You Are Not Alone
When I first began to attend church, I was constantly amazed at the faith everyone around me seemed to exhibit. Time and time again when trouble would come my friends would simply respond, “I can do all things through Jesus who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). This phrase soon became a mantra recited by everyone in my youth group. One girl in my class used to write this at the top of all her Biology tests. Upon learning her final grades on these tests, I could not help but chuckle to myself that perhaps a bit of studying and a little less invoking Jesus as an academic genie would have helped her immensely.
What I soon discovered was there was a kind of paradox that existed. On the one hand, I learned in church that Jesus is present every day. That he loves me and will help me overcome the challenges life will bring. On the other hand, I learned in life that there are many tests faced that most certainly would not go my way. For all of us, there will be trials that leave you battered. Circumstances that push you to the breaking point. There are even tragedies with irreparable consequence leaving you wondering how you will get out of bed in the morning, let alone face another day. So, it becomes difficult to take a verse like Philippians 4:13 and to say honestly, I believe I can face today because Jesus has my back.
Take a few moments and remember the last time you faced one of life’s curve balls. I am willing to wager that when it happened, you felt completely alone. The most frustrating part of a crisis is how in the moment it can isolate you from everything and everyone in a community. That is not to say that it always does. Rather, I find there is a tendency for these moments to isolate us from our close communities. A few months ago, my car broke down. My wife and I had just spent nearly $2,000 fixing the exact part that failed. In the ultimate twist of fate, I had just topped the tank off ten minutes before I was left stranded in the right lane of a major highway blocking an exit ramp. I was very popular that morning, many passing motorist took the time to sound their horn and greet me in true Jersey style.
A full range of emotions took over. Fear, fury, and depression all seemed to set in immediately. I felt fear about the future. How would my wife and I replace the car? We certainly could not afford to purchase a new car. I was furious because I knew that I had just shelled out nearly two grand to have the car fixed. The part that was replaced had once again failed in less than six months. Depression swelled inside because I felt like this moment was another cruel point in a series of seemingly unending crisis. These emotions took over and as they began to swell stronger inside reason began to dissipate and I was left feeling alone and angry.
When I arrived at work, I attempted to avoid everyone. I felt shame. I was embarrassed to speak with my boss because I felt this crisis somehow reflected upon my work. I was afraid to face my wife because I felt that I had failed to care for my vehicle. To my surprise I even turned down help from a few well-meaning friends because I felt responsible to fix the mess on my own. In essence, I felt as though this particular problem was mine and mine alone to face. It was awful.
I completely admit to the foolishness of my actions and feelings. Yet, in that moment it is how I felt and how I responded to those around me. I imagine if you think long enough you can find a moment or crisis in your life that led you to feel and react in a similar fashion. The worst moments in life are the ones that isolate us. The moments where we think no one will understand. The moments when we believe no one can help. The moments when we feel like we are stuck while the rest of the world keeps moving forward. These are the moments it is easy to struggle with Paul’s words. These are the moments when finding comfort from the Bible seems unobtainable. Yet, it is exactly from this type of moment that Paul penned those famous words.
Philippians belongs to a collection of letters called the prison epistles (epistle is simply a fancy word for letter). Paul wrote about Christ strengthening him while in prison for a crime that he had not committed. It was during his long journey for justice that he had time to write back to the many churches and communities with which he had shared the Gospel.
Paul was a significant figure for the church in Philippi. Planting a church is no easy feat, especially in an area where no one has ever heard of Jesus. However, it seems that Paul impacted the lives and community in a powerful way because even after he left Philippi to continue his mission they continued to send him support (Phil. 4:14-18). They made sure that he would survive prison and could go on sharing the Gospel even though he was no longer serving in their community.
This is the context from which Paul writes that Christ gives him strength. Can you imagine? Paul huddled around a fire, being drug from town to town seeking freedom from a charge he was innocent. If ever there was a moment to feel alone, abandoned, angry, fearful, depressed, and isolated I imagine this is it. Instead, Paul simply states:
How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn’t have the chance to help me. Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. (Phil. 4:10-13)
The “secret” that Paul had discovered is the Gospel that he was known for preaching. The result of the Gospel is that Paul can look beyond himself and find fulfillment in the bigger vision and mission of God. This shift in focus allows him to move past his current suffering by seeing how it fits into the larger plan of God. Paul finds fulfillment in God’s plan because unlike everything else in the world the Gospel is the only sure thing. The Gospel will never fail. It cannot tarnish or fade. It will never abandon him nor be too busy or broken to help. This preeminence found only in God and His Gospel grounds Paul in unfailing hope. This is why he can boast contentment in riches and poverty. Why whether feasting or fasting he remains faithful to God’s mission. Therefore, Paul is not preaching a supernatural cure all for maladies, crisis, or bummers. Rather, he provides insight into a source for strength that empowers a person to look past external suffering and see an eternal glory that far outweighs their momentary struggle.
So, where do I go wrong? The point of departure, as far as I can tell, is when I take steps toward disconnecting from God. The first step in disconnecting is to fixate on a crisis and how it impacts me. When I do this, I lose sight of the bigger picture and allow suffering or pain to usurp center stage from God. These crises cause a relapse into self-focus. I lose my sense of contentment because I disconnect from the larger picture. Namely, the Gospel which gives a greater purpose and Christ who gives greater strength. This disconnect can manifest in many ways but the most telling concerns my relationship with the Christian community. That is, my Church. Relationship to a church community not only serves as an indicator of connection to God but also as the remedy to your crisis.
I find great significance in Paul writing to the Philippian church. There is certainly significance in the instructions that he imparts to them in the letter. However, there is also a great amount of significance in the personal relationship he continues to cultivate with this church even though he is long since removed from them. I believe that God’s strength for Paul is imparted through and manifest in the relationship that he maintains with his Christian community. Through the work of the church, the mercies of God are demonstrated and the strengthening is not only an inward strength developed by the spirit. It is also an outward strength propagated by His people. This brings us to the bottom line. God works through His people to strengthen you.
The Take Home
If we are to take Paul’s words to heart, then it means we must first fight our natural inclination to separate ourselves from others in our times of intense crisis. This tendency, for me, has proven difficult to overcome. It is natural to revert to a self-focused point of view when difficulties arise. That is why we must be prepared beforehand to face a crisis instead of reacting in the moment. When you are unprepared you will naturally default to whatever activity or thought process you have always known. That is why you must train yourself to react differently when a crisis presents itself. I am not suggesting to have a contingency for every possible outcome. Rather, I suggest that you train yourself to lean on others in times of need and not expect yourself to handle problems on your own.
A second and equally important step is to develop a strong community now. So often, I find that when a problem presents I have a very short list of individuals that can speak wisely about my issue. Moreover, there are even fewer individuals that I permit to speak meaningfully into my life. Relationships take time to develop. If you wait until a crisis to begin looking for people that are seasoned in life for help, then you cannot be surprised when very few if any step forward to help. That is why it is so important to develop a committed relationship to a Church. I know that commitment is a less popular notion in today’s age but follow me on this point. Most churches will have Pastors, Elders, and mature ministry leaders. Each of these individuals worked for years before being elected, ordained, or raised up to their position. Many of them are more than capable of being able to help in a wide variety of issues. However, you must understand that their ability to help is greatly diminished if you do not have a pre-existing relationship with them.
Every one of us faces difficult times and even difficult seasons in life. God does promise to give us the strength to endure even the most difficult of circumstances. The strength that he gives is neither an escape nor a spiritual steroid to get us through. Rather, the strength he provides comes to us through the spirit who indwells in addition to the Christian communities He has purposefully placed us. Remember that God works through His people to strengthen you. I hope this becomes a conviction that will lead you into an amazing church. I know that on my own I am bound to fail, but through the bonds I forge with men and women of faith God has placed around me I can face any trial. My prayer for you is that like Paul you may one day boast, I can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me.
– Matthew Prendergast