My Dear Shepherds,
Ever feel like you are trying to minister with one arm tied behind your back? I know there are those wonderful ministry seasons when you’ve crossed the Jordan River into the land of God’s fulfilled promises. People are consecrated. Milk and honey flow. Walls fall. But then—whamo!—a spiritual catastrophe like Ai happens. Or your church is besieged by trouble. Or you’re immobilized by an agonizing thorn of mental or physical illness. Chains come in all weights and lengths.
When Paul wrote to the Philippians, he was in chains for preaching the gospel. You might say both his hands were tied behind his back. His ambitious ministry plans came to a screeching halt. We know from 2 Corinthians that Paul was as vulnerable to discouragement as we are so I imagine it took him some time to regain his footing before he could write:
Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. (Phil. 1:12)
By the time Paul wrote his letter he had seen the gospel advance even in his prison, but it can take a long time before we see any good that God is up to. Some churches don’t seem to get better. Some conflicts are intractable. Some illnesses persist. Nonetheless, we have a hope as certain as the resurrection that somehow the gospel is advancing.
Recently I turned 72, so I’ve been facing the looming limitations of age. Not chains, I know, but not exactly liberty either. Thinking about the future is unsettling. I am careful to keep my balance. Stay off ladders. Hold on to handrails. Read Paul. Here’s what I get from Phil. 1:12-26.
Determine not to let opposition or discouragement diminish our testimony for Christ. Our flocks are watching. We simply can’t fail them by losing heart. “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage.” Wrap prayers tightly around Scripture, and persevere.
Yearn to Be with Jesus
Paul said, “To die is gain. … I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far [than remaining in the body] ….” Chains have a remarkable way of loosening our grip on the things of this life, even the ministries we hold so tightly. We all want to be with Jesus, of course. Eventually. But it is healthy for us to yearn to be with him now.
To be with Jesus, says Revelation 7:15-17, will be to serve him unhindered night and day. Wouldn’t that be more wonderful than serving from cells? He will shield us from all that now wearies us and shepherd us to springs of life-giving water.
Pray Expectantly for Freedom
Paul asked his friends to pray for God to spring him free, as God is wont to do. God regularly defeats enemies, reconciles believers, and leads his people through the wilderness, all in answer to prayer.
As Paul testified, even chains can serve to advance the gospel. Even your chains. Whether you are free or bound, stake your hopes on this: “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me.” Knowing that my body is growing weaker, this encouraged me. Even a thorny messenger of Satan cannot keep us from fruitful labor. Jesus said, “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” So take heart!
For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Phil. 1:21)
Be ye glad!