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Paul's Joy in Quarantine x 100
Well, it’s been two weeks since my children’s school shut down, video conferencing entered my family room, and grocery shopping officially became eerie. Reality is sinking in: quarantine will last. There have been many bright spots. Sunny afternoons. Children’s literature. Sleeping in and drive-thru dinners. But there’s also been a heavy shadow, as the whole world seems to echo with my own personal trigger words: “ventilator,” “ICU,” “medically fragile.” I don’t know when things will feel normal again, or actually if they ever will.
These situations can force us to clarify: what is Christian joy? Is it only the slap-happy noise and strobe lights of a Sunday morning gathering so often mislabeled as “fellowship?” Paul, writing to the Philippians from a Roman prison, shows us something more. Paul wasn’t free to go out again, maybe ever, except by miracle or death. (Phil. 1:18-20). All his basic needs - food, medicine, friendship - were delivered at the mercy of a courageous friend, but even then serious illness threatened his support. (Phil. 2:25). He longed to see his loved ones, but had no Instagram, Google Hangout, or Zoom. Paul, you might say, was in quarantine times 100.
But when you open the letter he wrote from this place, joy streams out like light from a rock that is worn and wounded. Paul’s joy is a miracle, yes, but there are reasons for it. And thankfully for us, he shares his reasoning, so that we too might rejoice in a season of quarantine.
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always invert prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now… It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my defense and confirmation of the gospel.” (Phil. 1:3-7)
When Paul longs for his friends, he remembers them as they rightly are: fellow partakers in the grace of Jesus Christ. The grace that made them brothers of Jesus is the grace that will sustain them in suffering. It’s the same the grace that will unite them for eternity. The phenomenon of Christian community is that, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed, it is not an aspirational goal but rather a spiritual reality. (“Life Together,” Chapter One). Created and held together by Christ himself, gospel community can never be dissolved - not by separation, or prison, or death, not by quarantine. A fellowship formed by grace remains permanent.
So Paul knows that when prays, he never prays alone. When he suffers, he never suffers alone. And the same is true for you and for me. I am dismayed that I can not currently hug my mother. I am disoriented by separation from my church. And reports of patients struggling to breathe in lonely hospital rooms fill me with genuine dread. But I know that the soul born of grace will never be truly isolated. Like Paul, I can rejoice in my gospel partnership.
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Phil. 1:6)
My second childbirth followed two consecutive miscarriages. As a result, my mindset for 40 weeks, right up to delivery, was something like, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Not surprisingly, this made the whole process harder. And this is how trials are - sorrow multiplies when we aren’t sure it will be worth it.
But Paul suffered no such discouragement. Paul was sure his work would bear life, because it was conceived and sustained by God Himself. The church at Philippi began with a wealthy businesswoman, a Roman soldier, and a fortune-telling slave, in a city so volatile it nearly caused a riot. (Acts 16:11-40). God’s work was salvation, yes. But it was also the transformation of wealth-driven, violent, enslaved devil-worshippers into a light that would shine for the whole world. (Phil. 2:12-16). This kind of work can’t be curtailed, because it is divine.
And we can be sure of the same. As we watch our plans fall to the left and the right and the pathway in many ways looks dim, we can be sure that the work God began in us will be brought to completion. Whatever work God has given you to do - a job, school, parenting, caretaking, ministry - it is only a task in service of the greater work he has given us all - the defense and confirmation of the gospel. This work will bear life, because it is a work of God Himself.
So, disruption should not mean discouragement. Disruption may be just the means by which God is completing His work. Look at the flow of redemptive history - or just the story of your own life. Hasn’t it often been disruption that accomplishes the most? Like Paul, I can rejoice in God’s promise.
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:9-11)
Partnerships and promises are real, but so is grief and exhaustion. One of the wonders of God’s grace is that, even as we rejoice in his provision, we can ask Him for more. In revealing his prayer, Paul shows us that joy is not something we “choose.” Joy is not an arrogant declaration choked out of sorrow by means of grit or denial. Joy is simply a gift. And to receive it, we can ask like Paul does, for more love, more knowledge, more discernment.
Lord, please give me love abounding. Paul’s prayer is for the love of Christ to abound within us. What is the love of Christ? It is love that lays down rights and privileges, taking the form of a servant. (Phil. 2:1-11). This is love I cannot manufacture in myself, though I may grind my teeth through the homeschool day and conceal my dinnertime frustration with a smile. The love of Christ is a miraculous installation of a heart far more beautiful than my own. And this increases when I pray.
Lord, please give me real knowledge of you. Paul’s prayer isn’t that we would gain more intellectual knowledge about God. For that, we have seminary lectures, podcasts and Amazon. Paul’s prayer is that we would be given a direct, experiential knowledge of God that comes through personal intimacy. How can we gain relational knowledge of someone we cannot see or touch? One way the Bible shows us is by obedience in suffering. (Phil. 1:27-30). The transformation of a trial into a real knowledge of God is a miracle. But it becomes reality when we pray.
Lord, please help me discern what it is good. Discernment is a spiritual sense-perception, an instinctive understanding of what is good in the eyes of God. It’s absolutely unnatural; our gut instinct will always be to stray. (Jeremiah 17:9). One of the strains of quarantine is that there are so many new decisions to make, with so little information to go on and no bird’s eye view. I don’t know how long this will last, or what else might go wrong. I have no idea what curriculum is enough for suddenly homeschooling my kids, what schedule, if any, I should plan for this coming Thursday, or how much toilet paper I really need to stock. And most of the time there isn’t even time to think. Without discernment, I might just be stabbing in the dark. But there is discernment, free for the asking. So we can take confidence and joy in prayer. (For more on this, I highly recommend “Praying with Paul,” by D.A. Carson).
There is so much at stake in these prayers, but for Paul this too is a source of joy. Paul delights because he knows the end result: fruits of righteousness for the day of Christ - a heart and actions that God calls, “good.” Maybe life feels a little dormant right now. Maybe our branches have been clipped, or even blighted. But when this quarantine comes to an end, there can be a record that pleases God. There can be abundant fruit to offer at the feet of Jesus. So as we wait it out, let’s adopt Paul’s future-leaning vision. Because our gospel partnerships are sure to last, God’s promise is sure to hold, and our prayers are sure to gain answers. In this, we can rejoice.