By Pastor Glenn Pease
The things that can go wrong in Christian service could fill an encyclopedia. Tal Bonham has recorded just a few. A note in the bulletin said, "Ladies don't forget the rummage sale. It is a good chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping around the house. Bring your husbands." He tells of a pastor who preached on Samson, and unknowingly called him Tarzan through the whole sermon. Another pastor, when he asked, who had special prayer requests to raise their hands, had his mind on the previous business meeting, and he said, "All those opposed, same sign." Another pastor introduced the new choir director by saying, "We are delighted he is coming to lead us in our sinning."
Even Billy Graham has made his occasional slip of the tongue. The police chief of Memphis, Tenn. asked him to help promote their traffic safety campaign. So Graham pointed to the large neon sign which said 150 days. "You see that sign," he said, "That means that there has been 150 days without a fertility." His mistake was not a fatality, but it was terribly embarrassing. Several world renowned clergymen almost fell off the platform in hysterics. Chuck Swindoll preaching on Joshua at Jericho meant to say, "They circumscribed the wall," but it came out, "They circumcised the wall." It brought the house down. The point is, you have got to be an optimist to believe God can use such a fallible creature as man to accomplish His will on earth.
Paul was just such an optimist, and the main message of his letter to the Philippians is that everyone who is a believer in Jesus Christ is obligated to be an optimist. Paul says, "Rejoice in the Lord always," and just in case you didn't hear, he says it again, "and again I say rejoice." Pessimism is one of the greatest sins of the Christian, and Paul fights that negative spirit in this letter. It is a sin for a Christian to be ever gripping, complaining, and grumbling. Behind every silver lining some Christians can find a dark cloud. Their pessimism becomes a bad habit. It is like swearing. Some people do it so often they don't even realize they are doing it. So it is possible to think negative so often that you don't even realize you are being a pessimist.
Like the persistent pessimist who grumbled to his neighbor, "My hen hatched out 12 chicks, and all of them died but 11." The negative had distorted a positive reality into a negative feeling. This habitual focus on the negative leads to the unconscious prayer of the pessimist-"Give us this day our daily dread." If you are going to focus your attention on the problems of life, then anyone can be a pessimist, for problems are part of every life, and Paul the optimist was no exception. He was not writing this letter of joy from his yacht in the Mediterranean, or from a luxury villa in Rome. It was written from a prison, and not from the warden's office either, but from the dungeon. He was there unjustly for serving his Lord, and blessing people with the good news of the Gospel. Yet, out of this unfair and unjust suffering Paul does not fire off a bitter letter of anger, but a letter of joy and optimism about the church and God's plan for it.
This optimistic letter has been used of God to comfort, encourage, and challenge Christians all through history to be optimists in a fallen world. Gene Daille, the great French expositor told of how deeply the Indians of the new world were impressed by the white man's ability to put marks on a piece of paper, and then convey it to another at a great distance, and thereby, bear a message to them. Letters were magic to them. It is marvelous to us too when you think of it. By means of letters the Apostle Paul, long dead, can go on speaking to the church all over the world, and urge them to rejoice always, and be incurable optimists. Paul was the first in a long line of Christian writers who wrote Christian literature in prison that influenced the church to be optimistic in spite of problems.
We have to face this reality, however. Paul had more reason to be optimistic about the Philippians than other churches to which he wrote. We need to see honestly that Paul had a different relationship with this church then other churches. There was a loving friendship here that was not the case with others. He had to scold and blast the Corinthians, and focus on their many defects in ways that do not happen in this letter. Paul Rees, the one time great Twin City preacher, wrote, "Philippians gives us a Paul we do not see, for example in Galatians or Corinthians. It is natural that we wonder if the theologian has not been swallowed up in the friend."" Professor David Smith calls it, "The sweetest and tenderest thing to be found in all of Paul's correspondence."
The only church Paul ever accepted a gift from was this church of Philippi. They supplied him many times, and he writes in 4:16, "For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need." William Barclay, the great New Testament scholar, wrote, "Paul was closer to the church of Philippi than to any other church." Listen to his loving terms in 4:1, "Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!" In one verse they are called his brothers, the ones he loves, his joy, his crown, and his friends. Here are 5 terms of endearment in one verse.
So let's do a reality check, and face the facts. You are more likely to be an optimist when you are dealing with people you love, and who love you, then with people who rub you the wrong way, and irritate you by their indifference or opposition. The fact that Paul is most optimistic with those he most loves and enjoys makes it clear that relationship is a key factor in the degree of your optimism about people. Your optimism about God and His plan should not be affected. That should be on a high degree of intensity no matter what. But on the human level the degree of optimism is determined by the level of Christian love that exists between Christian people.
One of the reasons Paul had such a good relationship with this church is because it was mainly Gentiles, with only a few Jews, and so his enemies who poisoned the minds of people against him did not have much of a foundation in this church. There were only a handful of Jews, for when Paul first came to Philippi there was even a synagogue, but the people met by the river. Lydia, a Gentile, was converted, and the church met in her home. Then the Philippian jailer and his family were converted, and he too was a Gentile, and so the church had few people that Paul's enemies could confuse.
In chapter 3 Paul still has to warn them about the Jewish legalist who would take them back to the law, but it is a small part of his letter compared to others. So we see that where Christians are on the same wavelength as to theological convictions, there will be greater peace, joy, and optimism. Paul is writing as a Christian friend, and not as a theologian. The valuable lesson to see in all of this is that Christians are like anyone else when it comes to relationships. When they have good ones there is joy and positive vibes. If there is conflict and disagreement over theology and values, there can be a wall that makes friendship difficult if not impossible. That is why you have Christians who are friends, and Christians who are only acquaintances. Then you have Christians that you will not even bother to get to know better until heaven. There we will all be able to love everyone in the body, just as Christ does. Until then, like Paul, we will have better relationships with some than with others.
God used the bad things that happened to Paul in Philippi to bring forth good, and so every memory of even his bad times made him joyful. He was harassed by the demon possessed girl; he was arrested, beaten, and thrown in prison, but God used all of this to lead the Philippian jailer and his family to Christ. It was a bad day in the life of Paul, with a lot of rejection and pain, but in the end it was one of the best days of his life, for a whole pagan family was now in the kingdom of God, and a part of the Philippian church. Paul was an optimist about what God could do with a day where all was going wrong. He could say amen to the poet who wrote-
The inner side of every cloud
Is bright and shining.
I therefore turn my clouds about,
And always wear them inside out
To show the lining.
Paul did not pretend that all the bad stuff was good. Just because God used all the bad to lead to a good end did not make the bad good or right, and so even when it was all over, and the Philippian jailer and his family were baptized, and the officials came to release Paul and Silas from the jail, Paul protested the injustice of what had been done. He demanded that the magistrates who put them in prison come and apologize for their unjust decision. Paul did not say that it was okay because God used it for good. It was still wrong, and a bad decision. It was an injustice that needed to be corrected, and not merely forgotten because God used it for good. This is important to see, so that we can recognize there is more than one kind of optimist.
Wrong and evil and injustice are not made good just because God can use them to achieve good goals. They are still bad, and those who do them are held accountable. Evil does not become good no matter what good God can bring out of it. It is still evil. A superficial optimist makes a major mistake of thinking that if God uses bad things for good, then the bad things become good. Wrong! Paul was no superficial optimist that says, all is for the best. Those who think this way deny the reality of evil and folly in man. If all is for the best, then there is no evil, and we are compelled to be Christian Science followers, who say all evil is in the mind.
Paul was not so superficial. In 2:21 Paul complains about the self-centeredness of Christians. Timothy is unique in his loving care for others, but he writes, "For everyone looks out for his own interest, not those of Jesus Christ." Paul does not say, this is for the best, and will, in the long run, be a great blessing. It is a defect in the body of Christ, and it is not a good thing. Paul did not reject the reality of problems and weaknesses in the Christian life, as if this was the best of all possible worlds. That would be a form of blindness, and not optimism. He could be pessimistic about people without losing his optimism in God, and God's ability to win the final victory even with the obstacles of sinful people.
In 4:2 he pleads with Euodia and Syntyche to settle their dispute peacefully, and asks the church to help them do so. He does not say, a good fight will clean the air, and is healthy for the body. Paul recognized that saints are not perfect, and that they would get into conflict and would need to agree to disagree on some things. He did not pretend that it was all for the best, but said that Christians need to focus on their common bond in Christ. There would be things in areas of individual differences where they would never agree. Paul was optimistic that Christians could be one in Christ even though they may disagree on many things.
Why is it important to see this distinction between the realistic and the superficial optimist? For one thing, it makes people feel guilty when they hate evil, if they feel it is contrary to Christian optimism to do so. Some Christians delight in making other Christians feel guilty for being pessimistic about man. This is superficial, for the Bible is loaded with this kind of pessimism. "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God." "There is none that does good." "All our righteousness is as filthy rags." You could go on for pages with such negative quotes. A Christian has every right to be pessimistic about man apart from the grace of God.
The false prophets said all is well, and everything is for the best. You are God's people, and God will bless you no matter how you disregard His laws. This kind of superficial optimism is what lead to the judgment of God's people time and time again. It is evil to be a shallow optimist and seduce people into believing all is right when it is not. Paul could, as an optimist, still face the reality of a fallen world where plenty is wrong that he did not like, and he deals with it even in this most optimistic of his letters. In 2:27 Paul writes of Epaphroditus, "Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only, but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow." Paul was not so gullible as to fall for the "Everything is best," philosophy. He says that he would have cried his heart out had his friend died, for it would have been a tragic loss, and he would not be comforted by some superficial theory that God needed him more than he did. It would have broken his heart because even an incurable optimist recognizes that evil and sorrow are a real part of life, and you can't whitewash it with a pretense that it is all for the best. Life is full of things that are not for the best. That is why there is a Gospel to give men hope of escape from this fallen world, and to be in a world where all will be for the best.
Rejoice in the Lord he repeats over and over, but he also says in 3:2, "Watch out for the dogs-those men who do evil..." He does not say rejoice in the world, the flesh, and the devil, which are the source of endless problems. The optimist still has his pessimistic side, for the world of evil and folly is a temporary reality that has to be faced. The saints are fallible; the world has fallen; and the devil is alive and well. The Christian who believes all is best in such a world is what we call a superficial optimist, where he denies the reality of the very battle of good and evil. This is as superficial as the little ditty that goes-
The optimist fell ten stories,
And at each window bar
He shouted to the people,
"I'm alright so far!"
This is as unrealistic as the man who, without a dime to his name, went into a fancy restaurant and ordered an oyster dinner with the hope of finding a pearl in an oyster to pay for the meal. It is as superficial as the woman who reported her neighbor had been shot in a fight. "Were the wounds fatal," her friend asked. "Only two of them," she said. "The other three were just flesh wounds." This is the kind of person who will say everything is for the best. Paul would not, for his was not a shallow optimism. His was a deep optimism that says, even in a fallen world where much is wrong, and far from the best, God is going to achieve His purpose, and I am delighted to be part of His team, for they will be the ultimate winners.
Paul's optimism was based on Christ and His victory over all the forces of evil. It was not superficial like that of the student who was asked, "Did you pass?" He responded, "No, but I was the highest of those who failed." Paul could say, "I have failed. I am the least of the Apostles, and not worthy to be an Apostle, but I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." He was a realistic optimist who could be pessimistic about man, himself, and even the church, but always rejoicing because he was optimistic about Christ and His victory.
Optimism is based on the broader scope. The detail of the moment may be a pain, and a cloud on you day that rains on your parade. Pessimism is based on the negative realities of the moment. Optimism is based on the positive realities that will be forever. In Christ, the positives will last, and all negatives will vanish. You need to see everything in the light of the long run. Someone said that maybe all your dreams have not come true, but then neither have all your nightmares. You have gone through a lot of trials, but you have come through the storms into the light again, and have enjoyed the day after many a troubled night. It is the long range look that keeps you smiling when you face temporary pain. Some humorous poet put it-
It is easy enough to be happy
When life is a bright, rosy wreath,
But the man worth while
Is the man who can smile
When the dentist is filling his teeth.
Christian optimism is based on the big picture, and is dependent upon patience. Love is patient, and patience is one of the great Christian virtues, for only the patient can live on the long run level. The impatient are short run people, and they are pessimistic, for in the short run you have to focus on the failure and folly of man, rather than on the faithfulness of God.
Pessimists see only the viciousness of the battle, and not the victory that makes the battle worth it. A neighbor said to a father who kept bailing his son out of trouble, "If that were my boy, I would forget him." The father replied, "If he were your boy I would forget him too, but he is my boy." Love makes you more patient and long suffering because love makes you more optimistic. Take love out of any relationship, and you can count on pessimism taking over.
Love is what made Paul so optimistic in relation to the Philippians. Where love abounds optimism will thrive, and that is why Paul writes in v. 9, "..and this is my prayer that your love may abound more and more..." Christians who love are Christians who are fun to be with, for they are, like Paul, incurable optimists. We cannot be like Paul in many ways, but we can all be like him in this way. We can all be Christians who are fun to be with. Ask yourself, am I a Christian who is fun to be with because I focus on the goals of the true, and the beautiful, and I tend to rejoice in life even when it is full of problems? Or, am I one of those who is a gloomy Gus, or cloudy Claudia who tends to rain on everybody's parade?
This letter of Philippians will change you if you let it, for it is the most joyful book of the Bible. Chuck Swindoll's book on Philippians is titled Laugh Again. In it he seeks to get Christians to stop being sour pusses, and start being the kind of joyful people God wants them to be. We all need to pray that God will help us learn the essence of this letter and learn to be incurable optimists.