Stubborn Gratitude

  Philippians 1:1-18



For the next three weeks, weíll be considering some passages from the book of Philippians. Today weíre reading the first eighteen verses.

What really jumped out at me when I sat down to begin this sermon was vv. 17-18. Where Paul says that some preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains (v. 17).

Okay, thatís weird. People were going out and spreading the word about Jesus because they were selfish? To stroke their own egos and satisfy their own ambitions? Just to kick another preacher while heís down?

Why would anybody do that?

Youíd think Paul would be calling out those insincere preachers by name, so people would know better than to listen to them.

But thatís not what he did. And thatís what really amazed me. In v. 18, Paul said: 

The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice.

Paul says heís thrilled that these insincere, selfish, ambitious preachers who just want to get under his skin are out spreading the word about Jesus. Because that means more and more people are learning about Jesus. Even if some of the people who are preaching about him donít have the best of motives.

So today, I want to consider why Paul would say heís still glad, even when others preach Christ out of insincere motives.

Paul seemed confident that everything was going to be okay. Even with all those people preaching about Jesus for all the wrong reasons. Paul still said: I rejoice, and I will continue to rejoice.   

I think if we can figure out why Paul could keep on being glad, even with all that business going on; we might begin to figure out how we can keep on rejoicing no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in.

So, letís talk about whatís going on with Philippians 1:1-18.

Before it was the book of Philippians in our Bible, it was a letter Paul wrote to the church in the Greek city of Philippi. Remember that all the writings we have from Paul are in the form of letters. So, whenever you read something in your Bible that was written by Paul, it was a letter to a church, or an individual Christian. In other words, youíre reading someone elseís mail.

Paul had planted the church in Philippi (youíll remember, we saw that in Acts 17), probably about ten years before this letter was written. So, this was a letter to a church and to Christians Paul had known for a long time. It was a letter to friends.

One of the main themes we see throughout the first 18 verses of Philippians is gratitude. 

Paul was just dripping, just oozing, just gushing with gratitude and joy.

I thank my God every time I remember you (v. 3).

In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy (v. 4).

Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice (v. 18).

Of course, gratitude and joy are connected.

Karl Barth, the great theologian, once said that ďJoy is the simplest form of gratitude.Ē

Think about where Paul is when heís expressing all this gratitude?

He was in prison. Not only was that, he was in prison for preaching Jesus, and living a life faithful to Jesus. Listen again to what Paul said in v. 13:

As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.

The palace guard (lit. Praetorian Guard) was the Secret Service of the Roman Empire. So, thereís a couple of things we can gather from that bit of information. First, Paul had been spreading the word about Jesus to these Roman Secret Service agents who were guarding him. And second, even if they werenít believing in Jesus, he at least they knew he wasnít in prison for a real crime. So, the Roman Secret Service got a good first impression of Jesusóthrough Paul.

They see this man whoís in prison. Itís totally unjust, but heís full of gratitude. Heís thankful for everything. Heís glad and heís joyful. I would want a bit of whatever that guyís got. Wouldnít you?

Paulís attitude in prison really impresses me. But it also really convicts me. Because I know myself well enough to know that if I was in Paulís situation, I wouldnít be full of thankfulness, gladness, and joy. Iíd be bitter. Iíd probably cry all day and fuss at Jesus for ruining my life.

But Paul didnít see it that way. Letís listen to v. 12 again. Paul says: 

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.

Paul had this amazing perspective on the whole thing. He wasnít just looking at things on the surface. He was looking for how his imprisonment could be used for Godís glory and the churchís good.

So, Paul was using his imprisonment as an opportunity to tell those at the highest levels of worldly power about Jesus, their true Lord and King.

Not only that, in v. 14 he noticed that the church didnít go silent out of fear when the authorities put him in prison. Quite the opposite. In Paulís absence, many other believers suddenly found their voice.

Paul knew that some of those who were now out there spreading the word about Jesus had personal problems with him.

But whatever the problem was between Paul and these insincere preachers, he decided it wasnít worth his time and energy to worry about it. He knew that God could speak truth through anybody. Maybe Paul remembered that story from the book of Numbers, when God spoke to the prophet Balaam through his donkey. If God can speak the truth through a donkey, he can surely use flawed preachers with conflicting motives to spread the word about Jesus.

So, Paul decided to be grateful that God was even using those flawed preachers. Who was he to argue with what God was doing? Whatever was going on in those other preachersí hearts was Godís business, not Paulís. All Paul knew was, even though he was in prison, the good news about Jesus was spreading. So, he was glad. He chose thankfulness and joy.

And even if these new preachers were just preaching to get under his skin, so what? Paul knew his Bible well, and he knew God just loves to take things people do for evil reasons and make something good out of it.

It reminds me of a story from the Old Testament where God made something very good come from something people did with very evil motives. 

Itís the story of Joseph and his brothers in the book of Genesis.

Josephís older brothers got tired of him being a tattle-tale and a know-it-all. So, they sold him to slave traders, and went home and led their dad to believe Joseph had been mauled by a wild animal.

The slave traders took Joseph to Egypt. And through a bunch of crazy circumstances, he ended up being second-in-command of the nation.

Years later, there was a famine where Josephís family lived, and their father sent his brothers to Egypt to get food. And eventually, they came face-to-face with Joseph, the brother theyíd hated and abused so long ago.

Now, Joseph could have told his brothers, why should I feed you? You guys sold me into slavery! Go home and starve for all I care. Thatís probably what Iíd be tempted to say.

But Joseph had learned to see God at work in his life. God was writing this storyónot Joseph or his brothers. He also knew God had made promises to their ancestors to always take care of their family.

Now everything made sense. The only reason Joseph was in Egypt, advising the king, was so Josephís family would survive the famine. God was fulfilling his promises to the family through Joseph.

So, Joseph told his brothers:

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives (Genesis 50:20).

Joseph didnít say that what his brothers did to him was okay. Or that God approved of their behavior. But Joseph did express profound gratitude at how God had used his brothersí evil choices to bring about good.

Thatís a story Paul probably had written deep on his heart. How God saved many lives through the rotten actions of Josephís brothers. So, he knew, and he trusted that God would also use these people who were preaching about Jesus for all the wrong reasons to save many people.

And thatís why Paul could be even be grateful and glad for those who were only preaching so they could get under his skin.

So, letís make this personal.

Have you ever been in a situation like Paul was in? 

Obviously, I donít mean, have you ever been in prison for talking about Jesus, and then found out people who didnít like you were preaching to satisfy their own ambitions?

I think thatís particular to Paul.

But letís look at his situation in more general terms.

He was in prison. He was stuck. He was trapped. Things seemed to be going all wrong. And then he learned that people were out there talking about Jesus for all the wrong reasons. And that had to be incredibly frustrating for him. Especially because he was in prison and couldnít do anything about it.

Letís reframe the question.

So, have you ever gone through a time in your life when you felt trapped? When you felt stuck? When you felt helpless? Where nothing seemed to be going right, and there didnít seem to be anything you could do to make things better?

I think weíve all been through those times.

In fact, maybe in your life right now, youíre experiencing a situation like Paulís. Somethingís got you feeling trapped or stuck. And maybe itís even something thatís not your fault. And whatever it is, you feel like thereís nothing you can do about it.

Maybe itís a financial hardship. Itís hard to be joyful when the rentís overdue, isnít it?

Or maybe itís something going on with someone you really love. A spouse. A parent. A child. Or some other family member or friend. And youíre really worried about them.

Or maybe somebody is really frustrating you with the choices they make, and the things they say and do. Maybe theyíre hurting you and breaking your heart. Maybe theyíre lying about you behind your back or to your face. And thereís nothing you can do to make them change their opinion about you.

The prison Paul was stuck in was literal. There were real guards he was chained to. He was physically stuck where he was.

But, most of our prisons arenít physical. Sometimes they can be, if thereís an illness or an injury that leaves you flat on your back, confined to bed or with limited mobility.

But usually, our prisonsóthe things that get us feeling stuck and helplessóare circumstances. Theyíre life events we go through. Theyíre things other people have done to us. Theyíre choices weíve made, and now we must live with them. And they can paralyze us.

Maybe youíre stuck in a rut. Maybe youíre being held down by bitterness or resentment. Maybe youíre being held back by fear or shame or anxiety. Or maybe thereís just a whole lot about your future thatís totally uncertain and up in the air.

If any of that sounds anything like something youíre going through, guess what? Youíre in a situation like Paul was in.

I hope that today youíve seen that you donít have to let feeling stuck dictate your life. Even though his circumstances limited his freedom and didnít leave him with many options, Paul was living a very full and free life in his heart and mind and spirit.

Hereís what I think we can take from Paul: If youíre feeling stuck and trapped and helpless, I want you to try this. And, Iím inviting us all to try this;

No matter how stuck you feel;

No matter how few options you can see in front of you;

No matter how little choice it seems like you have over your circumstances right now;

thereís one important choice you can make.

You can choose gratitude. No matter how stuck or lost or helpless you feel.

Thatís what Paul did. In the 18 verses we heard today, Paul expressed gratitude to God in prayer. He expressed gratitude to his friends in Philippi for their support throughout his ministry. And he expressed gratitude that people were out spreading the word about Jesus, even if some of them were just doing it to make a name for themselves and get under his skin.

Even in prison, and even with people trying to annoy him, Paul found plenty to be grateful for.

Now, maybe youíre here and youíre so stuck you canít think of anything to be grateful for. Yes, those rough times can even fade happy memories from the past from vivid color to dull grey. They can make you feel distant from God and your friends.

I know that from personal experience.

If thatís where youíre at, itís okay to start small.

When you get out of bed in the morning, thank the floor for being there under your feet. And then thank God that you have a bed and a floor. And for waking you up another day.

When you flip the switch and the light comes on, say thank you to the light switch. Thank God that your electricity works. Better yet, thank God that there is such a thing as electricity!

Sometimes you must be stubborn when it comes to choosing gratitude. I think gratitude was a stubborn choice for Paul. In v. 18, when he said: I rejoice, and I will continue to rejoiceóI think I hear him saying that through gritted teeth.

I suspect it was stubborn gratitude that reminded Paul that this prison and those insincere preachers werenít his entire world.

Gratitude helped Paul remember all the big and small ways God had heaped love on him. And all the big and small ways God loves all of us, and all his creation.

Gratitude stoked memories of all the people who loved him; who had cared about him; who had walked with him through hard times in the past and were praying for him even now.

That put everything into perspective for Paul. Gratitude led Paulís heart and imagination to Godóto Godís goodness.

I believe it was gratitude that let Paul be still and know that God is God. And even when Paul felt absolutely trapped by his circumstances, he remembered that God delights in bringing good out of what people meant for evil. He remembered that God fully intends to bring us to maturity. He remembered that God brings beauty from ashes and turns mourning into dancing.

And that gave him even more to be grateful about. Because he knew he had a hopeful future with God, no matter what he was going through now.

And I believe gratitude will do that for you and me. It wonít magically fix our circumstances. Just like it didnít spring Paul out of prison. Or stop those people from preaching out of selfish ambition and getting under Paulís skin.

Stubborn gratitude will anchor you to joy. And that joy will fill you with hope. And hope will promise you that whatever youíre going through right now isnít all there is.

So, letís go from here trusting God to produce something good from whatever circumstances weíre in. And to nurture that trust, letís stubbornly choose gratitude. Letís thank God for light switches that work; the blue in the sky; past blessings; and our future hope.

Because all of theseóand so, so much moreótestify to Godís power and love and creativity and care.

Gratitude reminds us of all the ways God is, has been, and will be good and trustworthy.