Suffering

We are continuing with our studies in Paul's letter to the Philippians. When Paul began his European mission, the first city that he evangelized was Philippi. And last Sunday George Curry told us about Lydia of Philippi and the small group with her where the church began. Yes, the evangelization of Europe had a very small beginning. But God works from small beginnings. Then you remember from the Acts of the Apostles how Paul was followed around and pestered in Philippi by a slave-girl who acted as a medium. She earned a lot of money that way for her owners. When Paul commanded the evil spirit to leave the girl, her owners were furious. So they seized Paul and Silas and threw them into prison. Many of you will remember the story of Paul's time in prison and how the Philippian goaler was converted in the middle of the night after an earthquake; and how in the end Paul and Silas left Philippi. Well, it is to the church at Philippi or the Christians there that Paul is writing this letter - the Christians who first met in Lydia's house. And the passage we are to look at is Philippians 1.12-30. Our overall theme is SUFFERING and my headings are first, THE NORMAL CHRISTIAN LIFE; secondly, THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING; and thirdly, THE WAY AHEAD. First, THE NORMAL CHRISTIAN LIFE What is the Christian life like? There is a book with the title The Normal Christian Life. But what is the normal Christian life like? I was down in London the week before last and saw a poster for a "miracle crusade". Now, praise God when and if he performs miracles. But is that what the Christian life is all about? Is that the normal Christian life - to have all your problems solved by miracles? Jesus said it can be ...

... a wicked and adulterous generation [that] asks for a miraculous sign! (Mat 12.39).

There are some people who think that the normal Christian life is when there are no problems and there is health, wealth and prosperity. Or if there are problems they go immediately when you pray. If they don't, perhaps you are not praying properly or perhaps you need to go to a better miracle crusade! Again, don't get me wrong. God does answer prayers miraculously. You've experienced that. I've experienced that. But is that the normal Christian life - problems always solved instantly? Of course not. Paul here in Philippians is clear. Look at verse 29:

For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, {30} since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

Paul was suffering - he was in prison. And the Philippians were suffering. The bible says that such suffering is not strange or odd. It is normal. 1 Peter 4.12:

do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.

So don't be surprised when you suffer. It is normal for the Christian. Years ago I was having to give a talk at a boy's camp in the Lake District one summer. This was soon after I had returned from the Sudan where I had been working. The dreadful killing of Christians in the South was just beginning. I was asked to say something about the church in the Sudan. I showed some transparencies. I had pictures of the aftermath of the attack that destroyed our mission in Khartoum and of another attack that destroyed our school in Omdurman. I was referring to Peter's first Epistle. I explained how God did allow us to suffer - but he knew what he was doing. And I said that the Sudanese Christians had a wonderful testimony of God's keeping power in some of the most terrible of situations. After the talk the commandant of the camp came up to me and said: "you know, I don't think I have ever really had to suffer in life. I've had some ups and downs. But after all that you've been saying, I can't say I have ever suffered." The following day I was sailing on the Lake (Windermere). I could see a commotion on shore. The commandant's little boy - aged 6 or 7 - had been playing with a scout truck. The truck had slipped; rolled back; pinned the little boy to the wall; and killed him. You can see today the little boy's grave in the cemetery of the chapel in High Wray, Ambleside. So Paul says:

it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.

Most Christians sooner or later know something about suffering. Oh! People can put on a good face. But so many are laughing on the outside but crying on the inside. People who do not believe in Christ often have to do that, for they have no hope. And suffering for the Christian can come in two ways. It did for Paul. First, it can come from the world. Here was Paul in chains because of opposition to his preaching the gospel. A false accusation had been levelled against him in Jerusalem. He'd nearly been lynched by a mob. He was then kept imprisoned for a long time. He then had a dreadful sea journey and ship-wreck on the way to Rome. He finally ended up in Rome along with condemned prisoners, chained and waiting for the decision of an appalling Roman Emperor. Paul suffered from the world. But secondly Paul suffered from the Church. Verses 14-17:

Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly. {15} It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. {16} The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel. {17} The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.

In the Church in Rome at the time there were two camps - those who were acting "in love" and those who were acting "out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains." We don't know who these people were or what exactly they were doing. They don't seem to have been preaching error or heresy. They were just causing trouble for Paul. Perhaps their noses were put out of joint. They didn't like Paul's success or reputation or style or whatever. Sadly there can be that sort of nastiness in churches today. Sometimes God's people suffer not only because of people in the world but because of people in the church. So, the normal Christian life involves suffering. Verse 29:

For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.

You say: "that is all very well. But how do you respond - how do you cope with suffering when it comes?" That brings me to my second heading this morning. Secondly, THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING There is a proper kind of "positive thinking". This has little to do with Norman Vincent Peale. This kind of thinking is not centred on you but on God. Paul trusted in a sovereign God who was over kings, emperors and silly people in the Church in Rome. He was totally confident. Look back to verse 6 of chapter 1:

[He was] confident of this, that he who began a good work ... will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

He knew that God was working his purposes out and would not fail to complete them. Any suffering must therefore fit into God's good and perfect plan - hard as that may seem. When Paul took stock that is exactly what he found. Look at verses 12-13:

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. {13} As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.

Probably some of the Philippians were saying: "poor old Paul. What a waste! Why doesn't someone pray for a miracle. After all, Peter got out of prison miraculously. And there was that earthquake here in Philippi." That's not what Paul says. He saw the providence of God in his suffering. He saw God working his purposes out through his sufferings. And he saw this in four ways. First, there was what he calls the "advance of the gospel" and not least among the palace guard. The palace guard was the Praetorian Guard - they were crack troops, the sort of Roman SAS. One of their more tedious duties was to guard prisoners who were to appear before the Emperor. Paul may have been chained to one of these Guards and a different one every few hours after they changed duty. So Paul had a truly captive audience for preaching the Gospel. And he seized the opportunity. Perhaps at this very moment you are going through a very rough patch. How are you responding - in ever increasing self-pity or seeing new opportunities for the Lord? Paul didn't deny his condition. Yes, he talks about the chains as an objective fact; he asks for prayer; but he doesn't talk about his wrists. He is not self-pitying. He sees the bigger picture. Look at that word "really" in verse 12. What seemed to be the case to many of the Philippians was that everything was a disaster as far as Paul was concerned. But Paul says, "No!" "Really", below the surface, if only they had eyes to see it, what had happened to him was all part of God's plan for the growth of the Church or the "advance of the gospel". Secondly, Paul saw the providence of God not just in the Praetorian guard being personally evangelized. What also was happening was that Paul's experience put some back-bone into the Christians in the Church at Rome. So often Christians need back-bone. They do not stand up to be counted. They tolerate what should not be tolerated and they are silent when they should speak out. But Paul saw that these Christians were getting more back-bone because of his experiences. And they had "been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly." I've seen that happen. You think you are in a minority of one. You speak up. You're then amazed because there are others who, so to speak, come out of the woodwork. They have been too timid. But because you have taken a lead they join you. Thirdly, Paul saw the providence of God working out even in the people in the church who were trying to cause him trouble. He saw that they were still preaching the gospel. Verse 18:

what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, I will continue to rejoice.

Paul saw the good effects of these unpleasant people. And then fourthly, Paul saw the providence of God in the possibility of his death. What does Paul teach about the death of a Christian? He says that it is "to depart". This may be a camping metaphor. It is what you do on the last day at Blaithwaite, if you are camping. It is packing up the tents. And so death for the Christian is the end of what is at best a "camp" - something that involves a flimsy tent; and something that is only for a short time. So at death what is temporary is exchanged for what is permanent. It is as if the sleeping bag and camp-life of this world is exchanged for a proper bed and the normal home-life of heaven. And then Paul says that death for the Christian is to depart "and be with Christ." The bible leaves a lot unclear about life after death. But there is no doubt about this central fact. The Christian dead are "with Christ". And what is more Paul says that is "better by far". Now the Roman Christians who were his friends and the Philippians (and probably you and I if we had been there) would have said this, if Paul had been executed:

What a waste! What a loss!

But what is the reality? For Paul death does not mean "poor old Paul". For him it is better by far than anything else imaginable. Sure the Church would mourn the loss. But it would be altogether different for him:

as it is written: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor 2.9).

Of course, mourning is right when loved ones go to be with the Lord. The fact that they are experiencing the best does not mean we don't experience loss and loneliness. They are gone forever - even though we know that one day there will be a great reunion. Later on in chapter 2, verse 27, Paul says this (speaking about Epaphroditus):

he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow.

Paul would have had "sorrow upon sorrow" if Epaphroditus had died. Paul would have mourned his friend's death. He knew, though, that "to depart and be with Christ" was "better by far" for Epaphroditus or any other Christian. But Paul didn't only think positively. There where things he said that should be done. That brings me to my last heading. Finally, THE WAY AHEAD What then are the things to do in the face of suffering? There are three things here. I'll be very brief. First, pray. Verse 19:

I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.

Paul nowhere suggests that when we suffer we should not pray for relief. It is simply the idea that God will instantly and always do exactly what we want that the Bible opposes (he often knows better). So how we need to pray for one-another when we go through difficult times. That is why the "Prayer Link" is important at Jesmond Parish Church; prayer at Home Groups; and "Prayers for the Sick". Secondly, "conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ" (verse 27a). When people suffer, some, sadly, do go to seed. Sometimes they go to seed morally. Or they do not stand firm spiritually. But Paul says, in effect "When you are under-pressure, be doubly on your spiritual guard." And thirdly, he says, be united. Verse 27b:

Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel.

When there is unity in the Christian fellowship, that is hugely encouraging. And that helps people cope with difficulties and suffering. I must conclude. Paul has just been saying there are at least three things to do as the way ahead in suffering: pray, live "worthy of the gospel of Christ"; and be united. But he then goes on, verse 28:

This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved - and that by God.

When a Christian fellowship is living as God intended, it has great evangelistic force. It produces conviction in the world. People are convicted about their ultimate destiny. What is that? The answer here is very solemn - it is "destruction". So many people swan their way through life thinking that all ultimately will be well. The bible says that is totally wrong. It says that without faith in Christ, all will not be well. There will be "destruction". And that conviction comes as people see Christians living worthy of the gospel of Christ as well as when they preach and teach. What is destruction? It is the very opposite of salvation. It means that God, hope, heaven, joy, satisfaction and fulfilment are gone for ever. It is desperate. The bible describes this as a terrifying condition. It is hell. Who is being convicted of that grim reality because you've never accepted the salvation that Jesus Christ offers? Why not turn to him now for forgiveness through the Cross, for new life from his Holy Spirit and a new hope. Then when death comes far from destruction it will life "with Christ". And that is "better by far". Let me recap. The normal Christian life involves suffering. But when you do suffer think positively. Remember that God is in control and he is working his good purposes out through your suffering. And the way ahead is through prayer; through living worthy of the gospel of Christ - and that means changing anything you are doing wrong if that is part of the problem; and being united in the Christian fellowship. Our Psalm - Psalm 57 - showed that the Psalmist was going through a very rough patch. He was suffering. But with him, if we suffer and if we trust in the Lord, each one of us can say: "God fulfils his purpose for me (v 2)". And then we can praise God in the Psalmist's words:

great is your love, reaching to the heavens;your faithfulness reaches to the skies (v 10).

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