“Rejoice always, pray continuously, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
Matthew Henry tells us in Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, “A truly religious life is a life of constant joy” (p. 1175). Paul was a living example of this. While under house arrest, he wrote his letter to the Philippians. Although he was living at home, he was chained to a Roman guard around the clock and was not able to go anywhere. He knew his trial was likely years away. Given that God had called him to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, he was stuck in Rome unable to plant new churches or visit with those he was nurturing by letter. Certainly, he had every right to complain. He’d been beaten, shipwrecked, and persecuted for Jesus. Instead, his letter to the church at Philippi was filled with rejoicing. He wrote, “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the Gospel” (Philippians 1:12, NIV).
Eugene Peterson puts an amazing focus on Philippians 1. In essence, Paul is saying, “I want to report to you, friends, that my imprisonment here has had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of being squelched, the Message has actually prospered. All the soldiers here, and everyone else, too, found out that I’m in jail because of this Messiah. That piqued their curiosity, and now they’ve learned all about him. Not only that, but most of the followers of Jesus here have become far more sure of themselves in the faith than ever, speaking out fearlessly about God, about the Messiah” (v. 12-14, MSG).
Paul essentially said his sufferings for Christ had furthered the Gospel by provoking others to zeal for Him. Paul focused on preaching the Gospel no matter the circumstances in which he found himself. He wanted nothing more than to worship God in Spirit, rejoice in Christ, deny his flesh, forge ahead toward the prize, looking only toward the Savior, striving to be an example for others. He added, “As long as I’m alive in this body, there is good work for me to do. If I had to choose right now, I hardly know which I’d choose. Hard choice! The desire to break camp here and be with Christ is powerful. Some days I can think of nothing better. But most days, because of what you are going through, I am sure that it’s better for me to stick it out here. So I plan to be around awhile, companion to you as your growth and joy in this life of trusting God continues. You can start looking forward to a great reunion when I come visit you again. We’ll be praising Christ, enjoying each other” (v. 22-26, MSG).
TRUST REQUIRES PATIENCE
Trusting God always requires patience, because God doesn’t work on our timetable. Patience allows us to enjoy life while we wait. No doubt this is a difficult proposition. We are, after all, only human. We measure success and failure, happiness and disappointment, in terms of emotion first and then in actual results. When we feel bad, especially when we really, truly hurt, we want a way out right away. For many, including me, that can include drugs and alcohol. I ran from hurt and pain for decades. I simply had no concept of or capacity for patience.
Quite often the reason God is requiring us to wait is simply that He is using our difficulty to work patience in us. Learning to be patient is important enough to God’s plan—for us and for those whom we will touch with our lives—that I believe he ordains everything we go through. He is not going to short-change His plans by giving us what we want the second we want it. Sadly, however, the desire for instant gratification causes many people to make snap decisions. Some get high or drunk. Some spend beyond their means. Others have sex without thinking. Some marry someone who is wrong for them because they’re not willing to wait for the right someone. The false belief that we should have instant gratification is at the root of our unwillingness to suffer through the bad times.
It’s not easy being a Christian in today’s pluralistic society where moral relativism, hatred, distrust, bigotry, and fear run rampant. There seems to be an increasing tension between Christians and non-believers. When we focus on others rather than Jesus, we see them as enemies instead of children of God worthy of our love and respect. Admittedly, culture has taken a dramatic shift recently. Religion is no longer seen as a social good. Instead, it is considered an old, awkward, worldview that is no longer relevant.
GOD’S VOICE IN OUR CIRCUMSTANCES
As Christians, we all want to hear from God. I’ve often dropped to my knees and begged Him to say something—anything—as long as it was aloud. I wanted to know if He was there. Was He listening to me at all? Did He care about what was happening to me? What did He want me to do? It is even more challenging to determine what God is not saying in any given situation. He spoke to the prophets in the Old Testament. He appeared before non-believers. He sent angels. He told people what to do. He even told them what not to do. And He often accompanied these directives with promises—blessings and curses. He was often extremely clear about His wishes.
Today, we tend to expect the grandiose voice of God—and sometimes God speaks that way. More often, though, His voice comes through more subtly. God often speaks to us through the quiet moments, through other people, and through life’s circumstances. It can be difficult to distinguish His voice from the chaos of our situation. In order to decipher what God is saying, it is important to know and understand His Word. Spending time in the Scriptures will help us hear His voice. He will never contradict Himself. He will never speak to us through our circumstances in a manner that goes against His written Word. The Bible must be our yard stick. And when He puts others in our path to guide us, we need to distinguish between those who practice seeking the heart of God from those whose ambition is to control and manipulate others.
It is extremely important to remember that one incident is not necessarily indicative of God’s intent for our entire life. One swallow does not a summer make. (Google it!) Never make a life-changing decision on one event or one set of circumstances because God may or may not be speaking through this particular event. We need to look over the span of months and years. It is critical that we ask ourselves, Where is God leading me? He chose us and ordained our lives even before we were formed in the womb. I met a recovered addict last summer while serving as on-site manager for a motel. He was working as an itinerant electrician at a new gas-fired power plant being built in my area. He said, “God wants me to tell you something.” My ears always perk up when I hear someone say that! “God says everything you’ve been through from the moment you were born until you met me right now, all the good and the bad, was ordained by Him to help make you into the man He needs you to be in order to fulfill your calling.”
We must never put God in a box. He is much more infinite and all-knowing than we can ever grasp. No matter what the dire, dreary circumstance, God can turn each into a hopeful future. He can reverse, restore, revive, and renew. We need only look for His plans that are already in motion right now, even in the midst of our difficult time. Trust Him. He can take any circumstance and use it for our good and His glory.