A Light in Dark Places
by Derek Thomas
“The Holy Spirit has exhorted the faithful to continue clapping their hands for joy until the advent of the promised Redeemer,” wrote John Calvin in a comment on Psalm 47:12. Paul would heartily concur! Writing from a prison cell from which he had no certain knowledge of escaping other than to his execution, joy is what came to mind. Joy is what the epistle to the Philippians is all about. So much is Philippians about joy that George B. Duncan once referred to it as “the life of continual rejoicing.” The opposite of joy is misery, and miserable is something we are not meant to be. The Reformers caught the centrality of joy in the affections of Christians when they insisted that our chief goal in life is to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever” (WSC, Q. 1).
Christians are tempted, of course, to be discouraged and depressed by the force of overwhelming circumstances. But in such circumstances, we must tell ourselves that we have no right to feel the way we do! Paul, who knew what it was to be in prison, to be beaten and spat upon, to be cold shouldered and ignored, commands us to rejoice, despite what we may feel: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4).
Paul was never one to ask others to do what he did not do himself. That is why, throughout the record of his life, we can detect his joy even in the most difficult and testing of situations.
Incarcerated for obedience to the Gospel, the apostle is denied his freedom and dignity. He may well be dealing with personal resentment of his circumstances. Certainly, the Philippians were at pains to understand the wisdom of it all: that the most useful servant God had was cooped up in prison. Some were questioning the wisdom or sovereignty of God. Some may have been questioning both!
Paul’s feelings may well have dictated that depression, resentment, or anger was the fitting response. Instead, the apostle looks for the good in his circumstances. As a result of his imprisonment there were certain members of Caesar’s palace guard who had been exposed to the Gospel. Paul may be in prison but “the word of God is not bound” (2 Tim. 2:9). For the apostle, the evangelism of the praetorian guard was worth any suffering on his part. Despite his difficult predicament, Paul was able to rejoice because he perceived another agenda, one which took into consideration greater motives than his own immediate comfort.
Paul had enemies who were determined to do him wrong. Shockingly, they were fellow preachers of the Gospel who were envious of Paul’s success and popularity. They preached so as to aggravate Paul’s sufferings, supposing that by their actions they would “afflict me in my imprisonment” (Phil. 1:17). Some were evidently quite pleased to see the apostle receive what they considered to be what he deserved.
Paul was at the mercy of the Roman judiciary. In the very first chapter he had spoken of the possibility of death (Phil. 1:20). Later, he enlarges on it by suggesting, “I am to be poured out as a drink offering” (2:17). It is a realistic acknowledgement on the apostle’s part that his toils and suffering could lead to martyrdom. Is the apostle downcast? Is he resentful? Not at all! “I am glad and rejoice with you all,” he adds.
Can we define with greater clarity what this joy is from what Paul writes in Philippians? Two theological truths bring the source of joy into focus. First, Joy is the outworking of our union with Christ. God created us, and then re-created us in Christ, so as to form deep and lasting relationships; they are the source of our greatest joys. But no relationship surpasses our fellowship with Jesus Christ in the Gospel. Paul began his letter to the Philippians by reminding his Christian readers of their relationship to Jesus Christ: they were “in Christ” (1:1). By doing so, Paul underlined a fundamental truth. Faith, as Jesus reminded His disciples, is a believing “into” Christ (John 14:12). Faith involves a union in which we totally depend upon the resources of another. This truth was elaborated upon in Jesus’ horticultural analogy: He is the vine, we are the branches (John 15). Jesus assures His disciples: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (v. 11). It is not clear whether Jesus meant to say that believers were the recipients of joy or the objects of joy. Both are probably intended. Christ restores to us—who have lost all joy—the joy He finds in us! And as He sees us bearing the kind of fruit we ought to, including, of course, joy (Gal. 5:22), it makes Him joyful too! Perhaps now we see the importance of joy in our lives: for it makes the heart of our Savior glad!
Second, joy flows from the taste of the sweetness of grace. The answer to misery is to remind ourselves of where we would be apart from the grace of God. “Grace, tis a charming sound,” wrote Philip Doddridge, thereby echoing what Christians have always felt about God’s dealings with us. Grace is the opening and closing salutation of this letter (Phil. 1:2; 4:23). And following the opening salutation he tells the Philippians of how joyful he felt whenever he thought about them, adding that the reason for his joy was that “you are all partakers with me of grace” (1:7). Christians find their joy in the way God has dealt with them.
Joy springs from knowing the value of what God has given us. When Paul became a Christian something happened to him: his assessment of the value he placed on the things of this world changed. The grace of God became the object of his chief delight. By comparison, the world’s baubles he reckoned by the Greek word skybala—sensitively rendered rubbish in the English Standard Version, but “dung” is more to the point (3:8). By comparison to what God had given him—a righteousness which is not of his own—Paul is constrained to want to know more and more of this wonderful grace of God (3:7-10).
Two things follow: First, in as far as we are able, we must learn to control our feelings. There are various kinds of depression, to be sure, and some are the result of complex physical and psychological disorders. But there are times when we are spiritually depressed for no good reason. There are times when the best thing to do with our feelings is to challenge them: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Ps. 42:11).
Far too often we spend our days in misery and gloom, all because we are not taking what we know to be true about God and His control over our lives seriously. We must pray and ask God for strength to overcome our depressive, melancholy states. There is such a thing as a will that will not bend to God’s. We can become hardened, refusing to see the good hand of God. It is a cancer that will destroy us.
Second, no matter what our circumstances may be, we must seek for the interpretation that forces us to rejoice. We are to “rejoice in our sufferings” too (Rom. 5:3). I think of the story of Horatio Spafford, a businessman in Chicago in 1873 who lost his entire business in the Chicago fires. Sending his wife and four daughters across to England on the SS. Ville de Havre, he was to learn that the vessel struck another (the Lochearn) in the mid-Atlantic with the loss of 261 lives including his four daughters. Mrs. Spafford, who had been rescued, sent him a cable that read: “Survived alone.” Boarding the next available ship to meet her, Horatio was to be told by the captain of the vessel of the very spot where his daughters had drowned. It was then that he wrote these lines:
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea-billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
That is the way God wants us to live. We have no right to expect that our lives are going to be free from trouble. But in every circumstance, if we are the Lord’s people, we are assured of God’s care and providence. He is working out every detail. There are no mistakes with Him (Rom. 8:32ff.). Every moment of our existence is cause enough for joy: the good and the bad together should integrate to form a hallelujah symphony to the praise of Almighty God.