by Sam Empero
Imagine that you are imprisoned. It is about 62 AD. The moments leading up to this one have been wrought with savagery. You have been mercilessly accused of things you have never done. You have been stripped and beaten with wooden rods. You have been pummeled with rocks because people wanted to kill you. You have been dragged out of a city and left to die because people thought you would not survive the impact of the rocks hitting your body. All of this has happened because you have committed the “crime” of telling others about the Good News of what Jesus has done for them. Now, as you sit in prison, you have been given the opportunity to write. What do you want to say? What would you want people to know if you were to die in this prison and the only tangible object left of your existence would be this letter? Perhaps you would like to write about how angry you are with God that He would allow such brutality to befall you. You may want to write complaints about the people who have treated you so poorly and about how they deserve to be in prison, not you. Maybe you would write about all your accomplishments, so that people would remember your life’s successes. Or, you may choose to write nothing at all and instead allow yourself to dwell in despair about your circumstances, crying each day until you die. However, despite these possible (and probably more automatic) responses, this is what you choose to write, “Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again- rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4, NLT).
If the above example was too extreme, here is something that is probably more relatable… Think of a few things happening in your life right now that are not as you would like them to be. Maybe you expected a situation to go a certain way, but you are left feeling disappointed. Perhaps you hardly ever look forward to going to your job because there are certain aspects of it that you do not like. Or, maybe you compare yourself to others and think to yourself, “If I could just have their looks, their talent, their wealth, etc., then I would have joy.” If you were given the opportunity to write about your life in this moment, I wonder if you would write, “Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again- rejoice!” If joy is something you would not even consider writing, then perhaps it is time to consider where you are placing your focus.
“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true and honorable, and right and pure, and lovely and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me- everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.” - Philippians 4:8-9 (NLT)
“Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all His glory.” - Colossians 3:1-4 (NLT)
Here are the possible responses to the first scenario again: I deserve better than this. They deserve to be in prison, not me. My accomplishments and successes. Despair about my circumstances… Here are the possible responses to the more relatable situations you may be currently experiencing: It didn’t go the way I wanted it to. I should have gotten my way. I should get more recognition at work because I deserve it… Whether imagining yourself in prison or contemplating your own life’s circumstances, each of these responses is motivated by a focus upon the self- what I deserve, what I have done, my way, how I feel, what I want, etc.
“Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” - Philippians 4:11-13 (NLT)
Consider once again the situations in which you have compared (or are tempted to compare) yourself to others. Your thoughts in these moments are more likely than not to be focused upon a perceived “good” that someone else has and you perceivably (or actually) do not, or a perceived “good” that you have and someone else perceivably (or actually) does not.
“Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding.” - 2 Corinthians 10:12 (ESV)
“I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him.” - Philippians 3:7-8 (NLT)
Now, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be treated a certain way, wanting to share your success with others, wanting a situation to go a certain way, or wanting to be recognized for your work (each of these has exceptions, of course, which is a conversation for another time). I believe God has given each of us the desire to be seen, to be known, and to be loved unconditionally. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with experiencing sadness, anger, concern, etc. about your circumstances. God has given each of us the privilege of having the ability to express a wide range of emotions, and it is actually physically and emotionally healthy for you to validate and accept your feelings, instead of denying or suppressing them.
There is something wrong, however, with allowing your God-given desire to be seen, known, and loved unconditionally to be distorted into a manifestation of a sense of entitlement, deeply-rooted bitterness, self-pity, jealousy, or superiority. There is something wrong with validating your feelings to the degree that you begin to meditate (think over and over again) upon your sadness, anger, concern, etc. There is something wrong when you meditate upon what you lack that others have, or upon what you have that others lack. This is because when we meditate upon how we think our lives should be or upon how we are feeling about our circumstances, which are ever-changing, we allow our limited understanding of them to cause us to stop believing in God and begin believing only in ourselves. This is not faith, and it robs us of ever experiencing joy.
“Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” - Romans 12:2 (NLT)
“Whatever happens my dear brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. I never get tired of telling you these things, and I do it to safeguard your faith.” - Philippians 3:1 (NLT)
The first scenario about being imprisoned is the reality that was Paul’s life when he wrote a letter to the church in Philippi. He was mercilessly accused of things he had have never done. He had been stripped and beaten with wooden rods. He had been pummeled with rocks because people wanted to kill him. He had been dragged out of a city and left to die because people thought he would not survive the impact of the rocks hitting his body. All of this had happened because Paul had committed the “crime” of telling others about the Good News of what Jesus has done for them. As Paul sat in prison, he was given the opportunity to write. Of all the ways Paul could have chosen to respond, he chose joy. This is because Paul knew that joy cannot come from a person, an accomplishment, a circumstance, or even from within ourselves.
“We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment, for we know how dearly God loves us, because He has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with His love.” - Romans 5:3-5 (NLT)
“Dear brothers, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.” - James 1:2-4:
“Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. Instead, be very glad- for these trials make you partners with Christ in His suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing His glory when it is revealed to all the world.” - 1 Peter 4:12-13 (NLT)
Imagine yourself once again being imprisoned as Paul was. Think once more of a few things happening in your life right now that are not as you would like them to be. Now imagine yourself choosing joy while in prison. What you would be thinking, feeling, and doing differently if you chose joy in your current circumstances? Choose to let Him surpass the seemingly all-consuming power of your thoughts, feelings, and circumstances, because He can consume them. Your focus is proportionate to your joy. Focus on God. Choose joy.
“So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold- though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. You love Him even though you have never seen Him. Though you do not see Him now, you trust Him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy. The reward for trusting Him will be the salvation of your souls.” - 1 Peter 1:6-9 (NLT)