June 23, 2014

Power in Prison

Gary Thomas — 
Photo: sakhorn38; freedigitalphotos.net

Photo: sakhorn38; freedigitalphotos.net


Some of your marriages may feel like a prison of loneliness.


Some of your families are facing medical and financial catastrophes that threaten to suffocate you if you think about them for longer than five minutes.


Some of you can’t take a step or draw a breath without physical pain.


Some of you are hurting because a close friend or relative has moved away and you feel isolated.


I can’t even pretend to relate or “understand.”  But reading through Philippians, I was struck by one man who could: the apostle Paul.  He wrote this book while in prison in Rome.  Most likely, it was after his first appeal had been denied and things had taken a serious turn for the worse.  No longer in house arrest, he’d have been moved to a standard horror-house prison of first century Rome.  The sentence of death hung over his head like a perpetually overcast sky hangs over Seattle in November (actually October, December, January, February, March, and April too, but let’s not get picky).


It was in this context that Paul wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice!” (4:4)


It was in this context that Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God, and the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”(4:6-7)


It was in this context that Paul displayed the power of a soul who could live in deprivation, attacked reputation, fear of death, physical pain, and hunger: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (4:8)


It was in this terrible ultimately life-ending ordeal being assaulted by hunger pangs and sleeping on stone that Paul wrote, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances…I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, or whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (4:11-13)


The book of Philippians contains some ominous words as Paul openly debates whether he would survive this imprisonment.  “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (1:27)  This is immediately following Paul telling them he’s not sure whether he wants to live or die except that, for their sake, he hopes to remain on earth.  But if he doesn’t (God apparently hasn’t made it clear to him, making him live with a certain uneasiness and concern for those left behind—parents, can you relate?) he says, “Whatever happens…”


My point is that in the midst of a marriage of deprivation of financial challenge, of relational upheaval, of continued uncertainty, of physical pain, you can find an understanding friend in the Paul who wrote Philippians.


Here’s the best “application” I can give you: if you find yourself in painful circumstances resolve to read through the book of Philippians this week, reminding yourself of the context in which Paul wrote it—how a man who had every earthly reason to be bitter, fearful, frustrated, angry, and resentful found a heavenly reason to be hopeful, joyful, thankful, and worshipful.  Let Scripture speak into your mind and enrich your soul in a way I never could.  I’m not giving you an “answer,” I’m telling you where you can find the answer—in the pages of Scripture, with the Holy Spirit whispering into your mind and heart His words of comfort and love.  I know as a blogger I’m supposed to end with a clever this-is-how-it-all-wraps-up ending.  Not this time.  I believe God has something much bigger in store for those who will now leave their screens and pick up His word.


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One response to Power in Prison

  1. It’s been a long time since I’ve read Philippians in this light, and maybe never with a full understanding of the implications. I know Paul was imprisoned more than once and endured much hardship and suffering. This post has reawakened my appreciation for how these exhortations from Paul are not only possible to act on, but are essential for my soul. Reading Paul’s letter this way brings great comfort. Thanks for making it “real” to me again in the midst of difficult circumstances.