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Philippians III: Purposeful Suffering

Philippians 1:12-18

November 11, 2007

Today we continue our series on Philippians and we will be reading from 1:12-18. Let’s turn there.

At this point in the letter, Paul answers the question that he knows the Philippians are asking. This letter was probably hand delivered to the Philippians by Epaphroditus who had undoubtedly filled them in on Paul’s life since they last connected.

Most scholars believe that Philippians was written while Paul was in Rome. Here’s the highlights of his life since they’d met:

·         Paul went to Jerusalem where we was nearly lynched by an angry mob, but saved by the Romans who then arrested him.

·         He’d been in a jail in Caesarea for 2 years

·         He’d been transferred to Rome, to be tried by Caesar.

·         On the way he had been caught in a storm, shipwrecked, and then bit by a poisonous snake.

·         Now he is sitting in a prison, facing a possible execution

The question the Philippians are dying to ask their friend is:

·         How are you holding up, man?

And that is the question Paul answers. And in doing so, he does a lot more – by showing us how he responds to hardships, he teaches us how to handle suffering. Today we will look at:

1.  Why God allows suffering

2.  How Paul responded to suffering

3.  How we should respond to suffering

Let’s read:

Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly. It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Philippians 1:12-18 NIV

Look whose talking

As I started this sermon on suffering, I was a little nervous that God might make me the main illustration.

·         I am even more worried about next week because that passage is on death.

But I feel out place talking about suffering. I have had a decent life. I’ve had the normal ups and down, but no trauma. I know that in a room of this size, there’s been true suffering.

But fortunately, you don’t have listen to me so much as Paul, a man who suffered a great deal. For instance in 2 Corinthians, Paul is forced by to brag on what he has been through:

I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 NIV 

What’s happened to me

And many of these things happened on the trip to Rome, so Paul has these in mind when he writes:

Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me...Philippians 1:12a

I have to stop there: “What has happened to me”?

Paul, you’re lucky to be alive, and you are facing execution, and all you say it “what has happened to me”?!? That’s it?!? I’m sorry but I couldn’t do that!

·         If it were me, you’d have a blow by blow account, written for dramatic effect.

But more than that, Paul is at ease with something that troubles me a lot, and that’s the question, “Why does God allow so much suffering?”

If I am completely honest, I have to admit that all of the pain and evil in the world can make it harder for me to believe in God. Maybe this doesn’t bother you, but it bothers me.

The problem of pain

We are told that the only things certain in life are death and taxes. To that we should addsuffering.” To be human is suffer. From stubbed toes to car wreaks, life is full of hardships.

·         The first half of this sermon will talk about why God allows suffering.

If we can’t trust God to be good in the face of the world’s suffering, we won’t be able trust him to be loving in the midst of our suffering.

The question we are going to try to answer is:

Q: How can a good, all-powerful God allow such great suffering in the world?

The philosophical term for this question is theodicy, which is the attempt to justify God's goodness and justice in the light of evil’s existence.

There are basically three possible answers:

1)  He is not truly God, meaning that either he isn’t powerful enough to stop it or that he simply doesn’t exist,

2)  He is not truly good, or

3)  He allows it for reasons we cannot fully understand, but are consistent with his goodness.

While I believe the last one, sometimes the suffering around us seems so great that it’s hard to imagine what those reasons could possibly be.

·         I can sympathize with the atheists who say the world is just too evil and meaningless for there to be a God.

·         Sometimes is seems easier to say that maybe God just doesn’t exist.

But I just can’t make myself believe that. This world, with all of its pain, is simply too wonderful to be here by chance.

·         I have to believe that there is a God.

Some would argue that God exists, but isn’t good or doesn’t care. We are so small and insignificant, why should he? Do you have any idea how big this universe is?

If you believe the Gospel accounts of Jesus, which I do for both reasons of faith and rationality, the greatest answer is found in the life and of death Jesus Christ:

God himself choose to become a man and suffer with us, bearing every pain we’ve known and more. This act of love demonstrates clear than anything that God is good, and that he loves us.  

So then, even with doubt, I still am driven to believe that God is there and he is good.

·         Therefore he must have a purpose behind suffering.

Know in part

This side of heaven, we simply will never know all the why’s. We are far too finite to even hope to grasp it all.

Every now and again, I have to give our cat a bath and flea medicine. She absolutely hates it, and makes me hate it too by fighting me tooth and nail, literally.

·         But is kind of funny. Have you ever seen a long-haired cat wet? They look like Bill the Cat from Bloom County.

One time, as I was being scratched and bit, I was getting more and more frustrated and I said something along the lines of “You stupid cat, don’t you know this is for your own good? You hate having flees.”

·         Boy, that was effective, she just calmed right down. Except that she didn’t – it had no effect whatsoever.

At that point I had a little bit of an epiphany – this must be a little like God feels. Intellectually speaking, I am closer to the cat than to God (and so are you), so it shouldn’t surprise me that many of God’s actions are completely mystifying.

As the Bible says:

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:12 NIV 

·         When it comes to suffering on earth, we “know in part.”

Sin’s suffering

There are some things I can tell you about suffering in this world: Most of it is cause by human sin.

The majority of suffering is caused by someone’s sin. As I said before, sin is comprised of all of the things that God knows to be damaging to us and to other and to our relationship with him.

·         When we sin, that damage causes suffering. So much of our suffering comes from sin.

Q: But couldn’t God stop it?

Q: Couldn’t God have stopped Hitler from massacring the Jews?

But that strikes at the heart of free will. If we say that God should have overridden Hitler’s free will, we’re also saying he should override ours every time we hurt ourselves or others.

·         Most suffering is a direct result of our free will and the choices every one of us make.

But I said “most” not “all.” There is still much suffering in this world that cannot be directly linked to someone’s sin, things like earthquakes, hurricanes, plagues, and famines.

·         We simply don’t know. That’s where the “know-in-part” thing kicks in.

Some say these things are also caused by sin in ways we don’t understand. That’s possible, or maybe God has built things into this universe to remind us that this is not our home and that this side of heaven, life will always short of perfection.

·         But any case, I believe that we can trust God to be good, even in the midst of suffering.

Before we look at how Paul handled his sufferings, there are two false beliefs about suffering, which are opposite but equal that I want to address because they are both very prevalent.

Lack of faith?

First is a teaching that suffering only comes because of a lack of faith, or some hidden sin.

There are many Christians who subscribe to a teaching that God wants us to be healthy and wealthy and if we are not, it’s because of either sin in our lives or a lack of faith.

I had one friend in CA whose little brother had been killed because he ran out into the street. Their church told them that he died either because of a hidden in sin in the family, or because they weren’t tithing, or because of their lack of faith.

·         Those people may be my brothers and sisters in Christ, but I disagree with that teaching in the strongest possible terms.

When you look at the example of the apostles and our Lord, you know that God’s people sometime suffer more than anyone.

You also had the time the disciples saw a blind man and asked if his or his parent’s sin caused the blindness. Jesus replied “Neither...but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” (John 9:3)


Never our fault?

The other false belief is not so much taught as simply believed, and that is to think our suffering is never our fault.

·         Sometimes we do stupid things and pay the consequences.

Q: Have you ever known someone who is perpetually a victim, who can always give you a reason why it’s never their fault?

·         The sad thing is that they actually believe that.

What’s worse, you and I both know that they will always be stuck in their dysfunctional life until they can take the blame.

·         The first step to ending self-inflicted suffering to take responsibility.

Whenever trouble comes our way, it is always wise to examine ourselves and see if we brought any of it on. The answer is not always “yes,” but we have to ask.

Summary of suffering

So, to summarize: God allows suffering and evil for reasons we cannot fully understand. Nor should we expect to.

·         When the Bible asks “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” it’s not expecting any of us to raise our hands.

At the same time, we do know that much suffering comes as a result of sin, acts of the free will he gave us.

Paul’s Perspective: gOD’S PURPOSE

Once we can trust that God is good, even when we don’t understand, we can ask how we should respond, by seeing Paul’s perspective and how he responded to his suffering.

Earlier, I read a list of some of Paul’s sufferings. That came from 2 Corinthians. In that same book, he also said this:

For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 NIV 

The reason Paul could call beatings, prison, mugging, starvation, and shipwrecks “light and momentary troubles” is because of what he was comparing them to. God’s great purposes made it all worth it.

·         Because he had an “eternal perspective,” he could take hardships in stride.

·         Because Paul saw a higher purpose in his suffering, he could endure them with joy.

Q: What’s the difference between a root canal and a mugging?

They will both leave you with an empty wallet and a splitting headache. The difference lies in their purpose.

We will suffer, that’s part of life. The question is: What will do with it? Our suffering can either pointless or purposeful. It can either make us bitter or better. It’s our choice.

·         If you ask me, suffering hurts too much to be wasted.

As we return to Philippians, I’ll end each passage with a personal application, in the form of a question. These questions will help us to convert our current troubles into eternal glory.

reach non-believers

In v. 12, Paul begins to talk about the results of his hardships:

Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Philippians 1:12-13 NIV 

The Greek word for “advance” described blazing a trail before an army. In other words, Paul knew that because of (not in spite) his trials, he was reaching new territory for the Gospel.

Prior to this, Paul had reached many Jew and Gentiles, but he’d never been able reach this group. What NIV translates as “palace guards” refers specifically to the Praetorian Guard, the emperor’s personal bodyguards.

·         This a bas-relief picture of them from the first century.  

They had a significant amount of power and influence. In fact, they deposed and installed many emperors. And now Paul was able to preach the Gospel to these influential soldiers.

It’s believed that Paul was actually chained to one of them at all times. So Paul had a very captive audience as he was chained to poor pagan solider for hours at a time.

We don’t know for sure what impact Paul had among them, but it is interesting that Paul closed Philippians by saying:

All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar's household. Philippians 4:22 NIV 

·         It’s ironic that Paul’s captivity may have resulted in Praetorians’ freedom.

So the question to us is: Will your suffering become an OPPORTUNITY?

·         Where others saw trouble, Paul saw an opportunity.

The way that we, as believers, respond to trials and suffering is one of the most powerful witnesses for Christ, sometimes even more powerful than miracles.

Let’s say a doctor sees a cancer patient miraculously healed, he may caulk it up to “spontaneous remission,” a rare, but documentable disappearance of cancer without treatment.

But if the same doctor watches a Christian face death with peace and joy, knowing that he is terrified of death – that may create more opportunities for sharing Christ than a miracle would.

The point is this: Every time we suffer, those around us will watch how we respond. If they see trust, hope, peace, and joy, they will know something is up.

Encourage believers

Not only did Paul’s suffering give him an opportunity to reach the lost, it also emboldened Christians:

Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly. Philippians 1:14 NIV

At first that seems a bit odd. Wouldn’t seeing Paul in prison frighten believers?

Suffering can certainly have that effect – it can scare those not fully committed. But it can also be the catalyst that pushes people into action.

Q: Do you know who this person is? Rosa Parks.

Her arrest for refusing to give up a bus seat to a white passenger began the Montgomery Bus Boycott and one of the most significant events Civil Rights Movement.

·         One women’s arrest moved an entire city into action, and changed the nation.

So the question to us is: Will your suffering encourage other believers?

The way we responded to suffering will not only give us opportunities to reach the lost, it will also encourage other believers.

Q: Do you have any Christians that you look up to for the way they handled suffering?

It is almost too hard to keep count – many of God’s greatest servants have often suffered greatly. But we can agree that believer who remains faithful in suffering is a far greater encouragement than the one whose life has been easy.

Jealousy in the pulpit

After saying that the believers have been emboldened by his chains, he has to note that, ironically, some have been emboldened because he is “out of the way.”

It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. Philippians 1:15-17 NIV

In other words, there were some Christians in Rome who didn’t particularly care for Paul.

We don’t know why, but have to assume that it was not over some serious doctrinal dispute, because if they had been preaching a false gospel, Paul would not have been nearly so gracious.

When it came to false teachers, Paul could be ruthless. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Galatians when he is talking about heretics who said the Galatians need to be circumcised:

As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! Galatians 5:12 NIV

Which is a slightly veiled way of saying, since they are so big into circumcision, I wish they would finish the job and move the knife up a few inches.

Most likely, these Christians are simply jealous of Paul, as they are preaching out envy, rivalry, and selfish ambition

I mean, if you had some nice little church going and all of the sudden the Apostle Paul moves in next door, you might feel a little bit of an inferiority complex coming on! 

It’s kind of like the way we might feel if Rick Warren or John Piper set up shop across the street!

We’d like to think that ministers of the Gospel are above competition and selfish ambition, but we know better. It’s hard not to be jealous of another church’s success, especially if it has been at our expense.

·         At least I know that I am not above it.

God bless OPC!

For the past several years, I’ve been in the habit of writing my sermons at the Skagit Valley Co-op because I’m far less likely to get distracted there.

A couple of years ago, I met another pastor there who did the same thing, and we’ve developed a bit of a friendship, watching over each others computers while using the restroom or whatever.

Looking back, it is really interesting to see how God works. When we first met, I asked him what church he was at, but I could never remember the name. It was Grace something-or-other.

As many of you know, when The Gathering lost a lot of its members several years ago, many of them went to Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Had God not arranged those meetings, I know it would be have been very easy for me to feel a jealousy against the nameless pastor who took some of our flock.

But now, knowing David, and what a cool guy he is, I genuinely feel happy for him, knowing that our loss is his gain. And it’s all in the kingdom.

Test your motives

Unlike these jealous pastors, Paul only cares that the Gospel is preached. The biggest difference between Paul and them, is that Paul’s motives. He simply wanted to glorify God. They also wanted to glorify God, but they wanted some glorify too.

So the question to us is: Will your suffering purify your motives?

Hardships have an amazing power to test our motives. Obedience is tested when it isn’t fun any more, when we don’t get the recognition we feel we deserve.

·         Suffering forces us to ask ourselves why we are doing what we are doing.

Sadly, some of our suffering may come from inside the church, from those who should be supporting us. The way Paul responds demonstrates that his motives were good:

But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Philippians 1:18 NIV

Christ is preached, God is glorified – that is all that matters. And so he could rejoice.

Paul’s foundational motive is revealed – his love for his savior. And that shows us that Paul’s suffering did not embitter him against God, but drew him closer to him.

And that brings us the final challenge: Will your suffering cause you to grow closer to Christ or further from HIm?

Suffering is an incredible sifter – it will drive us to him or from HIM. Seldom will we be left the same. Suffering can cause us to fall into his arms or spit in his face.

·         In the end, it comes down to a choice.

As James tells us:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. James 1:2-4 NIV

·         We shouldn’t bear trouble, we should use it.

You will suffer – but suffer well. Don’t let any of your suffering be wasted.

I’ll end by quoting Marc Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill, as he quoted a Romanian pastor who suffered under Communist rule:

Christians are like nails – the harder you hit them, the deeper they go.”

Like Paul, we can rejoice when the life hammers us, not for the pain, but for what God can and will accomplish – in us and around us.


As you told us when you spoke to the disciples, in this world we will have trouble. That’s part of the package, it’s not an option.

·         We pray that you help us use these troubles for your glory and our growth.

And as this Sunday is being recognized that “The International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church,” we remember our fellow brothers and sisters who are still suffering for the sake of the Gospel.

·         We pray that you bring changes to oppressive governments and cultures so that your gospel can be freely proclaimed and lived out.

·         In the mean time, protect them, comfort them, give them courage, and encourage us.

End of sermon remarks:

·         As we begin to worship, our kids are joining us.

For those visiting us, the reason we do this is so that we can worship together as a family.

In today’s fast-paced culture, families are becoming increasingly fragmented and torn apart. We want our worship time to bring us together.

·         We want this to be fun time for our kids as well, so we allow them to move around and make noise.

Benediction (2 Corinthians 13:14 NIV)

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.  Amen.

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