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.