In case no one has ever told you, life is not fair. Bad things happen to good people, and suffering is no respecter of persons.
Philip Yancey describes such a frequent misunderstanding like this: “We tend to think, ‘Life should be fair because God is fair.’ But God is not life. And if I confuse God with the physical reality of life - by expecting good health, for example - then I set myself up for crashing disappointment.”
When I heard Grady Nutt speak during my college days, he told us, “It rains on the just and the unjust, and not always just on the just.”
In Paul’s spiritual journey, he came to understand that faith doesn’t exempt us from the tough times in life, but faith does equip us to navigate the tough times with courage and perseverance.
Paul was no stranger to suffering or unfairness. At various points in his ministry, he had encountered those who doubted his conversion and those who distrusted his motives. He had been deserted by one team member and later jailed with another. He had experienced sickness and storms and shipwrecks and snakebites, and yet he stayed the course.
During his house arrest, Paul writes to the believers at Philippi to encourage their loyalty, to affirm his love and gratitude for them, and to urge them to stand firm in all seasons.
Earlier in his letter to the Philippians, Paul has punctuated his concern and underscored his counsel. He has encouraged them to “live in a manner worthy of the gospel” (1:27). He advised them to take on the mind of Christ Jesus (2:5). He urged them to continue to work “without murmuring or arguing” (2:14). And he shared his own determination to “press toward the mark of the high calling of God” (3:14).
Now he turns his attention to specific ways they can remain strong in tough and difficult times. Those who are serious about learning to follow Jesus need good role models to follow, faithful examples to emulate. First, in sincere humility, Paul invites the believers to imitate his faith response to life’s challenges. Then he refers to “the example you have in us.” Perhaps by “us” he is referring to his leadership team. Or maybe he is referring to the hard-core, dependable believers in the congregation.
One of the reasons, by the way, that I believe in the relevance and the significance of the local church is that all ages need good examples of the Christ life, and while there are bad examples in every congregation, the best examples of Christian living I have witnessed are the grounded and gracious people who anchor our churches and faith communities.
Not everyone is a good example. Paul had encountered more than his share of wolves in sheep’s clothing. So, he urges the Philippians to beware of the enemies of the cross. He could have been referring to the political forces of the empire. But it seems more likely that he is referring to those who have adopted a religious vocabulary but have not adapted to a faith-guided lifestyle.
A gluttonous, self-centered, self-focused, self-absorbed individual who is guided by worldly pursuits and undisciplined appetites is, in Paul’s words, an enemy of the cross. Refuse to become like them. Do not put them in church leadership. And for God’s sake, don’t ordain them.
And even those who do not think of themselves as an adversary of God often live in ways that undermine God’s mission in the world. A few years back, my wife and I were playing golf at one of our favorite courses in Orlando. To complete our foursome, we were delighted to be paired with two gentlemen from the United Kingdom. During our conversation I learned that they both worked as financial advisors in Edinburgh. Amanda and I love Scotland and we loved the rich Scottish accent of these two Scotsmen. Eventually, they asked, “And what is your employment?” So, I shared that I serve as pastor of a local church. Then I asked if they were a part of the Church of Scotland. Without missing a beat, they both described their religious affiliation as “Protestant, non-practicing.” While I was grateful for their transparency, I was a little taken aback by their description. I was more accustomed to responses that listed church membership, not a detailed level of participation or lack thereof.
After our golf round, it did occur to me that there are those in our churches who are quite honestly Baptist, non-practicing; Methodist, non-practicing; Episcopal, non-practicing. Paul was concerned about those in Philippi and beyond who are Christian, non-practicing.
Finally, Paul admonishes these growing followers of Jesus to “live as a citizen of heaven” (v. 20). What does it mean to be a citizen of heaven? If you have traveled internationally, perhaps you have been asked to provide proof of citizenship. In the United States, proof of citizenship is often provided by a birth certificate, a passport, or naturalization papers. Where then is the proof that you are a citizen of heaven? I suggest that it requires more than a baptism certificate or a verification of church membership. Maybe, just maybe, it is evidenced in the moral and spiritual laws by which you live, and the primary leader or Lord that you follow.
It is likely that Paul was aware that in John’s gospel (17:14-19) John refers to God’s children as being “in the world but not of the world.” If Jesus’ notion of the kingdom of God indeed refers to those who place their lives under the governance of God, then Paul is encouraging the Philippians to live by the governing principles of heaven, not just the laws of the earth.
So, in this present day, those of us who are committed to following Jesus are instructed to follow the principles of heaven during our time on earth. One of the ways that we live out our faith is by practicing kingdom politics, kingdom economics, and kingdom ethics both in the way we do church and in the way we bring order to our personal lives.
The past couple of years have been challenging for everyone on the planet. We have been mitigating health risks, contemplating economic uncertainty, and navigating a variety of discordant emotions including heightened anxiety.
Therefore, Paul’s words are relevant and timely for us today. In all seasons and all circumstances, stand firm in your faith and be strong in the Lord.
Whenever I travel, especially around the countryside, I tend to look at church signs, to admire church architecture, and to smile at times at the unusual names of churches. Names like the Boring United Methodist Church in Boring, Oregon, or the Original Church of God - Number 2 seem quite paradoxical. The names Rabbittown Baptist Church in Alabama, Possum Trot Church in Georgia, and Stinking Creek Baptist Church in southeastern Kentucky usually inspire a little bit of laughter.
One of the most unfortunate church names I’ve encountered is the Halfway Baptist Church in Halfway, Missouri. While I am sure there are loyal saints in this congregation, the name itself implies half-hearted, partly committed, or even lukewarm. Don’t settle for being a nominal Christian, a part-time worshipper, or a non-practicing believer. Don’t just follow Jesus halfway. Follow Jesus with all that you are, all you have, and all you ever hope to be.
Stand firm! Be strong! This is Paul’s message to the church. When tough times come, stand firm. When persecution arises, stand firm. When sickness invades your home, stand firm. When the diagnosis isn’t what you had hoped, stand firm. When your candidate is not elected, stand firm. When your church experiences conflict, stand firm. When depression sets in, stand firm. When life throws you a curveball, watch it all the way to the plate and give it your best swing.
During an extremely difficult season in his life and his leadership, Abraham Lincoln said, “Be sure to put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.”
When life is tough, be tougher. When life is unfair, be faithful. Plant your feet, and your heart, and your soul in the right place and stand firm!
Let us pray.
Gracious God, as we navigate the seasons of life, may we follow the example of those who came before us, so that those who come after us will be embraced by your goodness and your grace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.