Physician, Scott Peck, once referred to it as “The Road Less Traveled.” C.S. Lewis once described it as “God’s megaphone.” Christian author Philip Yancey said, “It’s the gift that nobody wants and seems so confusing.” The English poet, Byron, once called it “the pathway to truth.” But no matter what metaphor you use to describe it, pain drives people to try to make sense of things by asking why questions: Why this? Why me? Why now? Why, God? Even though God is in the midst of our pain with us, it doesn’t take away the challenge of trying to make sense of brokenness in life and the anguish that comes with it. Paul’s personal experience of pain, and his words in today’s Epistle give our pain some perspective. Let’s talk about it.
It’s quite an understatement to say that Paul was acquainted with pain and suffering. Listen to how he describes his experiences elsewhere in the Bible:
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. I spent a night and a day in the open sea. I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep. I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food. I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.
On top of that list of calamities, today’s reading from Philippians finds Paul in prison!
Our translation calls it imprisonment, but the original language has Paul referring to his chains. Listen to what one resource says about chaining prisoners in ancient prisons:
The chaining of prisoners caused various consequent sufferings. Iron chaffed and corroded the skin over time. Tightly fixed chains were a means of torture. Prisoners could be weighed down with such heavy chains as to exhaust or cripple them. Without recourse to personal resources or the help of friends on the outside for food and drink, a prisoner’s prospects could be grim.
And that description doesn’t mention the emotional pain that comes from being unjustly held in chains.
Knowing the conditions that Paul was living under, we could certainly refer to him as a victim of injustice. But how does Paul deal with his appalling situation? Does he complain about his circumstances? Does he ask the Philippians to organize a protest? Not at all! Instead, Paul has peace, and he dwells on all the gifts God had given to him and the Philippians.
These opening verses find Paul at peace in spite of his painful circumstances! And he is so much at peace in Christ that he can extend God’s grace and peace to the Philippians. That’s a typical greeting from Paul’s day—wishing charis or grace, a Greek greeting; and shalom or peace, a Hebrew greeting. Paul’s covering his bases so that he’s greeting both the Jewish Christians who spoke Hebrew and the Gentile Christians who spoke Greek. But there’s so much more to these words than a simple, “How are you doing?”
Grace and peace are the things Paul has in common with the Philippians—the things they share in Jesus. First, they both share in g-r-a-c-e. Besides those letters spelling the word “grace,” they can also stand for God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. That acronym spells out how God gives us His grace—on account of our Savior, Jesus. God’s grace—His undeserved love—brings peace both to the Philippians and to prisoner Paul. In spite of the pain he was enduring, Paul has the peace of knowing that the war between him and God is over. And the Philippians and you and I have the peace of knowing that whatever it is that you feel most ashamed of doing in your life, no matter how many times you’ve done it, even if you’re still trapped in in doing it now, God has pledged Himself to forgive you and put you at peace when you turn to Him in repentance.
Paul mentions that the Philippians are in partnership with him. In reality it’s a three-way partnership: God, Paul and the Philippians. First, they have a partnership in the Gospel, because of their mutual faith, and because the Philippians are supporting Paul’s mission financially. Then Paul says something that makes us think: “For you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” Partners in Paul’s imprisoned pain?! Absolutely, because Scripture says when one of us is hurting, all of us hurt.
Here’s something for you to ponder. All of us want to be independent. None of us wants to burden our fellow Christians with our problems. We want to handle things on our own—carry our own weight, as it were.
The only problem with that approach is that we were never designed to do that. When God created Adam, He said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” That statement was made when the world was still sinless and perfect. Can you imagine how important avoiding suffering in solitude is outside the Garden of Eden, in a sinful world? One of the reasons God puts us in a congregation of people is so we have the opportunity to be in a three-way partnership with Him and our fellow believers. We bear with and comfort one another in our pain. Elsewhere Paul says:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort, too.
As incredible as it may sound, God doesn’t want you to bear your pain alone, not only because that pain can overcome you, but also because your pain is an opportunity for your fellow Christians to minister to you and to comfort you! It’s been said that God never wastes a wound. Instead of simply allowing pain, God wants to use it for your growth, and also, for the growth of your fellow believers. For you, the phrase has been transformed from “No pain, no gain,” into, “No pain comes without gain.” Gain for you, but also gain for those who minister to you in your pain.
Paul can say that only because he also writes, “He, who began a good work in you, will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” The Greek word that translates as completion carries the meaning of bringing an activity to a successful finish—to fully accomplish something. When pain overwhelms us, it’s all too easy for us to forget that the God who is using our pain for our benefit also knows how we are going to successfully finish the course of pain in our life, because He has and He will continue to fully accomplish His plan for our rescue from sin day by day!
That same Greek word is used in the Gospel of John when God was fully accomplishing His plans to rescue the entire world through our Savior’s death on the cross. There, from within the most intense agony ever experienced by a human being, Jesus’ last cry on the cross was: “Tetelestai.” “It is finished.” “It is successfully completed.” “It is accomplished.” God used the pain of His Son’s death to transform all of your pain into gain.
Jesus’ words, “It is completed” give us a new dimension to viewing life. Think about all the good news you hear. All the bad news. All the difficulties you encounter. All the blessings. The unanticipated happiness. The unexpected trouble. It all has God’s divine purpose behind it. No matter what occurs in my life—good or bad—I can truly say, “Without this, I would not be ready for the day of Christ.” That’s the kind of Good News that will give you joy and security no matter what kind of pain and suffering you are facing.
In many ways, all of us want to be control freaks. As much as possible, we want to be in control of the happenings in our lives and avoid chaos. But it’s impossible for us to avoid the confusion that comes with suffering in a sinful world. Anybody who has ever lost a loved one can identify with those unnerving questions of, “What should I do now?” Who do I call next? What’s going to happen to me in the future? Today’s word from Paul is a sweet reminder that in the midst of the agonizing and the disorder, you can have peace, because God is in control, and He is using the agony and disorder to complete His plans for you.
- You and Me
So what good is this word about peace in the face of pain during Advent? How about that these are good words because they help us face reality? It’s been said that there are three kinds of people in this world: those who are going into trouble, those who are in trouble, and those who have come out of trouble and are getting ready to cycle back through it all again!
Many of us are searching for meaning, purpose, and value in life. Others of us are having troubles in our marriages. Some of us suffer from loneliness. Others of us struggle with disease—either in our lives or in the life of a loved one. Some of us still ache from the loss of loved ones in our lives—either by death, or by separation. Others of us are struggling with addictive sins. Many of us face a shortage in our finances. Others of us are depressed or anxious, overscheduled, overstressed, or simply bored with the routine race of life. However you want to describe these difficulties, they cause us physical or emotional pain.
Those things by themselves would be bad enough, but to add to the problem, most of us try to sanitize our lives by telling others everything is okay. Sometimes our denial is so complete that we can even fool ourselves. But notice how it happens in today’s Epistle. Paul acknowledges his being in prison. He’s also alluding to the fact that he had been dependent on the generosity of the Philippians just to survive. By the standards of our day, it’s a little surprising that Paul doesn’t try to cover up and say everything is all right. He acknowledges God’s gifts and he doesn’t cover up his difficulties. And it’s all because when you’re loved by someone who cares deeply for you, it’s easy to acknowledge both the good and the bad.
This next week, this Advent, and for the rest of our lives, I’d like to challenge you to be honest about pain. Like Paul, you, too can be at peace in spite of your painful circumstances! God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense—His undeserved, unimaginable love—brings peace both to Paul and to you. In spite of any pain you may be enduring, the war between you and God is over. You and I have the peace of knowing that whatever it is you feel most ashamed of, no matter how many times you’ve done it, even if you’re still trapped in in doing it now, God has pledged Himself to forgive you and put you at peace as we turn to Him in repentance. Now is the perfect time to do it. Amen.