Philippians 1:15-20, 29-30
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
September 16, 2018

Does following Jesus Christ make this life better?

It certainly does by inner measurements. Those who walk with Jesus gain greater peace, joy, hope, love, sense of purpose and soul-strength for fighting the good fight.

Following Jesus does not, however, always make this life better by outer measurements. Those who walk with Him are not guaranteed greater health, wealth, prestige, success in their career, success in love, or the fulfillment of every cherished dream.

Life for the faithful is in fact often hard and painful.

What walking with Jesus does guarantee is God’s grace and power to draw deep inner rewards out of difficulties and suffering. For those who remain faithful in tough times, trials and tribulations develop their character, improve their conduct and enlarge their spiritual strength. For those who obey God come hell or high water, the hard knocks of life are transformed into “bruising blessings” that expand their capacity to give God glory and to shine with the light of Christ’s love.

Joni Eareckson Tada, a quadriplegic, tells of one day wearing a favorite pair of large, gold-plated earrings which were square in shape with a smooth, shiny surface. While talking on the phone, one of them fell on the floor. When Joni backed up her wheelchair to look for it, she couldn’t locate it. So she rolled into the hallway to ask someone to help her search – and heard a clunk-clunk underneath her. The earring was impaled on her tire. A friend plucked it off – a crumpled, mangled mess.

Upset she might have destroyed her favorite pair of earrings, Joni took it to a jeweler to see if he could save it by making the mangled earring match the other once more. He told her that he could not, but he could work on the smooth one to match it to the crumpled one. Joni hadn’t before considered that option, but told him to give it a try.

After a bit of pounding in the back of his shop, he proudly presented Joni with a unique designer original: a pair of crinkled gold earrings that reflected more light than before! Because Joni is all about reflecting the light of Christ, she liked her new and improved earrings even more than she had the pair in the previous form!

God will sometime allow us to be battered by life in order to become “bettered” for life. God understands how the hammering of hardship can improve us and enable us to reflect more fully the light of His love, truth and righteousness. He employs our painful experiences to elevate our character, clean up our conduct, adjust our attitudes, enlarge our compassion, and deepen our dependence and relationship with Him.

The Apostle Paul knew how this worked first hand. Here he is: imprisoned, imperiled and seemingly impoverished by being denied the ability to carry forward his life’s work as he intended. Yet, Paul is not dismayed or disheartened. He rejoices in still being able to proclaim Christ, albeit in different ways, and perhaps even more effective ways. And he is confident that with the prayers of friends like the Philippians and the help of the Holy Spirit “this will turn out for my deliverance.”

In speaking about his deliverance here, Paul is not referring to his deliverance from prison, because he immediately talks about how he’s not certain if he’ll ever get out of jail alive. Paul has in mind his deliverance from the weakness of his flesh – a loss of nerve in his adversity and of hope in dark dreariness of a dungeon – and thus his deliverance from the possibility of failing to fulfill the purpose of his life. Paul believes that by the grace of God what would seem to hamper his life’s work will actually enhance his prospects of not being put to shame and continuing until his last breath to speak of Christ “with all boldness” despite the dangers.

This earthly life, Paul understood, is supposed to be hard for followers of Jesus. First, there is the hardship that by necessity comes upon those who live by a set of values which the world at large opposes and by a set of convictions which the world at large is invested in denying. Sacrifice and pain are the price of faithfulness to Jesus. That’s why Paul never complains about his endless suffering and why he tells his Philippian friends: “[God] has graciously granted you [also] the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.”

Second, there is the hardship that by necessity comes upon those whom Jesus intends to reshape into His likeness. Their Lord means to develop in them a resemblance to Himself; and suffering is a very helpful and often essential tool for making that happen. For suffering breaks down our illusionary pride and brings us to the end of ourselves – and that motivates us to turn to Jesus to change us in the ways we desperately need but cannot bring about ourselves. Hardship, if we refuse to let it make us bitter, will make us better. That’s why Paul’s fellow apostle, Peter, says: “Whoever has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin.” We should expect that, when we need it (and we all need it sometimes), God will bring upon us difficulty and danger, not to harm us, but to wash away the grime of iniquity. God will take into troubled waters, not to drown us, but to cleanse us.

The deep, turbulent waters of suffering can launder our souls and surge beneath us to send us spouting up high into the fresh air of the Holy Spirit.

That can happen, but it may not. Experiencing the blessing of the troubled waters of suffering is not automatic. It depends on what a person is made of.

Let me offer one more metaphor. Put a block of wax and a dollop of adobe mud under the same hot sun, and you will obtain opposite results. The wax will melt into a liquid, and the mud will harden into a brick. Only one becomes stronger. What explains the different result? The inner nature of the mud, its being made of the right stuff!

So, is this a catch-22 situation? I need trials and troubles to make me of the right stuff, but unless I am already made of the right stuff they can’t work their magic on me!

I cannot make myself what it takes to make the most of my difficulties. But maybe what is most crucial here is not who I am but whose I am. Even if I don’t have it in me to grow stronger and better from adversity, I always have it in me to choose, to choose whether I will belong to myself or belong to the Lord – whether I will be a self-possessed person, or a God-possessed person – whether I will try to meet challenges on my own, or give up and give myself over to God. By becoming His, and trusting Him to change me, I allow Him to take over and make adversity serve me – making me cleaner, stronger and better in the grace of Christ. Let us pray!

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