The book of Philippians addresses many struggles within the Christian life. One such struggle is the fight for gratitude. In Philippians 1:12-14; 18-20, Paul shares how he cultivates a grateful life amid struggle:
“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice…
Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.”
First, Paul references what has “happened to” him. In a letter to the church in Corinth, Paul describes some of his suffering—imprisonment, flogging, and beatings (2 Cor. 11:23-28). He shares how he was exposed to death on numerous occasions. Paul knew what it meant to suffer for the gospel, and he had grown deeper in his faith as a result.
Knowing Paul’s background is key to understanding verses 18-20. Now let’s turn this story on its head. What if Paul had not suffered for the gospel? Imagine that instead of being flogged after accepting Christ, Paul had gotten a full-ride scholarship to seminary, graduated with honors, and accepted a residency job at the perfect church (we’re pretending, okay). Imagine that Paul found a nice home, enjoyed the occasional Disney cruise with his family, and was loaded with cash thanks to a smart investment. What’s more, Paul discovers that every time he gives to charity, his bank account magically gets padded with twice as much as he gave. So, in this version of Paul, he gives a lot and gets a lot and has a long line of people who love him.
Now that you have that picture in your mind, consider verses 18-20 again. They read quite differently, don’t they?
Was Paul an Optimist?
When Paul says he will rejoice, he is not offering a mere Hallmark cliché. He knows what suffering entails, and still he chooses to rejoice (v. 14). Personally, as I study this passage in the Bible, I want to know how. I don’t understand how Paul could endure such misery and sincerely rejoice in it.
As I study the Bible, though, it strikes me that Paul’s response to trials was not all that different from Christ’s—who approached the cross with a somber commitment. Jesus said that he endured the cross for “the joy set before him.” Paul is no perfect man, but there is much we can learn from his steadfast faith. He saw a greater goal, not just his own happy ending.
According to Merriam-Webster, optimism is primarily defined as “a doctrine that this world is the best possible world.” While there are other definitions of optimism, this one is most closely aligned with our cultural understanding: everything will be fine. When we encourage someone to be optimistic, it’s usually on the grounds that hope is found in a coming solution.
As Christians, we know that hope is not found in an earthly solution. No optimism in the world can scrub the sin stain from humanity. It is by grace through faith that we have hope. What’s more, our hope is in the One who died and rose again, not a “quick fix.”
So, was the apostle Paul an optimist? My thought is that he is only in as much as that optimism is rooted in Christ. A better word for what Paul lived out, as he himself writes, is joy.
Paul’s positive attitude differed from a secular view of optimism. He wasn’t just using positive thinking. In fact, he was realistic about the potential for future flogging, imprisonment, and even death. What sets Paul apart is his day-to-day attitude—clearly seen in his writing. He recognizes that Christ is proclaimed and honored in both his life and his death.
How often do we let challenges grow our faith rather than look for a quick way out? I certainly have skewed more toward complaining, if I’m honest. But what we learn from Paul is that there is space for the recognition of struggle and the recognition of God’s sovereignty in it. Paul knew great pain, yet he determined to rejoice, not because of the struggle, but because he knew where his hope was found (v. 18). He didn’t know how his situation would turn out, but he knew his God.
Let that be our focus and the root of our joy in every situation. Optimism relies on a situation, but the joy that Paul speaks of in his letter to the Philippians is founded upon the character of the Lord. What better reason to rejoice? To learn more about having a biblical mindset, download the College Park Church Bible study Mindset.