I always pray with joy (Philippians 1:4).
When President Obama took office in 2009, the national average for the price of gas was $1.84 per gallon. Today, the average price per gallon is $3.76.
It’s the new normal. We have to get used to it and adjust accordingly.
What once was normal may never be normal again. Life changes, and sometimes, it changes quickly and drastically.
We can go for years satisfied and comfortable in our normal lives. But, then something happens to forever change what was once normal. We have to adjust to a new normal.
The new normal may no longer include robust health, a treasured relationship, or a satisfying job. It may be living without a loved one who has been taken away in death. A spouse could suddenly up and leave for another person. It may be losing our independence and being forced to move to an assisted living facility.
Dramatic changes and losses break comfortable routines. Security vanishes. Plans are turned topsy-turvy as if struck by a hurricane.
As the old Yiddish saying goes, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans!”
At a time when my life plans dissipated like a feathery cloud in the sky, a doctor told me, “All the slots where you organized things in your life are gone. You have to go out now and build new cubby holes and develop a new routine, new friends, and a new life.”
Just as we are forced to adjust to the new normal of almost $4 a gallon for gasoline, unwelcome disruptions force us to build a new normal where we can not only survive but thrive.
For the Apostle Paul, his new normal was life in prison. Everything was taken from him. His freedom, his work as a missionary, and his routines.
It’s amazing to me and an inspiration to read his letter from the prison in Rome to the Philippian church which he founded, loved, and prayed for constantly.
How could he “pray with joy” from prison?
The prison where Paul was confined was not pleasant or healthy. In ancient Rome, prison was equal to death, despair, sickness of mind and body, and humiliation.
He had the cold, stone floor for a mattress.
The prison was subterranean with very few windows. The place was dark and chilly.
Air was rank from human waste and obscene body orders.
Baths were infrequent.
Prisoners were often beaten and flogged before confinement. They entered the prison with open, bleeding wounds wearing blood-soaked clothes.
Paul’s clothes were seldom washed and when washed, they rapidly became soiled and foul smelling.
Paul would have been weak from lack of nourishment, and therefore, he was more susceptible to catch disease and illnesses from sick prisoners.
Most prisoners who were freed after being found innocent were broken in spirit and body.
Roman prisons were more of a place of confinement for the accused awaiting trial rather than as a place for punishment But, there was no right to a speedy trial. And, trial dates were never given to the inmates. Prisoners were held indefinitely and most, like Paul, waited a long time before their case was heard in court. Paul was held for two years in Rome before his acquittal and two years prior to that in Caesarea before being transferred to Rome.
As if the physical pain were not enough, the psychological and emotional trauma was practically unbearable from not knowing when your case would come up. Plus, there was darkness, disease, insufficient food, leg irons, and constant stench. Many prisoners faced loneliness because their friends left them not wanting to be associated with an accused man. These were just a few factors that broke a person mentally in prison. Suicide was a common way to escape.
Yet, from the confines and shackles, Paul always prayed with JOY!
And consider also that he was held in prison unjustly. His accusers in Jerusalem and in Caesarea had accused him falsely and wanted him executed.
“The Roman commander [in Jerusalem] came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. Then he asked who he was and what he had done. Some in the crowd shouted one thing and some another, and since the commander could not get at the truth because of the uproar, he ordered that Paul be taken [prisoner] into the barracks” (Acts 21:33-35).
Paul was then allowed by the commander to go back out and speak to the mob. Before finishing his defense, “They raised their voices and shouted, "Rid the earth of him! He's not fit to live!" (Acts 22:22).
As evidenced by Paul’s letter to the Philippian church from prison, neither this injustice nor the awful conditions of prison broke his spirit of joy.
“I always pray with joy.”
There is no hint of anger in him at those who wanted him imprisoned and dead.
He didn’t blame someone else for his adversities.
He didn’t seek revenge nor did he attempt any sort of retaliation.
He didn’t withdraw in depression and despair or have a “pity-party.”
Paul did not react in the typical way that most do.
“I always pray with joy.”
Obviously, Paul adjusted to his new normal of prison life. How did he do it?
First, he knew people in the church at Philippi loved him. They had sent a gift by way of their pastor, Epaphroditus, for his physical needs. They did not reject him as some did.
There were even a few who visited him and decided to stay in Rome seeing Paul regularly in his confinement.
At our own point of crisis, there are always those true Christian friends and family that walk with us through the valley. God’s love and grace are made tangible and demonstrated through them.
And Paul loved them too. “I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.” When the church is community, bonds of relationships are unbroken. This is why I personally like smaller churches. Large churches where a person sits on a pew in a mass of humanity do not foster loving Christian relationships unless a member is involved in a small group within the masses.
The church at Philippi was a small group filled with and expressing the love of Christ for one another.
To receive love and give love are two of the greatest human needs for sound mental health. Paul had this and thus could always pray with joy because they were joined in heart.
As Pastor John Fawcett wrote in his famous hymn, Blessed Be the Tie, “When we asunder part, it gives us inward pain; but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again.”
What if Paul did not have this love to receive and give? He could very well have focused on himself which would have resulted in unending depression, whining, complaining, moaning, and self-pity.
The love from and to the Philippian church was a factor in his prayer that overcomes. “I always pray with joy.”
Secondly, Paul was secure in Christ. Nothing could destroy what Paul knew in his mind and experienced in his heart the love that Christ had for him. “In all these things,” he testified, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
No where in Paul’s letter to the Philippian church is there any indication of him praying to be released from prison. No where is there any evidence that he prayed for God to change his circumstances and make them better.
Please don’t misunderstand. There is nothing wrong with asking God to change our circumstances for the better when we encounter a “new normal” and feel imprisoned by adversities. It is natural to pray that way. I think even non-believers cry out to God to change intolerable conditions.
Yes, the Lord delights in giving us good gifts, blessing us, and prospering us. I can testify to many times when the Lord smoothed out rough roads in my life and in the lives of others I know. The Bible and Christian history are replete with examples as well. It is true that prayer changes things.
And, it is also true that prayer changes ME, and I change things. In answer to our prayers, God often alters our external conditions, but more importantly, I think, joyful prayer works wonders in our dispositions especially when we face a “new normal.”
I look at the before and after Paul. Before Christ met him on the Damascus Road, he was mean, selfish, controlling, angry, conflicted, and cruel.
After the Damascus Road experience, he developed the disposition of Christ through grace, prayer, experience, and reason. Christ in him enabled Paul to be kind, forgiving, loving, compassionate, and zealous to share the liberating power of Christ with anyone next to him.
He had the peace and joy of God that nothing or no one could take from him. Since things or people had not given those dispositions to him, they couldn’t take them away! They were gifts given by the Giver of all joy and peace. He writes:
Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:5-7).
That’s how he could survive and thrive every “new normal” that was forced upon him. The peace of God which is beyond man’s mental power to figure out guarded his heart and mind.
Paul burned with the desire to share what Christ had done for him and who Christ is. He wanted everyone to possess the joy, peace, and eternal life that comes only from receiving Christ and living in a relationship with Him.
The Roman prison was a place of true freedom for him. He made prison, his “new normal.” He made it into a place for prayer, reflection, spiritual growth, worship, and ministry.
In addition, his suffering and unjust confinement were transformed into opportunities to assist him into the transition for the next world beyond the walls of captivity. He testified in his letter, “To die is gain. I desire to depart and be with Christ.”
How else did Paul adjust to his “new normal” of prison life?” He viewed his prison as representing a journey in his life that became a trial, a test of faith, to be won. In effect, he was saying, “Yes, darkness is here, but Christ in me gives light to everyone in the house. I am in fetters here, but I am free before God.”
Paul had a great desire for everyone to know and experience the salvation of Christ who had set him free. Can you imagine being chained together with Paul in prison? Or being assigned to duty as his prison guard?
They could threaten him, beat him, and imprison him, but they couldn’t hush him. He had the river of Life flowing through him and that river makes the wilderness spring to life. The Water of Life flowed throw him to all around him.
Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.
No, Paul didn’t beg the Lord to change his adverse circumstances. Prayer didn’t loose his chains or bring down the walls of his prison.
But, because prayer changed Paul, Paul changed prison and could say, “I always pray with joy.”
That is the prayer that overcomes!
Our life is secure, and hidden above,
Our safety as sure as Jesus’s love;
Our joy and our heaven within us shall stay;
What Jesus hath given none taketh away.†
- Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
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