Joy In Difficult Times

As you probably know, an oxymoron is the joining of two words that don’t seem to go together. For example: light darkness, a deafening silence, a bold retreat, a powerful servant, a short sermon . . . . you get the idea. And when you put the ideas of joy and trial together it sounds like an oxymoron. We think of joy as being something that takes place in pleasant times. Joy accompanies good times, not difficult times.

But this is part of the problem. We have a narrow view of joy. And that is why we are studying Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul introduces us to a joy that is deeper than anything we have conceived with our minds. It is a joy that is independent of circumstances. Yes, it is present in the delightful and good times . . . but it is also present in the difficult and painful times.

This morning we are going to begin to look at some of the specific trials that Paul was facing and how he was able to face them with joy. We’ll continue our study next week.


As we already know, Paul is in jail in Philippi. He is there after being framed for a crime he didn’t commit. He spent two years in Caesarea and then appealed his case to Rome. Everybody knew about Paul’s arrest and the Philippians were asking how he was “holding up”.

It is hard to imagine what it was like to be in Paul’s situation. He was isolated from friends and family. They could visit but many surely stayed away. Anyone who has known someone who had a terminal illness knows that many people pull away at these times. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s that seeing people you care about suffer and decay is difficult. I suspect Paul faced the same thing. Some of his friends remained loyal. Others seemed to forget him. It must have been a lonely time.

He was unable to do what he loved doing. For over two years he had been kept from preaching in the synagogue and teaching in the churches. He was unable to debate the learned men of the city. This was Paul’s passion . . . it was where he really seemed to “shine”. Paul couldn’t do what he enjoyed most. It would be like a musician who couldn’t sing or couldn’t play their instrument. It was like an artist who could no longer paint. It was a frustrating time.

He had lost any sense of personal freedom. Paul was chained to a Roman guard by a short chain on his wrist all the time. He had absolutely no privacy. Even the most private acts were witnessed by the guard. Every private word was heard by the guard. How demeaning and dehumanizing!

Paul had many of these struggles in his life. In the book of 2 Corinthians Paul tells us some of his story,

I have 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 Cor. 11:23-29]

I bet it was tough for Paul to get insurance! And one would think that it would also be tough for Paul to remain positive and joyful. But in spite of all that has happened, Paul continues to rejoice.

Don’t miss an important point here. Paul is a bold example that things do not always go well with followers of Christ. Times sometimes are difficult. Circumstances are sometimes bad. Difficult times come to those who have been living faithful lives. This is important to hear because sometimes we believe (and sometimes are taught) that godly people are spared difficult times. We seem to think that when hard things happen in life it is a sign that something is wrong with our spiritual life. But that is not necessarily true!

Things may be going well for you. Perhaps you are healthy, wealthy, popular and things are running smoothly. If so, I applaud your good fortune. But please don’t conclude that your blessings mean that God approves of you more than others. That does not necessarily follow. If it did, then it means that Paul and the rest of the apostles were not at spiritually advanced as you.

At the same time, it is important that you see that the chains that you wear do not mean God has turned away from you. Your chain may be a devastating illness, financial stresses, emotional struggles, relationship problems and you may feel you seem to be walking under a perpetual dark cloud . . . you are in good company. Faithful people sometimes are asked to endure the chains of life.

With that said, listen to what Paul writes to the Philippians as he faces his difficult circumstances.

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. [Phil. 1:12-14]

Paul could have grumbled. He could have pled his case. He could have been bitter, or discouraged. But he wasn’t. Instead, Paul declares that his circumstances are being used by God. He points to two positive results of his circumstances. First, the Imperial guard had heard the Gospel.

The Imperial Guard was a group of elite soldiers, stationed in Rome. They were there primarily to protect the Emperor. At times there were between 10,000 and 16,000 of these troops stationed in Rome. Apparently these men also served as guards over the prisoners in Rome.

Paul was bound to one of these men with a short length of chain on his wrist. Every four hours the guard would change. I’m sure some of the guards were harsh, some were friendly. All of them were too close! Yet, instead of being bitter about this invasion of his personal “space” he saw an opportunity. Paul realized that he was not only chained to soldiers . . . they were chained to him!

Paul had a “captive audience”. For four hours at a time Paul could talk to these men about Jesus Christ. Six different men each day! And apparently, his witness was effective. Paul remarks that because of his imprisonment, the gospel of Jesus Christ was known throughout the whole Praetorian Guard. It is assumed (since he sends greetings from those in Caesar’s household. Philippians 4:22) that the gospel message had even worked it’s way into the Emperor’s home. We’re not saying that everyone became a believer . . . but some did come to faith.

But there was also a second benefit to his situation others spoke the word of Christ more courageously and fearlessly. God used Paul’s situation to “light a fire” under some of the other believers. Perhaps they were encouraged to carry on Paul’s work while he was unable to do the work himself. Maybe these people were inspired by Paul’s example. Whatever the reason, the message was being proclaimed more boldly because of Paul’s situation. We see this same kind of thing many times,

  • A church experiences a crisis and the people rally together and work through the crisis.
  • A person contracts a disease and others rally around with practical expressions of love. Or the attitude of the person suffering spurs others on.
  • A church faces persecution in a communist country. And when the curtain of persecution is lifted we see that the church is strong and growing. The people had to make a real choice, they can’t sit on the fence. Their faith becomes precious.

I think there are a couple of principles we can gain from Paul as to how to find joy in difficult circumstances, First, we learn that though we cannot control our circumstances, we can control our response to them. We don’t have to despair when tough times come. We don’t have to withdraw. These are choices we make. Paul reminds us that whether a difficult circumstance defeats us or deepens us depends on how we respond to it. Dr. Paul Tournier wrote,

Good and evil, in the moral sense, do not reside in things, but always in persons. Things and events, whether fortunate or unfortunate, are simply what they are, morally neutral. What matters is the way we react to them. Only rarely are we the masters of events, but (along with those who help us) we are responsible for our reactions. . Events give us pain or joy, but our growth is determined by our personal response to both [YANCEY, Searching for the Invisible p. 281]

It is our natural response to feel sorry for ourselves. It is natural for us to wonder, “Why me?” But we can CHOOSE to be joyful. We can choose to trust the Sovereign hand of God even when we don’t see clearly. We can choose to believe that God is indeed working for the good . . . even though the evidence seems illusive. It won’t remove the pain . . . but it will enable us to live joyfully in spite of it.

Second, we need to look for opportunities rather than wallow in our liabilities. Paul saw an opportunity to share with those he would not encounter any other way. He used his chains as a teaching tool that would strengthen others. He chose to dig deeper rather than to be swept away. Let me give you some examples,

  • you can grumble about being homebound or you can take that time to do the reading, writing and praying you’ve always wanted to do.
  • you can grumble about financial stresses or you can take it as a challenge to find contentment and joy in things that don’t cost money.
  • you can grumble about your physical condition or use your physical condition as your motivation for getting started on that exercise program you’ve been putting off.
  • you can complain about how empty the house is with the kids gone or you can travel or look for new ways to occupy your time.
  • you can grumble about your illness or you can use the time to deepen your faith and to minister to others.
  • you can complain about living in a small town or you can draw from the benefits of the small town.

Think about the many people we may encounter in the difficult times of life we don’t see at other times: doctors, nurses, other patients, technicians, judges, police officers, social workers, troubled people of many types, other students, neighbors, friends, others who have had a similar sorrows. If we stop feeling sorry for ourselves, and look around for opportunities to glorify God . . . . we will be astounded. And we will find joy as we use those opportunities for God’s glory.


There is a second trials that Paul had to endure. He was being attacked from other Christians. In the military we would say he was being threatened by “friendly fire”. These were fellow believers . . . or at least they professed to be. Paul says, they were “preaching Christ.” They were not false teachers, they were teaching truth but with a contentious spirit. Listen to how Paul describes the situation,

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. (1:15-18)

Paul says that these people were preaching out of “selfish ambition, not sincerely, seeking to stir up trouble for him.” They were not motivated by a desire to reach others for Christ . . . their motive was to attack the competition! In some way, they saw Paul’s imprisonment as a chance for them to get ahead. They saw their service to Christ as some kind of competition.

Now it is important that we recognize that sometimes WE are those contentious people. We see it in growing churches all the time. As the church grows the influence of the old guard lessens. And in some churches the “old guard” digs in their heels and refuses to make the changes necessary for real growth. They withhold their support. They talk constantly of all the “trouble” in their church. These people are not seeking the Kingdom of the Lord, they are working out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, but seeking to stir up trouble so that they might advance.

We see it in communities. Churches compete rather than cooperate. We want to be the best church and so we find ourselves often celebrating and broadcasting the weaknesses of other churches. You’ve done it, and so have I. On the outside we profess unity but every chance we have we underscore how inferior the other church is. We are not seeking to advance the kingdom, we are seeking to advance our own congregation out of selfish ambition.

We see it in relationships. We are real good at “raining on someone’s parade”? Someone has a great experience and we are quick to point out the problems. Someone has a great opportunity and we seek to steal their joy with comments such as, “It must be nice . . . . (to have money, to have rich relatives, to not have to work like the rest of us, to have a relative that gives you an edge . . . . ) Why do we say these things? It is because we want to be in the spotlight. It is selfish ambition.

The Joyful Response to Difficult People

Paul told Titus that he should warn a divisive person once, and then have nothing to do with them. Paul pleads with two women in the church at Philippi to agree with each other. Paul told the church in Corinth that cliques were stupid and destructive. He confronted false teachers. . . and he even stood up to Peter and told him he was being inconsistent. And to be honest, I would have expected Paul to come after these difficult people with great energy. But he doesn’t. Instead he says simply, “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.”

What are we to make of this? When should we stand against difficult people and when should we back off? Here’s what I notice: Paul was fierce when the gospel was perverted, he was fierce when the unity of the church was threatened . . . but he was passive when the attacks were personal.

You probably see, like I do, that his approach was the opposite of the way we handle things. We are immediately aroused to anger when personally attacked and often unmoved when the gospel is distorted and want to “stay out of it” when the unity of the church is at stake. Many of the times we are fierce in defending the faith, it is really a front for avenging ourselves.

Paul understood that HE was not the issue. Did he want to be liked? I’m sure he did. Did it hurt when these men sought to use his problems for their advantage . . . you bet. But Paul overlooked the personal affront and celebrated the fact that God’s word was being proclaimed.

This doesn’t mean that Paul thought these men would not have to give an account for their methods and motives. He was sure they would. But it wasn’t his job. God has told us not to retaliate. He has told us to leave judgment to Him. He has told us to love our enemies. And when we do what God says we will have joy.

Joy comes when we approach difficult people this way because,

  1. difficult people are diffused more quickly when we don’t fight them. Maybe that was what Paul meant when he told Titus to warn a divisive person once and then separate yourself from that person. To go over an issue again and again only makes more of an issue of it. If you don’t “let it go” it takes on a life of it’s own.
  2. we realize that the worst thing anyone says about us is still not even close to what COULD be said about us. In the slander and opposition we are reminded of God’s grace and forgiveness.
  3. our joy is not anchored to the opinion of the crowd . . . but the opinion of the Lord.
  4. when we seek to love rather than strike back we often find that our enemies become our friends.

Let me give you three final principles we learn about dealing with difficult people. First, we learn that we must always look at the big picture. We are seeking to build the Kingdom of God . . .not a kingdom to ourselves. What people say about us is so much less important than what they say about the Lord. We should be willing for God to use us in any way He deems appropriate if it will get the message out. Even if that is the expense of our own reputation. Our joy is anchored in His glory . . . not ours.

Second, we must remember that sometimes we have been the contentious person. I don’t think Paul ever forgot that at one time he was zealous for the wrong reasons once too. At one time he persecuted Christians. He sought to put them to death. He meant well . . . but he did wrong. Sometimes well meaning people do hurtful things and don’t realize what they are doing. We must continue to act with grace, even when others do not act that way toward us. Someday we may need that grace.

Finally, we must remember that even though other people will disappoint us, God will not. If we anchor our joy to the behavior of others, we will ride a roller coaster all our life. People are inconsistent. We want to live godly lives, but sometimes we look more like the Devil that we do the Lord. We must look to the Lord for our satisfaction and joy. We must have a relationship with the Lord that will still be sweet even if the entire world turns against us.

We have seen this in the lives of martyrs again and again. They have gone to crosses to be burned and died singing. They have been thrown to the lions and died testifying of the Lord’s greatness. They have blessed others as they have been ridiculed. They have loved even as they endured hatred. They have rejoiced even as their body was devastated by disease. These trusted God rather than men or the circumstances of life.

And the best example of all was a man who spent His life trying to help others. In return He was despised and rejected. He spoke of love and was tortured and executed. And He extended forgiveness to His attackers . . . even as He was nailed to a cross.

People will disappoint us . . . but God never will. He proved it at Calvary and if you give Him a chance He will prove it in your life. And if we remember this, and trust God rather than others you will have joy . . . even in the difficult times.

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