Many people seem to walk through life with figurative rose-colored glasses on, viewing the world through a sort of naïve optimism, ignoring or minimizing pain and suffering. This is problematic since it is dishonest. Ironically, adding a cheery sheen to much of what is either full of the mundane or causing pain can cause more suffering as we bottle up the wounds to the point that they fester rather than heal.
Meanwhile, the Apostle Paul, rather than looking for a silver lining behind every cloud, sees all of life through a clear lens of honesty. He seems to see things for what they are, acknowledging that which causes sorrow, calling a spade a spade. He does this at almost every turn in his letter to the Philippians.
And yet! Paul isn’t complaining. Philippians is an epistle most often associated with the word joy since Paul speaks so much about rejoicing. For Paul then, there is indeed joy beyond the sorrow, but he realizes a need to acknowledge those things that cause suffering before we can truly have hope enough to rejoice with gusto.
Paul’s attitude reminds me of that great television show about high school football in Texas, Friday Night Lights. Coach Taylor had a battle cry that he would shout to his team before his players took the field each game.
He’d say, “Clear eyes, full hearts,” to which the team would scream, “Can’t loose!” Let’s unpack this three-part statement with respect to the epistle to the Philippians.
Paul acknowledges his circumstances—the fact that he and other Christians are under house arrest. When the Philippians try to send their own letter to Paul, the messenger Epaphroditus is delayed with an illness that almost kills him before he finally makes his way to Paul. And there are those both inside and outside the church who would stand in his way, sabotaging every good effort. The way of the Cross is humiliating, and life deals us plenty that we could complain about. There is suffering. There is evil. There is conflict. There is sorrow. It is what it is.
Despite his honesty about pain, Paul is no nihilist. Instead, the overwhelming sentiment of his letter is one of heartfelt gratitude and joy. “Rejoice!” Paul says repeatedly: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” Paul isn’t brushing reality under the rug. Rather, there is hope in spite of all that could drive us to despair. Where does this hope come from? From the grace and peace of God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, of course. Paul is so saturated with this good news that he overflows, having a constant attitude of abundance for his friends.
Paul is convinced therefore that if one takes into account all of the above, then there is eternal hope. Like a Coach Taylor, Paul uses the language of sports to communicate his hope: “One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13b-14). With this goal, one cannot lose.
As Paul makes clear in this letter and elsewhere, we hardly need to strive toward that goal though since Christ “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8). In other words, Christ lost so that we don’t have to lose, can’t lose.
Such knowledge should help us to have clear eyes and full hearts. There is no longer a need to wear rose colored shades while painting silver linings on the storm clouds of life. Even Jesus Christ knew suffering to the point of death. If anyone can empathize with our sorrow, it is Jesus Christ. We can acknowledge the pain and mundane of everyday life, letting the wounds breathe and heal in light of the hope we have in Jesus Christ. Indeed we may heartily rejoice with this hope.