel is probably accurate. But they have different motives – selfish and competitive.
But Paul said in verse 18 that he does not care about that! What he cares about is that Christ is being proclaimed! Does he not really care about people’s motives? I think he does. But in this case, he is saying that nothing is more important in his life than seeing Christ made known and exalted by many, even through those who motivations are wrong. This is Paul’s passion. He can rejoice in his imprisonment because he knows that God is using it to exalt Christ. This he also makes his purpose – that whether in life or death he might magnify Christ (1:20). We’ll see more of that next week.
What God did in our church for the past 22 years is witness of his unwavering commitment to give glory to his Son Jesus Christ in spite of our own unfaithfulness, relationship problems, and unresolved conflicts. Many of our brothers have already left the church because of conflicts or disillusionment. There were times that our church became on the brink of separation. But what did we see after that? We saw a church, though not perfect, standing and still worshiping together. Is it because of what we did? No! It happened in spite of all our imperfections. It happened for us to see that only God made it happen. It happened for us to see his great faithfulness in this church. And in our upcoming anniversary celebration next month, we will all recall God’s goodness in this church and together we will sing, “Great is your faithfulness!”
We know it is hard to rejoice and very easy to be discouraged when a fellow believer said something against you, criticized you unjustly, or questioned your motives in the ministry. Paul’s example shows us that we can and must still rejoice because God can overcome people’s impure motives that his Son might be exalted. It does not mean that we should not try to settle our differences but we need to recognize that there is one thing more important than relationship difficulties – the glory of Christ whom we all serve and worship. Rejoice because we also have other brothers and sisters who are doing the work of the ministry in spite of the ongoing conflicts we might have with them.
Today we have learned that joy is possible when Christian life is hard because of God’s good purposes – exposing the unbelievers to the faith, encouraging other believers in their faith, and exalting Christ in spite of the impurity of other believers’ faith.
We experienced the truth of those good purposes in what happened in our family. Many of you know the hardship experienced many years ago. Many of you know what God has done through those hard times, things that may not be possible when we experienced only ease and comfort. We incurred a seeminly insurmountable debt in the bank. My parents were forced to work overseas for some years. We are joyful now because it happened because through it my parents ministered in some way to their non-Christian friends that will not be possible if they have not gone through those hard times. Some of you have been encouraged by what God has done in our lives and are now strengthened to face to difficulties you are now facing. And even if some of our brothers are speaking bad against us sometimes, we still rejoice because Christ is being exalted in a way we would not expect.
What happened then gave me joy to face the difficulties that may come in the family Jodi and I will build by God’s grace. When the time comes that we both commit to full-time ministry, without regular employment, with kids to raise up, and when life gets harder and harder, we can rejoice because we know that God has good things in mind, things that are beyond some of our expectations.
You, too, can rejoice when life is hard. We can experience lasting joy. Hardships are not joy-killer. They are God’s means to strengthen our joy in him alone. But some of you may find it difficult because you have a different life perspective or pursuing a different goal. Next week we will discover the single passion that will sustain a God-given, God-centered joy when life is hard.
http://www.gmanews.tv/print/111980 [accessed 08-08-2008].
Eric S. Caruncho, “Are We Really that Happy?” Available at http://showbizandstyle.inquirer.net/sim/sim/ view/20080713-148153/Are-We-Really-That-Happy [accessed 08-08-2008].