“Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.” (Philippians 1:12)
How do you pray when confronted with a time of trouble? The natural reaction, perhaps, is to ask God to intervene and change your circumstances. Healing from sickness, protection from persecution, relief from hardship, deliverance from danger, freedom from fear or anxiety. And it’s perfectly understandable, of course, that we should look to the Lord to do something about our difficulties. He is, after all, the Sovereign Lord who is on the throne of the whole universe and in control of our lives. So, it’s certainly not wrong to pray in this way.
But sometimes it’s good to remember that my personal suffering and trials are not all about me. Oh, it might feel that way. Tough circumstances can tend to turn us in on ourselves. Why me? What have I done to deserve this? Is God disciplining me? Why isn’t God listening to my prayers and acting on my behalf? Difficult questions with no easy answers. But part of the answer could be that God has bigger plans and purposes in mind. That he wants to use your suffering to further his kingdom in ways that might not be immediately obvious to you.
The Apostle Paul certainly realises this as he writes to Christians in Philippi. His situation is far from comfortable. He’s “in chains for Christ” (Philippians 1:13). Literally in chains. He’s in Rome and under the careful watch of the “palace guard.” Now I don’t know what Roman prisons were like, but I don’t imagine they were places of great luxury and comfort. Conditions most likely would not have been great for Paul. And even if they were, the reality is that he’s lost his freedom. Freedom to preach the gospel. Freedom to go from country to country spreading the good news as the Apostle to the Gentiles.
We might think, therefore, that having just outlined in some detail (verses 3-11) how he’s been praying in prison for these Philippian Christians, he would now ask them to reciprocate. ‘Please pray for me too’, he might write, ‘and ask God to set me free from prison so I can resume my gospel work.’ But no. Rather Paul teaches them that his trial of imprisonment is not all about him. And he reassures them that it’s not impeding the work of the gospel at all. No, it “has actually served to advance the gospel” he explains.
So how is the gospel advanced? In two ways. First because “it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ” (v 13). Paul’s witness has had an impact on the imperial guard, the crack troops responsible for Caesar’s close protection. The implication is that some of the guards have responded to the gospel and become believers. This would explain his sending of greetings at the end of the letter “especially [from] those who belong to Caesar’s household” (Philippians 4:22). This is certainly a gospel advance. How else would those close to Caesar have heard the gospel but for Paul’s imprisonment? And secondly, Paul’s chains have instilled confidence in other Christians who “dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear” (1:14).
I wonder then if we can learn something from Paul in our own times of trial and suffering, however great or small. Your difficult circumstances might lead you to a place or a situation that you would much rather not be in. A hospital or doctor’s surgery perhaps, or an awkward meeting with the boss, or to a funeral, or a work function, or a courtroom. Perhaps circumstances will force you to associate with people that you don’t feel particularly comfortable around. Certain family members, neighbours or colleagues. Or maybe, like Paul, your tough situation will lead to you mixing with people who might otherwise never have a chance to experience the salt and light witness of a Christian or hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Other believers might also be emboldened to share their faith because they see you trusting God in the midst of your suffering. Remember, your trials are not all about you. They could actually serve to advance the gospel.