I offered the following devotional at last night’s church council meeting. It includes a point I didn’t have time to make in last Sunday’s sermon.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice.” Philippians 4:4
This past Sunday I began preaching a series of Thanksgiving-themed sermons on Paul’s letter to the Philippians. As I said Sunday, Paul was in prison, and it was likely a brutal imprisonment. To make matters worse, Paul was facing a possible death sentence, and he wasn’t quite sure whether he’d live or die. Paul was clearly suffering. Yet, the odd thing is that in the midst of these very trying, painful, life-and-death circumstances, Paul wrote his most upbeat letter—filled with joy and gratitude.
I’ve never known suffering like that. Most of us haven’t. Yet, if you’re like me, you probably struggle—often—to do this thing that God’s Word commands us to do: which is to rejoice—not every once in while when things are going our way but always. Always means always. Whether you’re in prison facing a death sentence like Paul, whether your marriage is falling apart, whether you’ve just gotten troubling news from your doctor, whether you’ve just lost a job, whether you just failed an exam, whether you’ve just broken up with your boyfriend or girlfriend, or whether you’re just having an ordinary bad day. Rejoice in the Lord even then, Paul says.
The only way that we can endure suffering and rejoice at the same time—the way scripture tells us to—is to believe that God allows us to suffer for a reason: that God is doing something good for us through our suffering.
Paul says as much in Philippians 1:18-19: “Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.” The Greek word translated as “deliverance” is the same word translated elsewhere in the New Testament as “salvation.” In other words, Paul is literally saying that he will rejoice because all this suffering he’s going through is saving him.
Does that mean that he’ll earn his salvation by going through all this suffering? No. Remember that the New Testament speaks of three tenses of salvation. Past tense: “I’ve been saved: God has forgiven my sins.” Future tense: “I will be saved, when I arrive safely in God’s kingdom on the other side of resurrection.” And present tense, which is what Paul is referring to here: “I am currently being saved.” If you’ve been born-again, the Holy Spirit is working within you right now to save you. We Methodists call this present form of salvation sanctification.
As Christians, we’re not simply forgiven of our sins, we’re being changed into the kind of people who won’t sin anymore. That’s a lifelong process that doesn’t end until eternity, but it starts now. We’re in the process, in other words, of becoming the kind of people that we were created to be. And Paul is saying that in his case the Lord is using his present suffering to make him into a better, more faithful, more Christ-like person.
Andrew Solomon wrote a celebrated book called Far from the Tree, which describes real-life stories of parents who discover that the “child born to them is not like them—but instead is deaf, a dwarf, has Down’s syndrome, is autistic, or is chronically ill or disabled in some way.” Solomon says that these children always “represent a crisis to the family into which they come,” and yet Solomon found, to his great surprise, that most of the families in the book “ended up grateful for experiences they would have done anything to avoid.’”
Grateful for experiences they would have done anything to avoid. Isn’t that awesome? Have you ever been grateful for an experience you would have done anything to avoid?
Why do you think that is? It’s because our gracious, loving, and merciful Lord has transformed that negative experience into something that ended up helping you.
Brothers and sisters, we are able to “rejoice in the Lord always,” because the Lord is always doing this!
 Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 71-2.