In our search for happiness, our world offers more means than ends. The next time you’re at the supermarket, or chain store, take a look around you as you stand in the checkout aisle. There you find what one author calls the snapshot of the “good life.” Magazines offer fashion advice and dating tips—or the not-so-subtle allure of celebrity gossip. Rows of candy offer a quick sugar fix for you or the kids. Batteries, shaving cream, breathmints—a host of impulse buying items gives you one last chance to feel like you’ve got everything you need and have it all together.
But you don’t.
See, even advertisers understand this. That’s why most advertising is a religious experience. In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman observes that most advertising isn’t about the nature of the product; it’s about the character of the consumer. You have a problem, every commercial tells us—whether it’s an outdated car, an unbalanced diet, or bad breath. And, the commercials insist, we have the solution. There’s only one problem: the solution never lasts. It never can. Happiness is fleeting, circumstantial. That’s why Christianity insists that joy is superior to empty promises of happiness. Joy does not depend on circumstance. And the most shocking thing of all is that we pursue happiness, Joy pursues us.
What does this mean for Paul and the Philippian church? It means that even suffering can be used for good. The presence of joy means that we live for something even greater than greatness itself. And most significantly, the presence of joy helps us understand how God operates in ways that defy my present circumstances, and lift my eyes toward his eternal kingdom.
THE ADVANCE OF THE GOSPEL
Listen to what Paul tells his readers in Philippi:
12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. (Philippians 1:12-14)
Paul’s not merely being a blind optimist; he’s living out his life’s purpose. See, because his life is defined by the joy of the gospel—and not temporary happiness—he can see the ways that he fulfills his mission even while suffering. For one thing, the whole Roman guard learned of the gospel. For another, Paul’s imprisonment galvanized other believers—vaulting them to new heights of boldness.
The spread of the gospel isn’t something easily slowed by suffering and brokenness. On the contrary; history shows us that Christianity routinely thrives during periods of persecution and suffering. Why? Because the gospel promises that God’s story extends beyond the borders of our current circumstances. If I am going through a hard time, it’s only because God’s not finished with me yet—he’s not finished with the world at all.
Paul then says this:
15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. (Philippians 1:15-20)
It’s unclear what Paul’s trying to communicate here. Who are these other teachers? Apparently there are some who got into the ministry because it gave them a sense of authority, privilege, or power. Turn on some of today’s TV preachers, and you’ll see the same thing. Should that trouble us? It didn’t trouble Paul. He says he’s glad for the chance for the world to hear about Jesus.
Keep in mind that Paul didn’t live in a world where you could buy a “Jesus is my homeboy” t-shirt at the local mall. He lived in a world that had never heard the name of Jesus, so he was just happy the word was getting out. And as before, it reflects his deeper purpose—and greater joy.
TO LIVE IS CHRIST…
So we finally come to one of the most famous passages from Paul’s letters:
21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. (Philippians 1:21-26)
Suffering is something we all go through. Most of our lives are spent trying to avoid it. And for most people, that’s where the pursuit of happiness comes down to: maximizing pleasure while minimizing pain. Paul says there’s something more to live for, something we can’t buy with fashion, cleansers, creams, or sport utility vehicles.
See, the way we handle suffering says everything about where our hope truly lies. It’s the reason C.S. Lewis would write that “crises reveal character.” If I am a deeply religious person, suffering will devastate me. What have I done wrong? What did I do to deserve this? Suffering fills me with guilt and shame. I want to hide from others, lest my suffering be evidence of my wrongdoing. But if I am not a religious person, I’m also devastated by suffering. Why? Because it only reveals the arbitrary nature of the universe. Why do bad things happen to good people? What kind of God would allow this? And there really are no good answers to these questions.
For Paul, joy means looking into the face of suffering and recognizing that this world is not all there is. Death cannot have the final word. So for Paul, death is only a chance to escape the world and find—in Jesus—everything he ever wanted. That’s why in the sixteenth century, Martin Luther would write that for the person who understands the gospel, the words of scripture “turn death into sugar” and every sorrow “into sweet, sweet wine.” The joys, the pleasures of our present world only point us toward the source of all joy—God himself.
So what’s the purpose of living? Paul recognizes that his life’s purpose could only be fulfilled by enduring, by facing his hardships head-on. Only by doing this would he be of continued use to the Church.
The same is true of us. It’s easy to check out when problems overwhelm us. It’s harder to have an eternal perspective. None of us can see the future in its detail, but through God’s word, each of us can see the future as an unending spring of joy. Joy is magnified in pain—because it points us away from the gifts of this world to the Giver of all gifts. And, for each of us, suffering becomes a chance to abandon our trust in self, and live each day with a purpose parallel to Paul’s.