Passage – Philippians 1:12-18
12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
In this passage, Paul introduces two of the primary plot lines for the book of Philippians: (a) how he is processing the hardship of his imprisonment, and (b) how these believers should respond to the unhealthy leadership culture developing in the early church. In a sad way, we will see these two plot lines intersect. Understanding these two plot lines will help us understand why Paul develops the rest of the book of Philippians the way he does.
Plotline A: Processing Suffering
Consider the magnitude of life experience Paul summarizes in the five simple words “what has happened to me.” The Philippians would have known the back story.
- Paul was transformed from persecutor of the church into a church planter.
- Paul has great success planting churches and mentoring pastors. The church at Philippi and the leaders receiving this letter are part of that legacy.
- As momentum in his work was growing when Paul was arrested. Personally, this must have been an unsettling experience. It was unjust. It stifled his passion and calling. Whatever legal process Paul went through would have recast his life work as an act of rebellion and incivility.
- Paul was concerned for how his arrest would impact the churches he planted; hence, he writes letters like this one to the church at Philippi.
- Paul doesn’t know how long he will be in prison or if he will face the death penalty (1:22). Will he get to complete the things God laid on his heart to do?
Pause. Ask yourself, “What are your life altering experiences? Are you in the position of Paul – the one facing the hardship, or in the position of the Philippians – caring deeply for the one facing hardship?” One thing we want to learn from our study of Philippians is how to face these kinds of unjust, life altering experiences.
To begin this learning process we ask ourselves, “Where was Paul in processing his experience?” This letter was written at a point when Paul had time to wrestle with how to respond. We may be at an earlier point the process of wrestling with our experience. Rightly identifying where Paul was in his response to suffering will help us apply this passage constructively, rather than destructively, to our experiences of suffering.
We could say that Paul was in the “late middle phase” of processing his suffering. Paul has been able to find meaning for some of his experience (i.e., the conversion of many in the imperial guard and the growing confidence of some fellow believers) but he is still uncertain about how long he will be in prison or whether he will be executed. The fact that Paul can summarize his experience in the simple phrase “what has happened to me” indicates a significant amount of emotional processing has occurred.
This highlights a common misuse of Scripture. With the best of intentions, we assume we need to be “now” where an author of Scripture was when God inspired them to write what became a book of the Bible. In the early stages of a biblical author’s hardship God would have been comforting them, and then, later, God would inspire them to write something that would comfort others (II Corinthians 1:3-5). That is God’s pattern.
It is not “bad” (i.e., morally wrong) if we are not “now” where Paul was when he wrote these verses. We can learn something about what the healthy processing of suffering looks like and how to do it without feeling rushed, which would hamper the process.
So, we ask, “What did Paul do amid his suffering, that we might also do, to get to a comparable ‘late middle phase’ of processing our suffering?” From this passage, I think we can observe three things that will help us endure hard times in God-honoring and healthy ways.
First, Paul focused on those he cared about. It may not be immediately obvious in the text but notice how Paul is concerned for the fellow believers around him. He was aware of how the believers around him were, at first more cautious (hence he is writing to comfort the Philippians), but then became more bold as a result of the events around his life.
We need to be cognizant of how suffering tends to reinforce our self-centered tendencies, which we all have. Discouragement has an emotional gravity. It attracts memories of every hard thing in our life. That is how memory works, by association. When we hear an old song on the radio, we remember occasions that have been associated with that song. When we feel discouraged, it is easier to remember every discouraging thing about life, because that emotional state is familiar to those other hard times. Paul’s intentional care for others helped offset this tendency. He could acknowledge the hardness and impact of this moment without losing his ability to rejoice in good things that were also happening.
We should also note that being aware of self-centered tendencies does not discount the validity of self-care. Notice that Paul received the care of the Philippian church. Self-care is not the same thing as being selfish or self-centered. In the same way that Paul encouraged Timothy to care for himself when facing hard times (I Timothy 5:23), Paul was willing to receive the aid of his friends to enhance his ability to endure through hard times. We should do the same.Being aware of self-centered tendencies does not discount the validity of self-care. Click To Tweet
Second, Paul focused on what he had the ability to influence. Again, we see the effects of this choice more than the exhortation to make this choice. We see Paul, the church planter, thwarted from planting churches, starting a prison ministry instead. The mentality is, “If I can’t do the thing I most want to do, what is the most worthwhile thing I can currently do?”
Suffering takes away our preferred options. Chronic pain limits our mobility and productivity. Singleness, when we want to be married, removes the ability to start a family. Depression inhibits our motivation to pursue goals and the satisfaction experienced as we accomplish things. When our preferred options are removed, we can easily feel like we have no choices at all.
Paul resisted this mindset. He focused his attention on where he could be productive in God-honoring ways. As he did so, he refused to let the inhibition from what he preferred to do (even what he felt called to do) dilute his satisfaction in the opportunities for influence God gave him. Even when we are frustrated by what we can’t do because of suffering and hardship, we still need to ask, “What can I do to be a good steward of this time God has given me?” This leads to the third thing Paul did.
Third, Paul looked for ways God was active as a way to give meaning to his hardship. It has been said that while animals can be divided into herbivores and carnivores, those that live off plants and those that live off meat, that people are verbivores – we live off the meaning we give to things. While this is an overstatement, it accurately highlights part of human nature; when life feels meaningless our soul shrivels, we feel lifeless.
Paul looked for the good things God was still doing to find meaning amid his hardship. Paul was so excited about what God did during his imprisonment that he was willing to say that God allowed his imprisonment “so that” (v. 13) there would be a revival in the prison. Remember, Paul is pretty far along in processing his suffering.
Even if we are not ready to make a “so that” statement, looking for the good things that occur as we steward our influence during hard times is an important part of establishing meaning. Sometimes we fall into the trap of doing a comparative analysis; trying to weigh whether the good that happened as we stewarded our influence is “heavier” than the hardship is bad. While Paul sometimes does that (II Corinthians 4:17-18), here Paul simply rejoices in that good thing occurred without any comparison language. Give yourself this same freedom.
Plotline B: Responding to Unhealthy Leaders
Now Paul pivots. At first, it is not clear what the connection is between his suffering and his critique of self-serving leaders. But then we realize that Paul is setting up a litmus test – how leaders respond to his imprisonment reveals something about their motivation for ministry.
It is unclear how the leaders marked by “envy and rivalry” (v. 15) portrayed Paul’s imprisonment. But, by contrast, we know that the healthy leaders viewed Paul’s imprisonment as resulting from faithful ministry. Therefore, we can deduce that the unhealthy leaders portrayed Paul’s imprisonment as either an indication of God’s dissatisfaction with Paul or the result of a character defect in Paul (i.e., he brought on this punishment by his actions).
We notice two things about Paul’s response: (a) he doesn’t name names, and (b) he affirms that they are still doing fruitful ministry. This is not always Paul’s approach. There are times when Paul does name names (Galatians 2:11-14), and when he claims that someone’s teaching is contrary to the gospel (Galatians 1:6). It is not that Paul thought it was wrong to do these things, it is that he thought this was not the time for it.
The first thing we learn from this is that Paul was mature enough to realize that not every point of theological difference or character concern rises to the level of declaring someone a heretic or disqualified from ministry. Many of our modern discussions of theology and politics would benefit from this same level of maturity.
The second thing we see is that Paul allowed his purpose in writing to determine what he did and didn’t say. Paul was writing to warn these believers about unhealthy approaches to leadership; he wasn’t writing to confront the unhealthy leaders. His purpose determined the content of what he shared.
The effect of what Paul wrote was to say, “There are people drawing false conclusions about my imprisonment. It benefits them socially to make me look bad. They are still proclaiming Christ and presenting the gospel accurately, so don’t get too upset about it. But, also don’t follow their example. You don’t need to participate in the rivalry they are trying to start. You do need to be aware of what’s unhealthy in their approach to leadership.”
In this statement we see the maturity that helped Paul process his suffering well. The same three points we made about verses 12-14 are present. Paul focused on those he cared about; he instructed the Philippian believers rather than refuting those who viewed him as a rival. Paul focused on where he had influence; those who would receive his words because they viewed him as pastor-friend. Paul found meaning in his difficult experience by appreciating where God was active; even when that was God being fruitful through the ministry of those who didn’t like Paul.
As we study the rest of Philippians, we will see that this sense of rivalry from other Christian leaders bothered Paul quite a bit. The contrasting leadership styles will be a repeated theme. From this we can realize that Paul’s maturity didn’t mean he was unaffected by this division. It seems to have burdened him deeply. It reveals that Paul was able to process his suffering – both imprisonment and unnecessary rivalry – in a way that allowed him to stay focused on and take satisfaction in the things that God called him to do.
Our goal should be to do the same. We can acknowledge the real hardships in our life. We can acknowledge how they altered our life in profound ways. We can seek to process that hardship well by caring for those who are important to us, focusing on the areas where we have influence, and taking satisfaction in the good God does (without rushing to a comparative analysis). As we do this, even if others disparage us, we can resist getting sucked into unnecessary rivalry. As Paul would say: it is hard, but by God’s grace, it is worth it.
- What are the life hardships you have faced that studying this passage brought to mind?
- When or how have to felt rushed to be where Paul was when he wrote this passage?
- How does removing the rushed-ness increase the emotional freedom to follow Paul’s example in the ways he processed his suffering?
- Which of the three ways of processing suffering seem most impactful for the hardships you are currently facing?
- How have you noticed that the different ways that people interpret their hardship or the hardship of others creating a sense of rivalry?
- Who are people that you have observed having the kind of maturity Paul displayed amid contentious disputes? We should honor such people (Philippians 2:29) and learn from their example.
- What do you learn humanizing Paul’s mature response; realizing that he wasn’t Teflon and this did bother him even as he responded to it well?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled A Counseling Commentary on Philippians.
 If you are prone to this kind of thinking and want to see more clearly that Scripture does not ask us to do this kind of comparative analysis, see my article “Making Peace with Romans 8:28” at www.bradhambrick.com/romans828.