Have you ever been through an awful situation with a group of friends? Maybe you’ve been drawn closer to a diverse group of people through a stretching experience? I’ve seen it with things as simple a sports team being pushed beyond limits in off season workouts, or a group traveling through a foreign country and forced to endure hardship momentarily. It’s striking how close people become when they undergo distressing circumstances together, i.e. a common suffering.
There is no doubt that the first chapter of Philippians acknowledges the reality of suffering in the Christian life. Paul’s chains are a very present reality. What has happened to Paul, he says, is to advance the gospel. It is striking to observe a man who has experienced significant distress and set back and is able to proclaim God’s work in the midst of these things. More so, he is able to encourage the reader to live a life “worthy of the gospel of Christ.” In 1:27-30, as in 2:14-16, Paul recognizes that his present struggles are worthwhile and finds the purpose in them through which he can proclaim joy.
This theme of joy in all circumstances is inescapable in this letter. A man who is willing to be “poured out like a drink offering” calls for Christians to rejoice in all things. In the church today, we find congregations that are full of people that are hurting. Some experience very public and recognizable pain, others fight inward battles of grief, depression, or doubt. In all of these things, this letter reminds us of the presence of God. We are reminded that the Christian life, one which is certainly not immune to hardship, is about being able to rejoice in the victory of Christ in all things. But where does this joy come from? Can we really expect people to find joy in such terrible circumstances?
Paul’s source is clear: his union with Christ (3:8, 4:12-13). As Christians, we experience a union with Christ, the inexpressible reality that no earthly provision can compare to the comfort and joy we know in the person of Jesus Christ. Just as Christ has decidedly poured himself out on our behalf, so also in our troubles can we take heart in the fact that he lives and works in us. Paul knows what it is to be in good and bad circumstances, and is able to communicate to the believers at Philippi that Christ is no less present in his troubles than he is in his victory.
Today, we may very well find that our times of hardship and pain are the moments when we are transformed the most. Perhaps God is never more evident to us than in our times of despair. Paul’s ability to communicate this reality resonates strongly in our contemporary setting as it surely did for his hearers. We need this reminder that our circumstances are not indicative of Christ’s faithfulness to us. Trouble and persecution are not an absence of Christ, but rather, an opportunity to experience his nearness and to witness the victory he can bring amidst this. Joy is to be our song, both in good times and in bad. In those times of difficulty, we should be reminded that we can surely “do all things” through the strength we receive from Jesus.
Paul’s joy also emerges from his relationships with fellow believers (1:4-5) and his hope in the promise of the resurrection (3:10-11, 20-21). Anyone who has ever endured hardship in a group setting knows the common bond which suffering can create between people. Our church can benefit greatly from embracing the community that is created in our fellow-laboring on behalf of the gospel. Perhaps, this is an indictment on our individualization and the privatization of our hardship. It may also serve as a reminder that our churches lack community because we expose ourselves to relatively little suffering. For Paul, suffering is a great uniter of the people of faith. Our churches must embrace a community of people and a common suffering if we expect to know the type of communion to which Paul alludes.
We work really hard to avoid being taken advantage of, to avoid any and all possible inconvenience, as if our example never gave of himself. We too often follow Christ as though his road through Jerusalem led to comfort, or as if his victory in the resurrection isn’t preceded by a brutal suffering.
I have no profound offerings as to what it might look like to experience a mutual suffering in our context, but I do know that until our gospel becomes less convenient, less private, and less comfortable we will not know the community experienced in the fellowship of suffering.