“In me there is darkness,
But with You there is light;
I am lonely, but You do not leave me;
I am feeble in heart, but with You there is help;
I am restless, but with You there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with You there is patience;
I do not understand Your ways,
But You know the way for me.”
“Lord Jesus Christ,
You were poor
And in distress, a captive and forsaken as I am.
You know all man’s troubles;
You abide with me
When all men fail me;
You remember and seek me;
It is Your will that I should know You
And turn to You.
Lord, I hear Your call and follow;
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
“I have strength for all things in Christ Who empowers me [I am ready for anything and equal to anything through Him Who infuses inner strength into me; I am self-sufficient in Christ’s sufficiency].” ~Paul, written to the Philippians while he was in prison (Philippians 4:13)
There is a prison that threatens the joy in us all. Maybe it’s the death of your parents or the loss of a baby. Maybe it’s the spouse that left you or fear that set in when you lost your job. It could be unfulfilled expectations or the devastating root of bitterness. Perhaps it is the struggle to conceive a child or the days that creep by as you wait to find your spouse. Maybe you’re the stay at home mother who rarely gets to talk to another adult and who struggles to sort out the balance of feeling trapped at home but also delighting in your precious calling from God. Or maybe you are like me and living thousands of miles away in a foreign country filled with scandal and hardship where you feel homesickness battle your joy. We read the words of the Bible and take to heart the encouragement found on it’s pages but then life happens and circumstances seem to wall us in. Grief clouds the mind and bitterness destroys thankfulness unless intentionally uprooted. When thankfulness ceases to exist, hope dies. It’s during these moments of tasting the fallen nature and deciding against amity with the world, that my ever increasing hope for the return of Jesus continually calls me back to the words of Paul in the book of Philippians.
And as I read the words of the apostle Paul in the letter he wrote to the church at Philippi, I have in the back of my mind that these words were penned while he was in prison with the possibility of his execution looming. “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually 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.” Philippians 1:13. This letter, with the theme of encouragement running through it, is one that I cannot escape. On good days and on bad days, the Spirit whispers the words to my heart and as my attachment to the Word grows deep, my emotions are bridled and Truth fuels the joy which enables endurance. Not just enduring randomness, but pressing on through the refinement that is ordained by the Sculptor of my life in the path of obedience – that which isn’t fun at the time, but is producing Christ-likeness in me and will serve to advance the gospel in a way that only He can foresee. He is writing my redemption story, chapter by chapter, and each struggle is only beautifying the message that my life sings of His faithfulness. Any suffering I am going through, I see as chains for Christ that will advance the gospel. If circumstance-focused thoughts feed on despair rather than Truth, Kingdom vision becomes blurred and life becomes prison. These Truths – these words of scripture that are the Father’s very love letter to His children – are what breaks down the walls that close me in and shine a bright light in the dark prison the enemy wants to lock my heart up in.
Prison of hopelessness. Prison of bitterness. Prison of loneliness. Prison of anger. Prison of anxiety. Prison of depression.
But where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. Freedom to walk in joy and dance in hope right in the middle of the suffering He has called you to and will rescue you from.
I walk the streets of a city of millions in this nation I have been called to and whether I am the only person in sight or surrounded by hundreds of people, I feel different. I don’t quite fit in. I learn new words everyday and simple tasks such as ordering coffee or asking directions in a new language have become somewhat second nature, but there is still this inner longing that whispers loneliness to my soul. The Lord has provided sisters in Christ along the way, and even if I only meet them once and never see them again on this journey towards Home, there are moments of refreshment – in person, flesh and blood – with fellow heirs of the glorious and rich inheritance in Christ. Just yesterday I met a believing woman who could be my grandmother. She is only visiting for a couple of days, but as we spoke and she reached out and hugged me tight, telling me that she is so proud of me, I could feel tears well up and thankful praise was all I could give my Savior who shows me continually how He provides for all of my needs.
And every morning as the sun rises and His merciful promise of new hope emerges over the horizon, my lonely soul is strengthened with the same power that resurrected the Messiah and that conquered death forever. This power – a supernatural vigor that literally lives in my being – is what infuses inner strength that combats the inner feelings of lonely. This is the same power that lives in Jesus and that Paul speaks of in Philippians. This is the same power that lives in you. As culture shocks and language learning wears, emotions ride the roller coaster that makes holding fast to the Word of Life difficult, but not impossible.
If I focus on my circumstances, then they are in focus on the Truth of God’s Word which is the very Light in our despair is out of focus. Focus on the promises of God and have your mind renewed. Focusing on His Light is where victory is found and where the deepest form of worship begins.
The Word of God is a Light in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. We must discipline ourselves to hold firmly to this Light and allow it to be the lamp unto our feet and light on our path. This is the secret to contentment and this is the secret to finding joy in your prison cell.
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Psalm 119:105
“Hold firmly to the word of life; then, on the day of Christ’s return, I will be proud that I did not run the race in vain and that my work was not useless.” ~Philippians 2:16
Anything of worth usually involves endurance, and this is exactly what I am learning. Endurance is a choice, just like joy and trust and hope and praise. We actively choose to hold firmly to the Word of Life because this Word of Life is the only way that your prison will become your message of faithfulness to the world. It’s the day-in and day-out choosing of hope and choosing of joy that is the working out of your salvation and the maturing of your faith.
“Paul explains what spiritual progress will look like. Christian maturity does not come through special mystical insights available only to a few, but rather through the patient practice of the familiar virtues of love and service to others…the supreme model for progress in faith is Jesus Himself…those who follow Christ’s example have hope that God will vindicate them on the day of Christ, and thus they can rejoice. They can also be confident that God will not leave them alone to make their way through the world as best they can. Spiritual progress involves effort: they are encouraged to ‘work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil 2:12). But they can do so knowing that ‘it is God who works in [them], both to will and to work for his good pleasure (2:13).” ~ESV intro to Philippians
“Dear friends, you always followed my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away, it is even more important. Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.” ~Philippians 2:12-13, NLT
“Therefore, my dear ones, as you have always obeyed [my suggestions], so now, not only [with the enthusiasm you would show] in my presence but much more because I am absent, work out (cultivate, carry out to the goal, and fully complete) your own salvation with reverence and awe and trembling (self-distrust, with serious caution, tenderness of conscience, watchfulness against temptation, timidly shrinking from whatever might offend God and discredit the name of Christ). [Not in your own strength] for it is God Who is all the while effectually at work in you [energizing and creating in you the power and desire], both to will and to work for His good pleasure and satisfaction and delight.” ~Philippians 2:12-13, Amplified
Emotions that run wild with cultural stress tell me that if I had the large group of Jesus-believing sisters around me back at home, then I would be happy – fulfilled – never lonely. These same emotions tell me that if I lived down the street from a church building then I would feel at home and that the world would be right. It’s almost as if in moments of weakness, I believe that if my flesh had it’s longings to be back home in comfort fulfilled, then I would be more effective in the Kingdom. But the more I study the Bible, the more I think the opposite is true. Any suffering He ordains is to make me like Him and it deepens my deliverance story that I am commanded to tell. Yes, deep down, this spirit which is a citizen of the Kingdom of God, may feel lonely, but in reality it’s groaning for redemption. I expectantly hope for the return of Jesus; for the day when the imperfect – the loneliness, the grief, the death, the sorrow – will all pass away and the perfect will come.
“Sometimes we call ‘loneliness’ what God’s Word calls a longing for unhindered intimacy with Him and others. And we start thinking that other people can provide us what only God can provide. And it amazes me how often I call ‘loneliness’ what is actually a groaning for redemption. And instead of trying to numb it, I should embrace it and try to realize that it’s God’s good gift to me to remind me that this world is not my home.”
“Loneliness is a wilderness, but through receiving it as a gift, accepting it from the hand of God and offering it back to Him with thanksgiving, it may become a pathway to holiness, to glory and to God Himself.” ~Elisabeth Elliot
Paul knew the hardship of loneliness on a level many of us never will, but he also tasted joy and hope on a level many of us have only dreamed of. I believe they are directly connected. The depth of his suffering and the authenticity of his faithful worship lead him to experience sustaining joy that fueled perseverance and allowed him to rejoice through his imprisonment.
While in Prison, Paul writes:
- Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel (Phil 1:27)
- Do all things without complaining (Phil 2:14)
- Hold fast to the word of life (Phil 2L16)
- Whatever I once had, I now see as loss for the sake of Christ (Phil 3:7)
- I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (Phil 3:8)
- Forget what lies behind and strain on toward what lies ahead (Phil 3:13)
- Those who are mature think this way (Phil 3:15)
- Keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us (Phil 3:17)
- Rejoice in the Lord always (Phil 4:4)
- Do not be anxious about anything (Phil 4:6)
- In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God (Phil 4:6)
- The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:7)
- Contentment (Phil 4:12)
- I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength (Phil 4:13)
Paul, through Jesus, is able to praise God and trust that in His sovereignty, his suffering will serve to advance the gospel. I look at my own life and at the hardships that I am going through because of my obedience, and I am both challenged and encouraged by the example Paul gives us. On nights like tonight – the children are in bed, my husband is away sharing with national friends, and I am sitting in the dark due to a power outage – I look at Paul and realize that I don’t need to be anxious, but that I can offer prayer and thanksgiving to the Lord and rest in His peace which guards my heart and mind in Christ Jesus. I sigh with contentment that I am living the gift of solitude with the Lover of my soul, as I walk through a season of few believers around me. I trust that lonelier days like today actually serve to advance the gospel, giving me a tender awareness to the needs of others that I might not understand had I not experienced these days. Today was spent at home and as my husband left to go out, our nanny came to our house. I was given the opportunity to read part of the Bible with her in her language and that would have never happened had I been out with Christian friends. As I heard her voice read the Bread of Life, my heart broke free from the prison of loneliness and the longing to be around friends who are more like me. I sat in awe that He had chosen me to be the one to teach her His Word. Please pray for her salvation!
“Our loneliness can’t always be fixed, but it can always be accepted as the very will of God for now. And that turns it into something beautiful. Perhaps it is like the field wherein lies the valuable treasure, we must buy the field. It is no sun-drenched meadow embroidered with wild flowers; it is a black and empty place. But once we know it contains a jewel, the whole picture changes. The empty scrap of forgotten land suddenly teams with possibilities. Here is not only something we can accept, but something we’re selling everything to buy. In my case, selling everything meant giving up the self pity and the bitter questions. I do not mean that we’re to go out looking for chances to be as lonely as possible; I’m talking about acceptance of the inevitable. And when, through a willed act, we receive this thing we want, then loneliness, the name of the field nobody wants, is transformed into a place of hidden treasure.” ~Elisabeth Elliot
Perhaps today, things in your life look different than you had wanted and although you ask God for one thing, He gives you another. We mustn’t let these unexpected circumstances deter us from praising the Giver of good. We must trust in the prison days, thanking Him for treasure found there, and hoping and pressing on towards that which lies ahead – a bright and beautiful future with God both on this earth and in the Kingdom to come. Keep loving and serving and worshiping and hoping….He has not forsaken you.
“In prison they have daily asked this almighty Father for bread and have received instead cabbage with unmentionable filth. Nevertheless, they believe God to be the loving Father. They are like Job who said that he would believe God even if He would slay him. They are like Jesus who called God ‘Father’ even when He was seemingly forsaken on the cross.” ~Richard Wurmbrand, Tortured for Christ
“For the Lord is good; His mercy and loving-kindness are everlasting, His faithfulness and truth endure to all generations.” Psalm 100:5