Philippians 1:12-18a: Is Our Striving Losing?
Nobody likes to lose. From the tears of disappointed fans on the sideline, to the awkward consolation prize on the game show, to the child who dumps the board game at the sign of imminent defeat, no one likes coming up short in competition. The sentiment is obvious, if not universal: losing = bad, winning = good.
But what happens when we lose in our efforts to advance the gospel? What happens when our words are dismissed as irrelevant or goofy, or our ministries are sabotaged through political motions or slander campaigns? What happens when we find hardened opposition instead of eager reception? Are we losing the battle? To frame it with the words of Luther’s great hymn: Is our striving losing? This is the question Paul wrestles with in Philippians 1:12-18.
At one level, Paul is simply giving the church in Philippi an update on how he’s doing, especially in light of his recent imprisonment. Paul, the traveling apostle of Christ, has been stopped in his tracks, shut up from public influence, and has become the object of public ridicule. This simply does not look good for the cause of Christ and the wellbeing of Paul. But Paul’s update is meant to do more than just bring the church up to speed; he is speaking to the question on the table and the temptation to think that suffering for the gospel means losing.
The temptation when we face any kind of suffering for our faith (whether as minor as being blown off in a conversation with a stranger or as life-shattering as being fired) is to respond in anger, fear, and despair that God is somehow losing, and that we will be left wounded and taken advantage of. And so in our efforts to avoid that kind of suffering, we become more concerned about protecting or even promoting self, rather than proclaiming Christ. We may even look with jealousy on those who don’t have to face the pain and trials that we bear daily. We don’t like losing.
And yet Paul’s message is clear: suffering for the gospel is not losing. Rather, God is at work through our proclamation of Jesus in all circumstances to make much of Christ in us and through us. After all, we serve a King who claimed his victory by being nailed to a Roman cross. And so Paul eagerly follows the pattern of Christ (cf. Phil. 1:18-26; 2:5-11; 3:8-11), rejoicing that through his suffering the gospel is advanced as Jesus is proclaimed, even if some pass on the message in order to make life difficult for Paul.
This Sunday (Oct. 9) at Westgate Church we’ll take a closer look at this passage and the ironic joy of our partnership in the gospel of Jesus. If you’re in Boston’s MetroWest, please join us!
Update: For sermon text and discussion questions, click here: Phil. 1.12-18a Westgate 10.9.11