When I was a young Christian attending a Baptist church that was about 20 minutes away from the home I grew up in, I decided I wanted to make good use of that regular drive. (I was on youth staff, so I ended up at the church multiple times a week).
I decided to memorize the book of Philippians. This was the early 1980s, so I wrote out the whole book onto a series of 3x5 cards. I would rehearse those lines card by card until they became familiar and repeatable. Once I’d got to the place where I had the whole book committed to memory, I realized that it is a little more than 100 verses, and that it took me about the length of my drive to recite the whole book aloud. Philippians became a good friend to me in those years.
Recently, when Gem and I wrote What Does Your Soul Love?, I drew on my experience of Paul’s letter to the Philippians when I wrote my part of our chapter on “Joy.” What struck me again is that there isn’t a lot in Paul’s life situation when he write that he can rejoice about, but he has a profound sense of every reason to rejoice in the Lord.
For example, listen to how he describes his perspective on having been put in prison chains because of his proclamation of the good news about Jesus:
Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually 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. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.
Serving God cost Paul dearly in circumstantial terms. He has lost his freedom. He could have focused on this loss of freedom, and yet he is able to focus instead on how God has used this intended evil for remarkable good. The elite guard of the Roman empire understands why Paul has been imprisoned. He isn’t a murderer or even a common criminal. He is in these chains for Christ’s sake.
And Paul’s courage and even joy in prison has had the added benefit of emboldening his brothers and sisters in Philippi in Christ to join him in proclaiming the gospel.
There are sometimes bad things that happen to us that we might be tempted to assess as nothing but loss. But, in God, I just might be able to see how God can turn even that which is intended to do me harm, to limit or hinder me, into something that powerfully furthers God’s intended purposes in my life and in this world.
When it comes to lines, paragraphs, chapters or even books of Scripture that I’ve hidden in my heart and mind through memorization, I then have ready and immediate access to words that describe kingdom reality for me. Their message shines a light on the other lesser messages that seek to lodge themselves in my assumptions, my expectations, my emotions.
When my circumstances are yelling something discouraging or frustrating, the words of God might whisper mightily that what is happening to me just might be a setting in which God’s purposes can still be accomplished. Circumstances do not throw a wrench in God’s wise, patient, persistent work in this world. I can always find my way to rejoicing in God when there doesn’t appear to be much in my life to rejoice about.