How Paul Responded to Adverse Circumstances



“Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel” (Phil. 1:12).

When Paul refers to his “circumstances,” we might think of a long list of trials—storm and shipwreck, opposition of godless men against the truth, painful separation from loved ones, and bitter misrepresentation of false friends. As he writes these words to the Philippian brethren, his circumstances have come to include a prolonged imprisonment in which he is constantly chained to a Roman soldier, restricted in his movement, deprived of his privacy, and reduced to poverty. Paul is a prisoner. As he told the Christians in Rome, this was in spite of the fact that he had done no wrong (Acts 28:16).

Such circumstances would surely shake the faith of the strongest, and cause some to doubt the goodness and care of God. How could this have happened? How had Paul come to be in this predicament? How could God allow one so gifted and so burdened for souls to become a prisoner with so little scope for preaching the gospel? Some might say that Paul’s adversities were his own fault—the result of his refusal to heed the entreaties of the brethren at Caesarea not to go to Jerusalem (Acts 21:8-14). But Paul asserted repeatedly that he was going “bound in spirit” to Jerusalem and resigned himself to God’s will (Acts 20:22-24).

How did Paul respond to these circumstances? What was his attitude? Most of us would probably react with feelings of bitterness, blame, and self-pity.

But in his letter to the Philippians Paul repeatedly expresses his joy and gratitude. He thanks God for his fond memories of the brethren (1:4-8). He writes about his deep love and affection for them because they have continued to share with him in the preaching of the gospel. He rejoices that they have fellowship with him, even in his imprisonment.

From his imprisonment he offers words of encouragement and assurance. How amazing that Paul is the one who is in prison, yet he wants to console his beloved brethren! He does not sink into despondency or dwell on his misfortune. He assures them that the things that have happened to him have contributed to the furtherance of the gospel (Phil. 1:12). He is confident that he will be delivered (Phil. 1:19). Through the prayers of the brethren and the good providence of God, he believes that everything will “work together for good” (Rom. 8:28).

Even as a prisoner Paul lost no opportunity to preach Christ. For two years he “wore a chain” (Acts 28:20). While his freedom of movement was limited, he was still able to receive visitors and to preach and teach “with all openness, unhindered” (Acts 28:30-31). The Roman soldiers who constantly guarded and accompanied the apostle during those two years undoubtedly heard his testimony. Paul was able to turn his trials into opportunities.

So consistent was his testimony that everyone came to know the true reason for his bonds. It was soon well known throughout the whole Praetorian Guard that Paul was a preacher in bonds for preaching the gospel (Phil. 1:13). Now there were even saints in Caesar’s household (Phil. 4:22). Word of his courage and dedication spread and stirred up saints everywhere. His example instilled trust in the Lord and gave them courage boldly to preach the word (Phil. 1:14).

Paul’s letter, sent to the Philippian disciples from such trying circumstances, is especially meaningful. How inspiring is the heart of this dedicated servant! His message and his example challenge us to look to Jesus Christ, particularly when we face our own trials. Consider some of his admonitions.

Always do what is right, even in suffering (1:27-30). “Conduct yourselves…worthy of the gospel.” Difficult circumstances, or even problems caused by opponents, never give us the right to behave improperly. To do so would mean we’ve already been defeated. Because we “suffer for His sake,” let us always maintain our integrity as His disciples.

Be an unselfish, humble servant (2:3-4). Paul demonstrated the same attitude of selfless service that he saw in Jesus. The Son of God took on the “form of a bond-servant” on behalf of others. “Have this attitude in yourselves…” (vv. 5-8).

Joyously accept your circumstances (2:14-18). Suffering often provokes bitterness. We must rise above circumstances and continue to reflect the Light in this world. Paul rejoiced to sacrifice for others. “You too…rejoice in the same way” (v. 18).

Keep pursuing the goal (3:14-15). In spite of everything, Paul could say, “I press on.” He never allowed circumstances to divert his attention from his work or his goal of going to heaven. Neither should we.

Always trust God (4:6-7). Paul’s closing words to the brethren are to take everything to God in prayer with thanksgiving. Be assured of the peace that comes from trusting him. Learn the secret of contentment (vv. 11-13).

Troubles will surely come in this life. But by looking to Jesus, like the apostle Paul we can say, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me!”

Dan Petty