As the holiday season grows near, thoughts of gifts begin to take center stage. Holiday gift giving is a tradition that persists, though it is sometimes questioned. A giver takes into account, or should, what is in the best interest of the receiver. As any parent knows, giving your children what is best for them is not always the same as giving them what they ask for.
As the first chapter of the book of Philippians draws to a close, Paul alludes to two gifts the church can expect from God. The first is a gift the church no doubt wanted: to believe (trust) in Jesus. The second, not so much—to suffer for him:
“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.” Philippians 1:29-30
In these two verses, Paul lays out the plain and simple truth of following Jesus. We are granted (by no personal merit) faith and suffering. The first we want and even request. Most of us would rather not acknowledge the second. Suffering, by definition, is not a whole lot of fun. Nor does a gospel that includes the certainty of suffering fill the pews or sell books necessarily.
Even the spiritual among us tend to think of suffering as a necessary evil, the results of living in a world broken since Eden’s disobedience. But to ever think of it as something God grants to us is rarer. Of course, there are different kinds of suffering for the believer in Christ. Some suffering is a part of the enormous domino effect of the Fall, when Adam and Eve brought brokenness into the world for the first time. Since then we have illness, catastrophes and myriad lesser annoyances that nevertheless bog us down and want to steal our joy.
Paul here, I believe, speaks more specifically of suffering precisely because we follow Jesus. His own prison chains are the current suffering to which he alludes. Earlier in the chapter he has rejoiced in them and thanked God for them, because they had served to further the gospel of Christ. As a result of his chains, he asserted, the good news of Jesus spread throughout the whole palace guard (1:12-14).
I must admit, at best, I see my sufferings as things to be endured. While I am going through them, I am eager for them to pass. Paul, by contrast, is thankful for them even as he is in the midst of them. He sees the opportunities connected with his trials and is thankful (gulp) that God thinks enough of him to let him follow Jesus’ example in this way for the furtherance of the gospel. Just as Jesus humbled himself in the suffering that needed to occur for our salvation, Paul humbles himself for the sake of others who need to hear the grace and truth of Christ.
God, help me to reset my default mode from a self-centered one (I want to be comfortable again) to a Christ-centered one (use me in this for the sake of the Kingdom). And let me arrive there sooner rather than later. That my joy may be full, that it might spread to others, that your name will be glorified, Amen