There was a time when I had the opportunity to work in a prison. It’s not a pleasant place. There’s a lot of anger. A lot of distrust. It certainly isn’t a place where you find people speaking positively about life.
So it comes as some surprise when you read the Bible and find a man called Paul, holed up in a prison writing a letter to a Christian church, and he includes these words: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Did you get those words? Rejoice … gentleness … don’t be anxious … thanksgiving … peace. No, they’re not prison words. When your freedom’s been taken away, and you’re surrounded by anger, and disappointment, and fear, most people wouldn’t talk like that.
So how come Paul, stuck in a Roman prison, was able to write words like: Rejoice in the Lord always? I reckon if we could get the heart of what Paul was saying, we would know the secret to living a successful life when things get tough. If Paul can encourage a group of people to rejoice when he’s stuck in prison, then maybe he could give us some clues about how to deal with situations where relationship breakdowns and disappointment with those we trust, have robbed us of any kind of joy in life.
If he can experience joy in prison, maybe he has some clues for helping us to live a more positive life when we are faced with illness or death, or when we’ve let ourselves down, or let our friends down, by indulging in behaviours that have caused disappointment.
How can we experience joy when things are tough? How can we be hopeful when everything around us seems to be hopeless?
Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi was a letter of hope and joy, despite the tough times he was experiencing, because he was absolutely focussed on Jesus and how Jesus could help him through the reality of all he was going through.
He said things like: For me to live is Christ. In other words, Jesus Christ was at the centre of his existence. Have you ever watched water go down a plug hole. All the water in the bath or the sink is attracted to that centre point and it goes around in circles, with the plug hole at the centre.
I think that’s what Paul meant when he said, for me to live is Christ. Everything in his life, including his lonely existence in a dark, cold Roman prison, was centred around Jesus. Everything was attracted and drawn to that central point.
So instead of everything being centred on his troubles, Paul allowed those tough times to be centred on Jesus. And all of a sudden there was a sense of meaning and purpose to what was happening to him.
If things are tough for you, I want to encourage you to centre your life on Jesus. Go on fill up the sink with water, then pull the plug. As you watch the water go down, stop thinking your life’s going down the plug hole — think about what it means for Jesus to be at the centre of everything – the good things, and the bad.
This Sunday morning I start a series on Philippians at Maida Vale Baptist Church entitled “Life with Joy – When Times are Tough”, based on the Letter to Philippians in the Bible. I’d love you to come and join us.