In fact, he is so joyful, we might be inclined to think he’s an optimist, one of those incorrigibly happy people who live in the borderland of denial.
Some Christians have made Paul’s incessant rejoicing into a new law that says we should always be rejoicing. There’s no room for discouragement or fear. Some spread their legalistic cheer by blithely encouraging depressed people to rejoice. That’s not Paul. He does tell the Philippians to “rejoice always” (Phil. 4:4), but he describes a time when he “despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1:8). When so many abandon him as he nears his final J-Curve, his martyrdom (2 Tim. 4:9–17), we can feel his discouragement.
Mere optimism is blind to the dark side of life and thus collapses in the face of evil. That’s not Paul. He talks openly about his chains and other people’s jealousy of him.
Paul is neither an optimist nor a pessimist—he’s a realist. He sees a wider reality, a “deeper magic”—the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah from the dead. Jesus’s resurrection by the Spirit dwarfs everything else.1 It’s the elephant in the room, the overwhelming truth all other truths bend toward.
Because Paul sees all of life through this reality, his chains and others’ jealousy become “light and momentary afflictions” (2 Cor. 4:17). Any thought of self-pity or a victim narrative dies in light of this reality. The Spirit re-created Jesus’s lifeless body (past); he will re-create our lifeless bodies (future); and he is re-creating our lifeless situations (present). Because the Spirit continually makes resurrection a present reality for Paul, he overflows with joy.
What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice. (Phil. 1:18)
In the next breath, Paul explains why he is rejoicing: “for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance” (v. 19). As we saw, the Spirit is the secret to the resurrection—he makes the J go up. “Through your prayers” is not pious jargon. Not only does the Spirit transform our prayers, but prayer activates the Spirit, creating real-time resurrections. Paul doesn’t just die daily, but he rises daily. That is the stuff of joy.
The Spirit is the secret to the resurrection— he makes the J go up.
Paul encourages the Philippians to pray for him by telling them that “it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will
be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (v. 20). Because Paul’s realism is rooted in the active, present work of the Spirit, he says elsewhere, “Hope does not put us to shame” (Rom. 5:5), or, as another translation puts it, “Hope does not disappoint us” (NRSV). He’s not embarrassed by the possibility of failure, because “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” You can’t flip Paul, because his goal is not avoiding death but revealing Jesus.
The expected goals of justice (a fair trial), freedom (release from prison), and health (his body staying connected to his head!) are missing. If Paul’s head is severed from his body, then Christ will be revealed as Paul follows Jesus into death. Paul’s only fear is being ashamed of Jesus in front of others. That would shame him. That would be failure. Paul’s goal of the image of Christ being revealed in him shapes his values, so self-pity and self-awareness are stripped of their narrative foundation—the story of the revelation of me becomes the story of the revelation of Jesus in and through me. Paul’s hopeful way of looking at life is not rooted in an inherent optimism, but in the ongoing resurrection work of the Spirit that results in Christ being revealed through him.
Content taken from J-Curve: Dying and Rising with Jesus in Everyday Life by Paul E. Miller, ©2019. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.