We all have circumstances in our lives that we wish we could change, but we cannot. The story of Joni Eareckson comes to mind. She begins her autobiography by reflecting on the one minute which forever changed her life. "What is a minute? Merely a measurement of time. There are 60 in an hour and 1,440 in a day. At age seventeen I had already ticked off more than nine million of them in my life. Yet in some cosmic plan, this single minute was isolated. Into these particular sixty seconds was compressed more significance than in all the millions of minutes marking my life prior to this instant."
It was July 30, 1967. The hot July sun was setting in the west, creating a picturesque reflection over the Chesapeake Bay. Treasuring the moment, Joni leaped from the shore into the murky waters. She said, "In a jumble of actions and feelings, many things happened simultaneously. I felt my head strike something hard and unyielding. At the same time, clumsily and crazily, my body sprawled out of control."
Trapped beneath the waters of Chesapeake Bay, a confused young lady of just seventeen years of age slowly began to realize that she could no longer feel or move her body. Beneath the water, gasping for air, trapped in a paralyzed body, Joni pleaded for God to save her soul. By the grace of God, her sister Kathy was nearby and grabbed Joni's limp body and lifted her out of the water just in time to get a breath. Kathy signaled people nearby to help her sister. They put her on a large yellow raft and floated her to shore before rushing her to the hospital.
It was in the hospital that Joni began to more fully realize her circumstances. She had dived into shallow water and was permanently paralyzed from her neck down. In just seconds her life had been changed from vigorous activity and independence to an existence of total helplessness and dependence.
We all have circumstances in our lives that we wish we could change, but we cannot. No, our circumstances may not parallel the predicament Joni Eareckson found herself in. And yes, her dramatic story puts a lot of our woes in perspective. But that doesn't for a moment change the fact that all of us have these unchanging realities in our lives that must somehow through the grace of God fit into our lives without being robbed of life in the process.
I remember the first church I ever preached in. It was a small country church with only a handful of people on even a good Sunday. I often drove back from that church on Sunday afternoons overwhelmed by the circumstances that faced such a small group of people. Every family and every individual had something major on their plate.
An elderly widow had painful arthritis and struggled to play the piano each week. She would frequently apologize for missing notes or for not playing fast enough. A young lady feared for her life. Some man had become infatuated with her and began stalking her. He wrote her dirty letters, made threatening phone calls, and harassed her at work. One night he blew up her car as it sat in her driveway. Despite her desperate pleas, the police could do nothing.
A divorced mother struggled with the pain of a fractured marriage and family. She was diagnosed with cancer and faced dozens of painful treatments. An older gentleman struggled to take care of his wife who had suffered a stroke. She was unable to speak clearly and they couldn't do the things they had enjoyed doing for so many years. A young businessman was frazzled by the unethical practices his competition was using to undermine his business.
What circumstances exist in your life that you so badly want to change? Come on, all of us have a list tucked away in the back of our minds. The more I study Philippians the more I see a church full of people much like us. Many of them were facing undesirable circumstances. There was discouragement. Discontentment was rampant. The foundations of their faith were being shaken. They were questioning their faith and they were questioning God's work. "Why, God?" They so badly wanted to find something redeemable about their circumstances but unfortunately, they were losing the battle.
Attitudes within the church began going south. In their suffering the Philippians were becoming pessimistic and cynical about life. Because there was so much uncertainty and pessimism about tomorrow, people began living as if there was no tomorrow. Their love grew cold. Their hearts hardened. Little brush fires began erupting throughout the church. They became increasingly self-focused. They stopped looking after one another's needs.
Redeeming our circumstances.
Sitting in a Roman prison, the apostle Paul grew increasingly alarmed. He penned the letter of Philippians in the hope of getting the Philippians back on track. Paul didn't want the Church of Philippi becoming a church full of victims. Paul wanted them to redeem their circumstances and turn them into something positive. He wanted their circumstances to be steppingstones that led to something deeper and more meaningful instead of tombstones where they resigned themselves in despair.
Would the Philippians catch on? Would they adopt a new perspective? Would the apostle Paul's warm admonitions penetrate their hardened hearts? Paul decides to give it his best shot! In Philippians 1, Paul inspires the Philippians to rise above their circumstances by adopting three perspectives.
First, Paul shows them how circumstances can build potential faith.
In Philippians 1:12-18 (NIV) Paul says, "Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly."
"It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But 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."
There were several things impacting Paul at this moment in his life. First, Paul is in the worst environment imaginable. He was sitting in prison shackles chained either to a wall or a bench. He was a prisoner among prisoners in a violent environment with murderers, thieves, and zealots. He did not have running water, three square meals a day, a working toilet, a lighted cell, an exercise yard, or a warm, comfortable cot. He was in a Roman prison. Roman prisons were notorious for rats and insects. They were dark and damp. Prisoners were forced to sit in human waste. Guards were short tempered and irritable. They hated working in the prisons. They likely served only out of duty to the emperor.
As Paul sat in prison he learned that Christians were taking advantage of his situation. They were going around undermining his reputation. They were saying, "If he is God's apostle, why is God letting him sit in prison?" They were saying, "Forget about the prisoner Paul. Follow us. We are God's true servants. We know the way."
What were Paul's circumstances? He was in the worst place imaginable, surrounded by the worst people imaginable (criminals, irritable guards), and was being victimized by well-intentioned dragons. Whatever circumstances the Philippians were facing probably didn't even begin to compare with what Paul was facing sitting in prison.
But in his letter Paul hammers home that things aren't always what they appear. In essence he says, "I want you to know something! Like troops advancing against the enemy, so the gospel is advancing in the midst of my circumstances. The whole palace guard knows that I am serving Jesus Christ. Everyone in my prison block, even the warden, knows I am serving Jesus Christ. Our brothers in the Lord have been emboldened to courageously speak the word of God. Even those well-intentioned dragons who preach the gospel out of envy and rivalry are doing some good. Imagine that! This prison is my pulpit! This imprisonment is my testimony of God's power! This prison sentence is the cause of my rejoicing!"
If you didn't know better and weren't a Christian, you might think Paul was delusional. But he was indirectly showing the Philippians how they could use any circumstance to build potential faith in the lives of people who do not know Jesus Christ. He is saying that your hospital bed can be a pulpit. Hospice can be a pulpit. Your rotten workplace can be a pulpit. Your incarceration can be a pulpit. Your dysfunctional marriage can be a pulpit. Your tragedy can be a pulpit. The advancement of the gospel can transform the most unbearable circumstances into a cause for rejoicing. The gospel can create meaning out of despair. Paul was saying, "I love my life. I don't care about these prison walls. Christ is preached and because of this, I rejoice!"
Paul next shows them how circumstances can build personal faith.
In Philippians 1:18-21 (NIV) Paul says, "But 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, and I will continue to rejoice, for 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. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain."
Paul always had confidence that God was doing something bigger than he could see. In Romans 8:28 (NIV) Paul would say, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." In his own way Paul was telling the Philippians to wait on God. God would provide deliverance. God would provide salvation. God is to be trusted. He was telling them to use their circumstances as an opportunity to build their personal faith and not as an excuse to become cynical or morally reckless. Paul was telling the Philippians that whether he faced life or death it didn't matter, because he was living for Christ. There was hope, no matter what! He was telling them, "Hey, if I continue to live in my circumstances, that's great. The gospel will advance. But if I die in my circumstances, then I gain Christ! I gain eternity! Death or life, it doesn't matter. I am in a win-win situation because I am in Christ."
No matter what circumstance you find yourself in, God can use it to build your faith. If life were free of trouble we would never learn to put our trust in God. That is why it is not always God's will to heal our bodies or to deliver us from our immediate circumstances, as painful as they may be. In our circumstances God wants to move us deeper into a life of faith. At the end of our lives we can have ultimate deliverance from death into life and we gain Christ and eternity and capture all the blessings that are in Christ Jesus.
In our culture people want to abort their circumstances. In our culture people want to euthanize our suffering. In our culture we want to numb the pain. Paul is saying, "Just stop and be sensitive to the work that God is doing within." Every circumstance is potentially a training ground for saving faith. Every circumstance is potentially a steppingstone that moves you to deeper life in God. Unfortunately, every circumstance may also be a tombstone where you surrender your soul in defeat.
Paul shows them how circumstances can build persevering faith.
In Philippians 1:21-26 (NIV) Paul says, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me."
A lot of times our circumstances can make us more selfish than ever. As we grow more older, as our health declines, as time becomes more precious, as life grows sour, we tend to withdraw from important relationships and resign ourselves to our circumstances.
Sitting in prison, Paul could have retired from the Christian life and ministry. He could have said, "Well, I've done my part. Now leave me be. I think I'll just sit on the sidelines until Christ takes me home." You know, everyone would have understood! "Paul, you've earned it. Pass on the mantle. Resign to your circumstances. Give it up!"
But as Paul sat in prison he caught a second wind. As he thought about how to face his circumstances he became energized by the thought of inspiring faith among the faint in heart back at Philippi. Paul thought to himself, "My circumstances can build their faith. My circumstances can inspire them to persevere in their circumstances. I can set an example of how to face trouble and hardship with faith. I can model saving faith and confidence in God." And so Paul wrote, "Yes, I could quit. Yes, my circumstances could become my tombstone. But no way. I'm going to finish well. I'm going all out until I go out. I am going to continue for your progress and joy in the faith."
Had Paul had not taken this approach to his circumstances, we wouldn't have half the books of the New Testament. Paul continued on well beyond his Roman imprisonment. He planted many more churches. He raised up hundreds of diehard disciples like Timothy and Titus.
Listen, God has a purpose for your life no matter what your circumstance. He wants to build potential faith. He wants to build your personal faith. He wants to build deeper faith in the Christian community through your example. Whenever you are about to quit, pour your heart and soul out over Philippians 1 where Paul says, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." With Christ, every circumstance can become a win/win circumstance.
As Joni Eareckson spent months in the hospital coming to terms with her paralysis, she had a choice to make. Would that one minute define the rest of the minutes of her life? Would that one minute become her spiritual and emotional tombstone? Or would it become a steppingstone that would build potential faith, personal faith, and persevering faith?
For those of you who know her story, you know that one minute became a steppingstone. Joni has been an inspiration to hundreds of thousands of Christians. She battled to keep a positive self-image. She declared war against cynicism, negativity, despair, defeatism, anger, and a selfish attitude. She would later say, "I learned that God allows certain circumstances to come into our lives almost as a rasp to file down the rough edges and to smooth us into gems."
And she would later say, "It's not enough for me to put up with all that God permits by way of suffering. I need to use my situation for His glory-- to let these situations make me more Christlike." Joni's wheelchair became a pulpit in which she continues to proclaim Christ. Joni's wheelchair became a training ground where God continues to build her faith. Joni's wheelchair became a testimony which she continually uses to inspire Christians everywhere to rise above their circumstances and live for God.
So what will your circumstances become for you? A tombstone or a steppingstone?