Oftentimes our line of thinking goes something like this: If things go well for me in the world, I'll be happy. But if bad things happen, I'm going to be miserable. But there's a problem with that sort of thinking, especially when we consider Paul the apostle, who in the midst of very difficult circumstances wrote about compelling, outrageous joy.
When Paul wrote Philippians, he was physically bound in Rome and his ministry was severely restricted. But far from being an invitation to a pity party, his letter oozes with joy. He wrote in chapter 1, "I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ; and most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear" (vv. 12-14).
Sitting in a prison, Paul didn't have the freedom to plant churches and disciple people in various places anymore. His ability to fulfill his passion—preaching the gospel—had, it seemed, been cut off. Yet he viewed his circumstances with joy. Why? The reason can be summed up by a single word in verse 12: furtherance, or forward movement in spite of obstacles. Paul's imprisonment actually cleared the way for the gospel.
How? First of all, he was able to share the gospel with the Roman soldiers who were chained to him twenty-four hours a day—and some of them even got saved (see Philippians 4:22). Paul's imprisonment also furthered God's plan for the rest of Rome. He was able to reach the Roman citizens who visited him (see Acts 28:30-31) and embolden reluctant believers to reach the people he couldn't. He was also able to write Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon. In other words, the longest period of Paul's incarceration—two whole years—ended up being his greatest period of impact.
Later on, Paul wrote these words: "I suffer trouble as an evildoer, even to the point of chains; but the word of God is not chained" (2 Timothy 2:9). That's the summation of his experience: he was chained, but God's Word was not. He looked at his disappointment as God's appointment and his confinement as God's assignment, and the gospel was furthered.
None of us signed up for what we're all currently going through. And for many of us, it's easy to feel somewhat imprisoned because of our circumstances. But you can still choose to be a joyful prisoner, so to speak. Not a sappy prisoner, moaning, "Woe is me; life's a bummer." Not a scrappy prisoner, where you're fighting with and lashing out at those around you. But a happy prisoner whose passion is the gospel.
This place of limitation you're living in can become your greatest point of furthering the gospel. This time of experiencing the greatest restrictions many of us have ever experienced can become our greatest period of effectiveness for God. Paul proved that. His experience in Rome was a fulcrum with which he moved the world around him, and he was able to have true joy, because his focus and passion was the gospel.
As we celebrate Easter this week in the best and most responsible ways we can, let's not forget that the gospel cannot be chained, imprisoned, or confined. And instead of feeling shackled ourselves, let's look at this time as an unrivaled opportunity to share the good news with others and glorify our Lord.