Anyone who reads the Bible with an open mind knows that suffering is part of the life of discipleship. Throughout the Old Testament, the people of God struggled to maintain their devotion to the one true God who brought them out of Egypt, spoke to them from Sinai, sustained them in the wilderness, and brought them into the land of promise. Their devotion to the God they claimed to be the Most High put a political and religious target on their backs, pitting them against the surrounding nations and their gods. In Paul’s day, of course, being a follower of Jesus could get you in trouble with the Roman Empire, particularly if you disturbed the peace or failed to deferentially bend the knee to the emperor.
And, oh, there was this little matter of Jesus himself, railroaded by his enemies for undermining their authority, and nailed to a cross for the sake of political expediency. All of his closest followers, with the possible exception of the apostle John, met untimely ends.
This is the way is was, the way it had always been. If there’s any doubt, read Hebrews 11 and its sobering summary of the life of faithfulness. Some of the stories have a heroic dimension (e.g., vss. 33-35); through faith, these people accomplished great things. But then we read this:
But others experienced public shame by being taunted and whipped; they were even put in chains and in prison. They were stoned to death, they were cut in two, and they died by being murdered with swords. They went around wearing the skins of sheep and goats, needy, oppressed, and mistreated. The world didn’t deserve them. They wandered around in deserts, mountains, caves, and holes in the ground. All these people didn’t receive what was promised, though they were given approval for their faith. (Heb 11:36-39, CEB)
Right. Sign me up. Can somebody please get Marketing on this?
Even Jesus himself, at the end of the Beatitudes, declared:
Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you. (Matt 5:11-12)
This isn’t what people would generally consider “happy” (nor does the translation “blessed” help much, unless you think like a psalmist). But Jesus wanted his followers to have the big picture. He would have had little patience for the name-it-and-claim-it brand of Christianity that makes God a dispenser of heavenly favors. No: following Jesus means immersing yourself in a story that has been going on for millenia, a story of trouble and persecution, following in the footsteps of the prophets of old.
All of this is background to what Paul tells the Philippians, writing from his confinement:
God has generously granted you the privilege, not only of believing in Christ but also of suffering for Christ’s sake. You are having the same struggle that you saw me face and now hear that I’m still facing. (Phil 1:29-30)
“Privilege”? Remember, these were people who had never met Jesus, who didn’t grow up with the Old Testament stories. They were citizens of an empire in which “privilege” meant power and status, and people vied with each other to gain a rung on the social ladder. On what basis would the Philippians be able to understand and accept the persecution they were facing from their neighbors should be counted a privilege?
The basis Paul offers is their personal relationship to him.
Let’s use our imaginations a bit to read between the lines of the letter. Think of the Philippian jailer who had locked Paul in prison and put him in the stocks. He was just doing his job; to him, Paul and Silas were nothing more than just two more guys who had run afoul of the magistrates. But his encounter with Paul utterly transformed him and his entire household. He had inflicted suffering on this man of God; might he not welcome the opportunity to be united with Paul in his suffering?
Or think back a little further. What about the slave girl who had dogged Paul and Silas on the streets of Philippi, prophesying for her master’s profit? Is it too much to imagine that once Paul had cast the spirit out of her, she eventually became a believer and a member of the church? Paul had freed her in more ways than one, and she may have thought of herself as responsible for his imprisonment. She too, I imagine, would have seen “having the same struggle” as Paul a privilege.
Perspective matters. The more our lives have been directly and tangibly affected by people who suffer for righteousness, people whom we love and admire, the more we will count in a privilege to join them in suffering. That’s not to say that every Christian must necessarily suffer grievously for the faith — only that we should expect that loyalty to one and only one Lord will eventually cost us something.
Paul knew this firsthand. The Philippians had begun to know it, and he wanted them to have the right perspective: Friends, we’re in this together.
To the extent that we must suffer for the faith, let’s not do it alone.