During college, I spent a summer working in a large city in India with Christian believers from a Muslim background. One Sunday, we worshiped together in the small home of a man named Amir. Afterward, he told us how he had come to faith in Jesus—and what it had cost him. Disowned and despised by his family, Amir had repeatedly been beaten for sharing the gospel with family and friends; he had also lost his job and his status in the community. Just 10 minutes before, he had been weeping with joy and gratitude in worship; now, as he told his story, he praised God for his mercy.
As Amir spoke, I thought about my own times of suffering—so few compared to what he had endured—and how I responded with anger at God for allowing such hardship in my life. I often put on a brave front to hide my offended attitude, but how could this man truly shout for joy in the face of such suffering and loss?
Amir brought the book of Philippians to life for me. Written while Paul was in prison, this letter exudes joy. Rather than simply suffer with a smile, Paul explains that suffering for the sake of Christ is a privilege graciously granted by God (1:29). Throughout his afflictions, he rejoices at the spread of the gospel (1:12–14, 18), and he commands the Philippians to rejoice in all things (3:1; 4:4)—even though they are suffering too (1:30). The apostle declares that he longs to share in Jesus’ sufferings by becoming like him in his death (3:10).
Although Paul values this strange pairing of joy and suffering, he does not embrace sadism. With a single-minded focus on Jesus, he views every circumstance through the lens of the gospel. His only concern is exalting Jesus (1:18, 20; 2:30) and ensuring that the Philippian church worships, proclaims, and imitates Jesus. Paul’s goal isn’t financial security, a lofty reputation, or even staying alive. He simply wants to know Christ—any other gain is loss (3:4–11). And Paul knows that knowing Jesus and becoming like him means embracing suffering to glorify God (3:10–11). For Paul, Jesus is the center of it all.
Scripture contains many responses to suffering—from lament and endurance to grief and cries for vindication. But there is something magnetic and supernatural in the joy Paul and Amir expressed. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit, not a false emotion manufactured by pretending things are fine (Gal 5:22–23).
I don’t yet understand God’s heart the way Paul did, rejoicing over God’s grace for the privilege of suffering. I still harbor anger and project malicious motives onto God when I need to learn to trust him in all situations.
I take heart when Paul explains that he has not yet reached his goal, so he presses forward in the hope that “the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Phil 3:20–21). As we await that final day, let’s rely on Jesus and allow him to transform us into his likeness. Let’s seek joy, no matter our circumstance.
Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version (NIV).