It’s supposed to be the season of joy, isn’t it? But we all know it’s not always easy to be joyful.
When times are hard and overwhelming, the command to “Rejoice!” can feel mocking or even cruel. How can we have joy when circumstances in our lives and those around us are so difficult? In Philippians: Finding Joy When Life Is Hard, Josiah D. Bancroft IV guides readers in a study of Philippians, showing how a deep and abiding joy is possible in every circumstance when we understand who Jesus is and who we are in him.
In the following interview, we talk more to Josiah more about finding joy no matter what we may be facing.
Q: Paul was in jail while writing this letter. Why it is remarkable that he was able to keep such a positive outlook and encourage his friends in Philippi to rejoice?
The jail where Paul was held was dark, damp, and stank terribly. But when Jesus called him to carry his name to the nations, he said Paul would suffer because of that calling. Now, Paul was awaiting judgment under Nero for being a Christian. He suffered not knowing if he would live or die. And yet, remarkably, he writes of joy and of rejoicing to his friends.
How could Paul suffer such difficulty, stay joyful, and write about rejoicing? As believers, we know life on this earth will include hardship, but knowing Jesus through the difficulties can still bring joy. If our hope and happiness rest only on things going well, we will always be shaken by difficulty and suffering.
Jesus said that we will have tribulation (John 16:33). Paul reminds me that despite the pain, we can rejoice in the fact that Jesus overcame the grave, reconciled us to the Father, made us his children, and reigns in heaven. Rejoicing in the Lord Jesus comes from knowing and pursuing a living relationship with him. Paul says that rejoicing in these spiritual realities can strengthen our hearts in hard times.
Q: What do we learn immediately from how Paul introduces his letter?
In just a few words Paul reminds us that, like him, we have a new identity and a new life through faith in Christ.
Paul calls himself a servant of Jesus. He does not claim to rule over the Philippians. He serves both Jesus and the Philippian church. Paul unites his friends, reminding them that they all serve Jesus together. That is also our calling: serving Jesus in love together. Our new identity in Christ changes our affections, allegiance, and love so that we focus on Jesus. Engaging our new identity, we live together as children of God and citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20).
Because of their faith in Christ, Paul calls the Philippians saints. We often think of saints as nearly sinless and perfect people. But Paul knows that righteousness is a gift from God to those who believe in Jesus and trust his sacrifice to reconcile them to God. We are saints by faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus as Lord.
Q: We all have struggles in this life, and as you point out, Jesus guarantees we will suffer in this life. What does Paul teach us about how to respond when trouble comes our way?
Paul points us to faith in Jesus, to our new spiritual identity that keeps our hearts safe in difficulty. Paul never ignores or minimizes his trouble, but he does see his pain in a larger context of God’s kingdom and goodness. Paul points us to thanksgiving and prayer in difficulty.
Philippians 4 reminds us that the Lord is near us in two ways. First, he is near us as the Spirit reminds us of his love. Second, his return is very near, a climax to redemptive history that will show his rule over all. Because he loves us and rules over all we can ask for whatever we need and know he hears us. We can trust God to work in our situations rather than living in anxiety. We learn to respond to problems by rejoicing in his love and believing he answers us in our need. These powerful reassurances give us a reason for peace of mind even in hard times.
Q: How can we as Christians encourage one another to be humble?
I believe that the most powerful encouragement we can be to others is to set an example of humility by intentionally serving others. We can count others as more significant than ourselves and look for practical ways to care for them and their interests (Philippians 2:3–4).
The gospel tells us of the Son’s humility to put off glory and to empty himself in his incarnation. And when he took on flesh, he took a humble place and then even died to cover our sins by the sacrifice he made on the cross. God then exalted him. But humility and sacrifice for others came first, and Christ is the one we follow and imitate.
As a younger man, I was much too full of my own importance and caring for my own personal needs to learn much humility. My dear wife’s example of gentle service and honesty with me rebuked my pride. I learned so much about how to serve others from her testimony and her humility. She wasn’t a pushover or silent by any means. At times she pointed out the pain my pride caused others. She reminded me of Jesus’s example. But her words had unique power in the moment because she lived the humility she talked about. I think being humble enough to serve others as we trust Christ can make our encouragement to others and our testimony about Jesus uniquely powerful.
Christ’s gift of the Spirit also encourages me that I do not have to simply produce this impossible kind of humility under my own power. Jesus sent his Spirit to encourage, help, and strengthen me in every area where I need to grow. I can repent and trust his forgiveness and love for me. Then I can ask him to help as I think of others and serve them. I am not alone as I struggle with pride or self-centeredness. God will complete the work he has begun in me (Philippians 1:6).
Q: What does it look like to live out our mission daily?
I served as the Director of Mission for Serge, a mission-sending organization, for more than a decade, so the question of what it looks like to engage and live out our calling into mission was one I engaged often. It helps us to remember our differences as believers. Our personal gifts and individual calling from God are very different. Our stage of life may be different, too, as well as the opportunities we may have to engage in mission.
Although we are very different from one another, each of us has gifts and callings so that we can be uniquely clear in our testimony and witness to Jesus. Each one of us is called to love each other in our fellowships. And each one of us has been called to be a blessing even to those who don’t like us. We are called to do good in our neighborhoods, wherever we live.
These three things—speaking about Christ, serving others in practical ways, and living in peace with other believers—are an attractive and winsome way of living that draws others to faith. And that is our mission, whether God calls us to serve abroad or keeps us at home.
Q: What are some of the results of having a confidence in Christ?
When I trust Christ so that he makes me confident, it changes my relationship with God and my relationship with others. My relationship with God shifts from a focus on my performance to a reliance on his work for me. When I live like it is up to me to earn God’s approval, I can work hard and become self-certain that I am doing all I should. I have a selfish stake in making sure my record is complete. When Paul lived by the law, he could list all the ways he met the requirements. When he looked at himself, he said he was “blameless” or “perfect” (Philippians 3:6), but he was blind to his guilt in Stephen’s murder and his hounding of Christians. When I am trusting my own ability, I may alternately give up in despair because I can see I’ll never do enough. So why try to meet an impossible standard? (I can even oscillate between these two extremes!)
But when I look to Christ in faith, my reputation before God and my righteousness depends on him. My righteousness comes as a gift from God because I have trusted Christ. My heart can rest in the fact that Jesus did enough to make me perfect forever before God (Hebrews 10:14). Now I have the confidence to pray, share my faith, and know I am safe forever in Jesus.
That kind of confidence frees me from comparison and competition with others. I can love them for who they are and serve their needs because I have all I need before God in Christ.
Q: We will never reach perfection in our faith, but we should reach a certain level of maturity. Can you share the marks of a mature Christian?
Mature believers know they are already counted righteous before God by faith in Jesus. This fuels their pursuit of becoming more like Jesus. Instead of chasing after what we should be, we now begin to grow into who we are already in Christ. We already have a good record. We already are God’s loved children. Our lives are lived by faith expressing or living out who we are in Christ. Our failures are no longer a threat as they once were. Since our status with Christ is safe, we can be honest about our struggles and pursue change without getting mired down in morbid introspection or proud self-defense.
Surprisingly, Paul says that he recognizes that he isn’t already perfect. Some people can admit that in theory but struggle to admit how they fall short today! They are only theoretically imperfect. But honestly owning our failures and specific needs is the first step to progress. But once we have seen it, we must put aside the guilt and blame or self-defense and explanation. We “forget what lies behind” and summon our efforts to “strain forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13–14). Paul even says that all who are mature in Christ think this way!
With this kind of Spirit-fueled effort, I can begin to see character changes. I can put aside arguments and selfish ambition. I can step out of anxiety and pray with confidence. I can resolve conflicts with gentle humility and forgiveness. I can begin to become the new person Christ made me to be.
Q: There are so many issues that bring about division among groups of people, even within the church itself. What does Philippians teach us about the importance of gospel unity?
Philippians teaches us that unity is a primary witness to the power of Christ. Paul makes this very practical. Unity isn’t historical or distant. He says don’t grumble and dispute. With humility and love, serve each other so that clearly you are blameless and innocent. Paul says this kind of life will shine as lights in the world, even when things are dark and divided all around you (Philippians 2:14-15). The words he uses remind us of stars shining as points of light in a dark night sky.
Paul advocates for the same thing Jesus said to his frightened and confused disciples: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Being right or in control feels best to me sometimes. But Jesus is clear—loving unity among Christian brothers and sisters is the strongest evidence that he is supernaturally at work in his people.
Q: Paul writes about learning to be content, regardless of circumstances. How do we learn to be content? What does it mean to be truly content?
Contentment may be the capstone of all Paul teaches in his letter to the Philippians. Being content, even in terrible circumstances, shows mature and powerful faith in Jesus like nothing else. Paul calls it a spiritual secret that requires supernatural power (Philippians 4:11-13). He says we may have a lot or have nothing and still be able to be at peace and content.
Paul does not say circumstances don’t matter. He doesn’t say they are equally good. It is great to have plenty. It is hard to be desperately poor. But as we trust Christ, he can strengthen us in whatever circumstance we are in so that we believe he is present; he is in control, and that he loves me. With Christ, I can be content no matter what. Pursuing that kind of confidence in Jesus is worth the effort!