And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
One way to read Paul’s affirmation that “this is God’s doing” is to assume Paul believes in a God who controls all things, manipulating events and people according to some prearranged divine plan. Certainly there are plenty of folks since Paul who have professed such a view. Nevertheless, that’s not, I believe, what Paul is advocating.
Rather, Paul encourages the Philippians and us to imagine that we may see and claim God’s presence even in the most difficult of circumstances. Indeed, as Paul discovered and now invites us to consider, sometimes it’s easiest to sense God’s presence when things are difficult. To do so, however, we need to develop what we might call “cruciform vision” – that is, looking for God’s presence in ways that conform with how we see God active and at work in and through Jesus’ cross.
Keep in mind that the cross of Jesus – a mark of curse and rejection for Paul – is about the very last place Paul could imagine God showing up. And when Paul was confronted by God in the crucified Jesus, he had to reconsider everything he thought he knew about God. God is powerful, Paul always believed, but now he sees that power revealed in weakness. And that changes everything.
So when Paul affirms that “this is God’s doing,” we should ask in what way the God revealed in Jesus’ cross is now at work in the lives of Paul and the Philippians. We saw just a verse earlier that Paul was asking much of the Philippians – enduring ridicule, hardship, and the prospect of Paul’s prolonged absence; refusing the easy road of condemning their opponents, but instead living out their lives as Roman citizens in a way that witnessed to Christ. These are no small or easy matters, and so Paul claims God’s presence, because anywhere people endeavor to be faithful, whenever people struggle to embrace the “weak” road of vulnerability rather than the “strong” road of condemnation and blame, whenever people suffer, the God of the cross is there.
Similarly, Paul invites the Philippians to see their present struggles not simply as hardship but as an arena of blessing, even privilege. Here we should be careful. It is not suffering that is the privilege; rather, blessing comes when we recognize that all our suffering is embraced by and drawn into the cross of Jesus. When we look for God not in high and mighty places, but rather in suffering – the suffering of Jesus and our own suffering – then we are reminded that God is with us in these difficulties and, more than that, that God has promised to bring us through them.
So what is hard for you right now? Uncertainty about the future? The end of an important relationship? The loss of a love one? No work? No hope?
Paul does not imagine that Christians are exempt from these things. Nor does he propose that it’s all part of some grand plan. Rather, Paul confesses that such challenges and struggles, no matter how hard they may be, do not define us. We are more, that is, than the sum total of our accomplishments and failures, and so we will neither find our meaning in our successes nor drown in meaninglessness of our hardships. Rather, these things can, by God’s grace, be the broken places through which the light of God’s grace shines as we remember that Jesus knows our pain because Jesus endured it. And just as God accompanied Jesus to the cross and raised him from the dead, so also will God be with us, hold onto us, and bring us, in time, to life eternal.
Prayer: Dear God, let us sense your presence in the broken places of our lives and, sensing your love and support, find the courage to reach out to others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.