Philippians 1:18-19 I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.”
Sometimes we approach life like our children approach the table when they don’t like what’s for dinner. They complain, then sulk, then glumly pick at their food, unhappy about what they have been served. It doesn’t matter that they don’t have to go hungry, or that the food is good for them. It doesn’t taste good. They find no joy in trying to choke it down.
Life serves up sour or bitter experiences for us as well. Maybe we have trouble getting along with our own family. For some, health is a constant struggle. Sometimes we watch helplessly while goals for which we worked for weeks, years, maybe even our whole lives, come apart. They disintegrate before our very eyes. What is there to do at such times but complain and glumly try to pick our way through life, unhappy about what we have been served?
Consider the Apostle Paul. At one point in his life he had been on the fast track to respect and power as a leader of the Jewish people. Then Jesus came and turned his life upside down. Christ made him one of the most reviled members of that despised new faith. As Paul writes these words to the Philippians he had been a prisoner for over two years. You might say that life hadn’t served Paul a gourmet feast, either. But what does Paul say about all this? “I will continue to rejoice.” And then he tells us why.
Paul continued to rejoice in spite of his troubles because he was sure Jesus would not let him down. First, he knew his Savior had surrounded him with supportive fellow believers like these Christians from Philippi. They were praying for Paul. Some people may question or criticize “thoughts and prayers” today. Paul coveted them.
I doubt whether this strikes us as unusual. We often ask each other for prayers. But this suggests a question: How much joy do we find in knowing others are praying for us? The power of prayer doesn’t lie in the words we say. It rests in the fact that God is pleased to answer our prayers. As Paul writes, perhaps he was remembering that God once miraculously delivered Peter from prison in response to the church’s earnest prayers. In spite of his chains, Paul was confident that Jesus’ answer to prayers wouldn’t let him down. He found joy as he anticipated God’s answer. Do we sometimes make our prayer requests without feeling our burden lightened so much as an ounce? We have no less reason to trust God’s answer.
Secondly, Paul rejoiced because he had “the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ…” Even in his current situation, sitting in prison and facing trial, Jesus was supplying what he needed. One has to imagine that, for a man like Paul, who traveled the world to share the gospel, being held prisoner for over two years was particularly frustrating. He knew that he couldn’t rely on himself to get through the long days. If his spirits began to sink, he looked to the Spirit his Savior promised to send to keep him going. You may remember that when Paul and Silas had been beaten and thrown into jail in the same city of Philippi, these two sang hymns all night to stir up the Spirit and bolster their faith.
Now Paul was held captive again, and he trusted in the same source of strength. We are tempted to hold a pity party for ourselves when life is suffocating our joy and happiness. But what does that get us? In addition to feeling generally miserable, we end up feeding poison to our own faith.
It is often in the middle of such trying times that we can best experience the help, comfort, and joy the Spirit of Jesus Christ provides. That help is never any farther away than our Bible or hymnal. Jesus promises the Father will give the Spirit to those who pray to him. But don’t forget how he answers that prayer. If we pray and don’t go to the word–whether written, spoken, or sung–it’s like ordering pizza but not answering the door when it arrives.
Joy does not have to be limited by the degree to which we find life pleasant. In spite of our circumstances, God will give it to those who ask. But don’t forget to look where he delivers it: in his words of love and grace.