When God doesn't Open a Window
“Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.
Do not worry …about anything!…
For you, my friends, can do all things through Christ who strengthens you” (Philippians 4:4,6,13).
I don’t know about all of you, but encouraging verses like these always give me pause. Growing up in the church I have observed how easy it is to pass them on to the hurting as if they are medicine.
Life got you down? Well, just remember my friend that “God works all things together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28).”
Just got laid off? Well don’t you forget that God “Knows the plans he has for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11).
Been knocked down by a difficult diagnosis, laid low by grief, hit by hurricane? Not to worry my friend. “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and he knoweth them who trust in him” (Nahum 1:7).
But if verses like these really were medicine, I think they’d have to come with one of those rapid disclaimers that conclude ads for pharmaceuticals.
Such that, if someone told you, say, “not to worry about tomorrow because tomorrow has enough worries of it’s own,” they’d also need to follow that up by saying:
“This verse intended for encouraging purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for sound fiscal management, retirement planning, college savings, or health insurance. Side effects of blindly trusting in this verse may include disappointment, disillusionment, loss of faith, and possibly this friendship. The bearer of this verse assumes no liability, guarantees of completeness, accuracy, usefulness, timeliness or responsibility for whatever worries tomorrow may actually bring. If symptoms of worry persist for longer than 24 hours, discontinue use of this verse and contact a religious professional immediately.”
Yeah. I guess you could say I’m a little skeptical when it comes to the sort of verses that look nice on mugs, t-shirts, and the daily devotional journals so tastefully marketed to new grads, busy moms, stressed out teens, new couples, people who golf, and every other possible niche of human society Zondervan can think to capitalize on.
Just out of curiosity, I googled “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” clicked on the shopping tab, and learned that I can get those words delivered to my door on everything from wall art and jewelry, to aprons, tea towels, candles, keychains, bed spreads, backpacks, and a coin you can keep in your pocket as a “reminder to achieve through Christ's strength.” Weird.
I learned that athletes, and their marketing teams, absolutely love this verse, as it appears to point them toward victory and looks great on a tank top.
And not for nothing, but I learned, while working on this sermon, that Philippians 4:13 is actually one of the most tweeted scriptures of all time. Yeah. Remember Twitter?
And maybe there’s nothing wrong with all this. If you rolled into church this morning with a vanity plate that reads PHL 413, I’m not going to tell you to take it off your car. If you have it stenciled above the couch in your living room, in beautiful swooping purple script, I’m not going to tell you to take it off your wall.
But what I will say is that when we take verses like these that far out of their context, something precious is invariably lost. When we take verses like these that far out of their context, we run the risk of turning the timeless wisdom of scripture into trite little truth bombs of toxic positivity.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t encourage one another with the promises of scripture, but when we use verses like these as a quick fix to cheer people up or assure them that with Christ on their side they cannot fail, I’m afraid we may well be doing more harm than good.
Because you see when Paul wrote this letter to his friends in Philippi, he wasn’t writing out a formula for success. He wasn’t assuring them that if they could just hang in there and stay focused on the power of positive thinking that Christ would give them victory over their arch rival in the sugar bowl or the will power to lose that last 10 pounds.
His goal was not to make them all Winners! Just like him.
Friends you need to know that when Paul wrote this letter he had already lost…everything. He was suffering, big time. Things were not looking good, because you see, Paul wrote this letter from prison; and let me tell you, when that door clanged shut behind him, God did not open a window.
Prison. And if you think prison is bad now, you need to know that prison in the first century was infinitely worse. There was no such thing back then as prison food, uniforms, cells with 2 cots and scratchy blankets, showers, laundry, or an infirmary.
Prison, for even a minor infraction, was a death sentence unless you had people on the outside who were willing to support you with money, food, clean water, blankets, medicine, and probably a little something extra for the guards.
Philippians is actually first and foremost a thank you note to the little church in Philippi for sending a man named Epaphroditus with money and food to help keep Paul alive while he awaits trial. Epaphroditus was so concerned for Paul that he stayed on to help him, until he himself fell sick. But now that he is recovered, Paul is sending him back to the church in Philippi with this letter.
It’s clear from his writing that Paul doesn’t know if he’s going to get out of this alive or not, and without Epaphroditus staying on to help, chances are not. But what’s interesting is the fact that Paul, well, Paul doesn’t seem to care. He actually says in chapter 1 (v. 23) that for him “to live is Christ and to die is gain” and admits that honestly, all things considered, death would be preferable at this point to languishing in prison.
And yet for the sake of spreading the gospel and supporting his friends, he’s content to keep going. He’s content to do whatever good he can still do, be it write one last letter of encouragement to his friends or be a witness of Christ’s love to those who have imprisoned him.
Paul has lost everything, and yet he is content, and that my friends is the point, the secret, the mystery at the heart of this passage.
Paul is not resigned to his circumstance, but content; not determined to overcome, but content; not secretly holding out hope that Jesus is waiting in the wings ready to throw a hail Mary pass that will result in his victory - BOO YAH! - but content, whatever the outcome.
And he’s writing this letter because he wants his friends to be content too. I actually think the most important phrase, the key to this whole chapter, is found in verse 5, “the Lord is near.”
Paul wants them to know that he is content even in the midst of great suffering, because he can feel God’s presence. He can feel God’s presence in their generosity and compassion. He can feel God with him in plenty and God with him in want. He knows God was with him in his freedom and is with him in his chains. God is with him in life and God will be with him in death.
God’s presence does not mean everything will turn out okay. Chances are, they won’t. But Paul will be okay because God is present. As he will say in his letter to the Romans, he knows now that nothing can separate him from the love of God he has come to know through Jesus.
Nothing. Not even death. And somehow, in some way that passes all human understanding, God’s love is enough. But that sort of nuance is a little harder to fit on a key chain.
Writing for Patheos, David Roberts laments the popular interpretation of this verse. He writes:
Many people seem to use Philippians as a way to divinely ensure their success. I will win because Christ gives me strength. I will make an A on that test because Christ gives me strength. I can finish that marathon because Christ gives me strength.
This kind of spirituality that lionizes the victors,… stands in stark contrast to the Christ who became one of the abused, the marginalized, and the poor. I find it hard to imagine the Christ who identified with the least of these would be so ultimately concerned with divinely emboldening you to max out your bench press or to run your fastest time on the track.
Used in context, though, (Philippians 4:13) means something completely different. It means that because Christ gives me strength, I will be content whether I win or lose, whether I pass or fail, whether I finish the race or fall out at mile 11.
Because there is more to life than winning and losing, achieving and failing. That’s the strength Christ offers — the power to untangle ourselves from how the world measures our worthiness.
The strength Christ offers is the courage to see ourselves not for what we do but how deeply we are loved…(The strength Christ offers is the ability) to see our worth not in terms of success but in terms of how much God loves us” (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2015/05/why-i-hate-the-most-popular-verse-on-twitter-philippians-413/).
Friends, you are loved. Right now. You are loved by God. You are loved as a member of this community. Just as you are. Just as Paul was loved by God and his community. They didn’t love Paul for his success, for his accomplishments, because he was #blessed.
Paul, the great evangelist, is done. He’s finished. Paul isn’t content because deep down he still believes that with Christ he will succeed against all odds. Paul is at peace because he believes he is loved by Christ no matter what.
Paul was loved by God and his friends, simply because he was Paul. And you, my friends, you are loved too…loved simply because you are you.
I think this is a powerful and much needed message for many of us right now. As we move into the “holiday season,” there is such pressure to keep up appearances. Such pressure to be happy, to feel worthy, to go along and get along with unbearably difficult people, to measure up to standards that are quite frankly impossible - not just for you, or you, or you… but for all of us.
We are surrounded with images of perfect families leading perfect lives and we wonder what’s wrong with us if our thanksgiving feels more like Edvard Munch’s “Scream" than anything by Norman Rockwell. We are bombarded with expectations we can’t possibly live up to, and this can leave us all feeling like we’re failing, big time, at this thing called life.
But you’re not. You’re not. Life is hard. It’s just hard. Life is hard for everyone, even if everyone’s hard is different. Trust me when I say, some of us are just better at covering up the hard than others.
But when we have compassion for ourselves and one another in the midst of all this hard, God draws near, because God is love.
When we show up for one another, the way Epaphroditus showed up for Paul, God draws near because God is love. Love doesn’t make it all okay. God doesn’t even make it all okay. But we can still be okay, even in the midst of the hard, perhaps because that love means we’re not alone.
Friends, I don’t know all the challenges you will be facing in the midst of this holiday season, but I know there will be challenges and I do not want to minimize that for any of you. My hope and my prayer is that you will feel the presence of God drawing near to you in the midst of those challenges.
My hope is that you will be granted the grace to pay attention to those places where love is breaking through, the grace to notice the presence of the good, the presence of God, even in the midst of the difficult things and that you will be open to being a good thing in the midst of the difficulties of others.
May God draw near to you. May God draw near through you. May you know, no matter your circumstance, that you are loved. Amen.