Summary: Can we look at this or that circumstance in our lives and say, “As bad as my situation is, I can see a way to press it into the service of the gospel. I can bear witness to Christ even in the midst of this”?
Patsy Bonner shared with our Friday Bible study group a spoof news story that had been sent to her recently. The dateline is ostensibly Dallas, and the brief that follows says:
Dallas Cowboys football practice was delayed nearly two hours today after a player reported finding an unknown white powdery substance on the practice field. Head coach Jason Garrett immediately suspended practice and called…police and federal investigators. After a complete analysis, FBI forensics experts determined that the white substance unknown to players was the goal line. Practice resumed after special agents decided the team was unlikely to encounter the substance again this season.
Everybody is wondering, I guess, why it is the Cowboys can’t seem to score this year. But, before we judge the Pokes too harshly, maybe we need to ask ourselves: Do we know where our goal line is, or even what it is? And, even more importantly, do we know what God’s goal for us is?
If we don’t, it’s not because the Scriptures are unclear about it. Take Paul here in Philippians. He was in prison in Rome, and he wasn’t there because he had committed some terrible crime. He was in jail for preaching the gospel. Now, I’ve got to tell you, I have been ordained for forty-two years, and I have yet to be put behind bars for my preaching. Some of you are thinking that may be an oversight on the part of the justice system! Maybe I’m long overdue!
But what if it were to happen? Would I look at it the way Paul did? Would I see it not as a setback but, rather, as an opportunity? Probably not! Paul says in one of his letters that he was subject to “countless floggings” and was “often near death” just for being a minister of Christ. Here’s what he writes in 2 Corinthians, chapter 11: “Five times,” he says, “I have received…the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked” (vv. 23ff.).
Why did all these terrible things happen to Paul? Why did all these perils beset him? Was he just unlucky? Was it that he always seemed to be at the wrong place at the wrong time? Was it that he was one of those people that trouble just seems to find? No. It was something entirely different. All this happened to Paul because he knew what his goal was. It was to do everything in his power, no matter what the risk, no matter how difficult the challenges, no matter how high the cost – it was his goal to do whatever it might take to accomplish one thing. And that one thing was to advance the gospel. As we saw earlier, that’s the very reason that he was in jail. And he wasn’t going to let a little thing like being in prison keep him from doing what he knew he was there to do. He would just change his strategy.
Check out verse 12. He says, “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel.” Now, keep in mind: that’s his goal. That’s his aim in life: to advance the gospel. His slant on this whole thing wasn’t: I’ll donate a little time, maybe even a little money, to help out if I can – you know, as long as it doesn’t create a wrinkle in my plans. If it doesn’t require too much of me or cost too much, then I’m in. I mean, you can count on me as long as it doesn’t inconvenience me in any way. That was not Paul’s outlook. He says later, right here in Philippians, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need” (Phil. 4:11f.). What could possible motivate such an attitude? What would cause him to be content if it meant having little or actually being in need? Any condition was okay with him as long as it advanced the gospel. That was his goal.
What is Paul saying? He’s saying that he doesn’t count the cost if it means that people hear the good news of Jesus Christ. “What has happened to me,” he says, “has actually helped to spread the gospel.” In other words, Paul was determined to use his setbacks, including this one – being in jail and maybe even being condemned to die – he was determined not to waste a single one of them, but to use them to advance the gospel.