I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.—Phil. 1:20-26, 29-30 (NIV)
As I read this passage from Paul to the Philippians today, a passage he wrote while a prisoner for Christ, I was struck by its power. In this remarkable passage, Paul reflects on his own suffering and counts it as joy to be able to do so for Christ! This relationship with Jesus seems to be the source of all Paul’s strength, courage, and joy. Hence, we can reasonably conclude that for Paul, to be without Christ, to not have relationship with him and/or be in his presence would be the most awful thing he could experience, it would be like true death. I don’t know about you, but I confess that I’ve not always been able to empty myself the way Paul does. In failing to do so, I wonder how much I’ve given up or lost for the sake of self?
Furthermore, Paul poignantly subordinates his own desires to be delivered by death to be with Jesus for the sake of his ministry to the Philippians. Here, then, are two elements of Paul’s ministry. First, his source of hope, strength, joy, and courage is Jesus. Death is not something to be feared because it constitutes deliverance and a chance to be fully present with Christ. This was why Paul was willing to suffer and refers to suffering as a privilege. Imagine that. How many of us would consider suffering for Jesus to be a privilege and joy? I’m afraid I can’t fully count myself to be among those who do. What about you?
Second, Paul looked at his ministry as a form of serving his Lord—it was self-sacrificial and he was willing to remain in the body so that he could continue his work for his beloved Master as well as for the sake of those to whom he ministered. It seems that in emptying himself for Jesus, Paul was able to take on the very characteristics of his Lord, thereby enabling Paul to serve others in a selfless manner. What about you? Does your ministry look like Paul’s in its selflessness? Does it have the same Foundation as Paul’s? I confess mine doesn’t always and signals a dire need for me to continue to partake in the means of grace (Bible, prayer, sacraments, worship, fellowship) in the hope that it eventually will.
Mind you, I don’t think this passage refers exclusively to ordained ministers because as Christians we all have ministry to do in service to Christ’s church. I hope that if called to do likewise I can come to see suffering as an honor and privilege. Doing so would certainly be a tangible sign of growth in the Spirit by the grace of God. Yet I know myself and have to wonder if I really could “answer the bell” if called to do so. Certainly by my own power I would fail. Yet the great hope for us in this passage is its testimony to the reality of living in and by the power of the Spirit. And so I press forward, asking Jesus each day to transform me and to deepen our relationship so that someday I might take joy in suffering for the One who loved me and gave himself for me. O blessed privilege!
What about you? Have you ever been called to suffer for Christ? If so, how did you respond? If you’ve not been called to suffer, why do you think you have been spared? Is suffering for Jesus the same as other kinds of suffering? If so, how? If not, how is it different? What lessons, if any, can be learned about your faith by what you have (or have not) suffered? Do you agree with my assessment that to see suffering as a privilege is a tangible sign of growth in grace? Why or why not? Tell us your stories so that we might learn from each other and comfort one another.