I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear. Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.
Paul has a remarkable ability to find the bright side in even the most difficult of circumstances. While we might for this reason be tempted to call him an optimist, I think it runs deeper. For while optimism typically expresses a confidence that things will get better, Paul expresses a deep-seated hope that, no matter how bad things may get, yet God can work in this situation for good.
This hope comes through at two places in particular in this passage. First, and with regard to his very imprisonment, Paul reports that others, seeing his confidence in Christ, have been encouraged in the faith and believe and testify more boldly. The same thing was said of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor imprisoned by the Nazi’s for his opposition to Hitler. Bonhoeffer endured his imprisonment with such confidence and calmness that his very being was a testimony to his faith in Christ, a faith that greatly encouraged others.
There is something here, I think, for those of us who have a hard time finding words to express our faith. Can we live with a gentleness and grace that itself can testify to our faith? Can we give encouragement even when we are struggling? Can we bear witness to our confidence in God through the way we handle ourselves under pressure? How we act, often as much or more than what we say, tells others about where our hope and confidence rests.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing for a kind of stoic resolve that doesn’t admit struggle, disappointment, or pain. Christian faith is not the denial of difficulty. Rather, it is a confidence that our hope resides beyond our immediate circumstances, such that we are confident that no matter how challenging or difficult our immediate situation, we trust that God is still at work.
Second, Paul also finds the ability to rise above some of the rivalry that seems to have attended his ministry. Whatever else we might wonder about Paul, we can say with some certainty that he occasioned strong reactions in the people that knew him. Many loved him; others…not so much. And so it seems that his imprisonment has occasioned a lot of talk about the gospel. Some folks seem to have started sharing their faith more, almost in an attempt to pick up the slack that Paul’s imprisonment has created and in this way to encourage Paul. Others seem to want to take advantage of his absence to leave their own mark and perhaps displace him and his influence.
And here’s the great thing: Paul doesn’t care. As long as people are talking about Jesus, he can overlook the motivation. Why? Because whatever his own personal feelings – and we’ll see elsewhere in this letter that he’s prone to some pretty strong personal feelings! – he knows he’s part of something bigger. He’s “in it to win it,” as they say in sports competitions, and so it doesn’t matter to him, finally, why people are sharing their faith, just that they are.
Where does the hope and confidence he shows in both these examples come from? The answer for Paul, I think, rests in the cross. Because in the cross God reveals not just the possibility, but God’s downright determination, to work through even the worst of circumstances for the good of the world. And once Paul realizes that this is what God is up to, he realizes that nothing else really matters as much as sharing the unexpected and life-changing word that God, the creator and sustainer of the vast cosmos, knows about us, cares about us, and is determined to bring us through hell or high water to abundant life.
Prayer: Dear God, grant us equal measures of hope and confidence that you can work through even the most difficult of circumstances of our life, not only preserving us but even using us to testify to your goodness and grace. In Jesus’ name, Amen.