This article was originally posted in Nov. ’08.
“Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.” — Mark Twain
My Problem With Paul
I’m starting to avoid reading the book of Philippians. Well, let me back up.
Have you ever noticed that when people read the Bible, they tend to read it from the perspective of their current situation or circumstances? For instance, if you are sick, then you start to notice all the Scriptures relating to healing. If you are poor, you see the abundance Scriptures, and if you are in prison, you focus on the passages that relate to feeling confined. I’ve felt like a prisoner myself lately, so I’m starting to avoid the book of Philippians. Yes, the whole book.
Please understand – it is not that I dislike Jesus. Jesus is still my Lord and Savior (much to the surprise of a few people who know me, I’m sure). The problem I’m having is with Paul and his whole joyful attitude theme. It is starting to get on my nerves, because sometimes I just don’t WANT to be joyful. I feel it is my RIGHT to complain about my circumstances, and I want a group of sympathetic ears to gather around me, pat me on the back and tell me it’ll all be “okay.” Instead, I read the book of Philippians and in place of a pat on the back, I get a kick in the pants.
The book of Philippians bothers me for a number of reasons. First, Paul is writing the Philippians from a Roman prison, just as he previously wrote to the Ephesians, Colossians and his good friend Philemon. I’d probably be writing my lawyer.
Next, the theme of this letter is JOY! In fact, joy is a word that occurs sixteen times in various forms throughout this book. Maybe it’s just me, but if I were in prison on trumped up charges, I don’t think my theme song would be “Joy to the World,” but instead I’d be wailing, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody seems to care.”
Furthermore, when I feel like I’m a prisoner to other people’s insecurities regarding the Gospel message, am I still able, in humility, to considering others better than myself (2:3) and lend them a helping hand? I hate this question, because I have the tendency to write people off and stop investing in lives that seem to oppose me. Paul, however, found a way to convert the prison guards. By his life’s message, Paul converted those whose job it was to confine him and the Message. Paul modeled the attitude of Christ, while I’m still clinging to the attitude of Jim.
Finally – and this is the part that really stings – Paul isn’t just talking about joy and happiness; he’s living it. He’s not telling us about a friend’s experiences or relating an inspirational story he read in the Tarsus Times.Instead, he is telling us about himself. He never complains about his chains, but finds a way to rejoice in the fact the Gospel has spread because of his imprisonment.
This leads me to the following uncomfortable question: Am I allowing my various imprisonments to advance the gospel, or am I complaining, whining and pouting about my lack of “freedom?” And about the time I write that, I notice that Paul says, “Do everything without complaining and arguing” (2:14). Gee, Paul, can’t you give a guy a break?
Whether you are in a literal prison, or feel like the “church” is not recognizing your gifts and allowing your talents to roam freely, or have a job where they frown upon you sharing your testimony, Paul shows us that there are still ways for the Message to get out from behind the bars and change people’s lives.
Of course, I’m not really avoiding the book of Philippians. It just bothers me that the hallmark of Paul’s imprisonment was joy, because my hallmark lately has been a sour attitude. So even in my confinement there is hope, and the opportunity to offer a sacrifice of praise, which knows no boundaries and cannot be contained by prison bars.
You have a good way of expressing real life struggles and then do well to tie them into real life answers. Until you have tasted the joy that only God can give, it is impossible to imagine how one can have it in the worst of situations. But it is there.
I like to remind myself sometimes that the one who penned these words, ‘Do not be anxious about anything… And the peace of God, which transcends understanding, will guard your hearts and minds…’, could write them in spite of being shipwrecked, imprisioned and beaten.
As always, I love your authenticity, Jim. Thanks for being real about the struggles that we all have (even if we won’t admit to them). And thank you for always coming down on the side of Scripture. Solidly. I love that!
Wow Jim, that was an awesome post. You were so terribly honest and I definitely admire that. It really helps others to relate to you. And I want you to know that this one really hit me. I have been struggling with a life-changing decision on whether or not to take my kids out of Catholic School and home school them or not. Hubby isn’t too fond of it, but I feel it will do our family good. But I’m afraid. I’m afraid of losing more of myself. I have put my career as a teacher on hold for the better of my family. I don’t have a lot of friends to hang out with, nor do I have much of a life for myself. But one thing is for sure, my family is happier than it would be if I had a full-time job. I have to let go of, how did you put it, “the attitude of [Karen].” It really is about letting God live through you. And He knows the sacrifices that we make and how we feel in our hearts. I’m willing to make the sacrifice for my family, but I’m still scared.
Thanks so much for this post. I never would have found you if you hadn’t visited my blog. Good work!