For my family, the days leading up to Thanksgiving have always been full of hard work and anticipation of the holiday. We’d roast chestnuts for the turkey stuffing, bake rolls from scratch, and make my grandmother’s to-die-for cranberry relish. And of course, on Thanksgiving Day, we’d share in fellowship and fun with family and friends. Perhaps you have similar traditions and expectations of Thanksgiving, and have kept those traditions for many years.
But this isn’t just another Thanksgiving. This is Thanksgiving 2020. And in 2020, it seems that not much happens according to our plans. Our Thanksgiving dinner this week will be much smaller, much quieter, and probably much less fun than in years past. For that matter, Christmas and New Year’s celebrations will be very different in 2020 as compared with previous years.
You’re probably in the same boat as we are. When I asked a member of my church last week what he and his family were doing for the holiday, he replied: “We’re hunkering down and trying to stay safe as we head into the long season of our COVID winter.” That’s pretty bleak, I thought to myself. Bleak, but probably realistic.
So what do you do when the fun and fellowship of the holidays are upended by a pandemic? That question begs the bigger questions of: Where can I go when I can’t find happiness through my circumstances? Where does my true contentment come from?
The Apostle Paul deals with those very question in his letter to the Philippians. Likely written during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, much of the letter pertains to finding hope in suffering through being connected to Jesus (1:18b-30) and to other Christians (2:1-18). Paul finds so much hope through his relationship with Jesus and his people that he uses the word “rejoice” nine times throughout Philippians. That’s more instances of the work “rejoice” than in any of his other letters.
Don’t overlook this: the joy that Paul experiences in Philippians isn’t the kind of enjoyment that say, we would get from spending a Thanksgiving with friends and family. No, this joy has nothing to do with Paul’s earthly circumstances at all. After all, look at what he’s gone through: he’s under house arrest in Rome, he has enemies in the Church who are trying to slander him (1:17) and lead the Christians back to observing the ceremonial law (3:2). He anticipates his own death (1:20), he almost lost his good friend Epaphroditus to a near-fatal illness (2:27), and he’s trying to resolve a nasty public dispute between two prominent women in the Philippian church (4:2). Those are some pretty hard circumstances. The joy Paul experiences comes from God himself.
Paul tells us the reason for his joy in 4:5: The Lord is at hand. God is actively present with Paul in the midst of all of Paul’s hard circumstances. But if God is present in the midst of all these hard things, why didn’t he prevent all the hard things from happening? Why didn’t God keep Paul of our prison? Why didn’t God silence the people who were making trouble in the Philippian church? Why didn’t God keep Epaphroditus from getting sick?
You and I could ask those very same questions, applied to our own circumstances in 2020: Why did God let all these things happen? Why COVID? Why political and racial strife? Why economic hardship? Why Lord, why?
Those aren’t easy questions to answer. In fact, there are no specific answers to be found—for now, anyway. Perhaps from a future perspective, as we see the Lord moving some of the pieces of our lives into clearer focus, we might understand some small bit of what the Lord was up to in 2020. But for the present, the only thing we can do is accept by faith in Jesus that God really is up to something bigger, wiser, and more wonderful than we are able to discern.
Paul says something about this in 1:13-14, when he encourages the Philippians with the report that “what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers [and sisters], having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.”
In other words, Paul, looking backward from his present perspective in prison, says to the Philippian Christians that he knows for certain that God has woven everything Paul has been through for the last couple of years to advance the gospel. How does he know? Look at the evidence he presents: the whole Roman imperial guard has heard and seen the gospel at work (and we know that some of them become Christians themselves). Other Christians in Rome have become more confident in the Lord, and in their proclamation of the gospel. None of that would have happened without Paul’s suffering and imprisonment. God was using the objectively “bad” things in Paul’s life to bring good into the world.
Will we be able to say the same kinds of things in 2021 and after? Will we be able to look back at 2020 from the future and proclaim that what the Lord brought us through in 2020 resulted in good later on?
What do you think those good outcomes might look like? They might be similar to what Paul observed in his own circumstances. People looked in real time at how he endured his suffering. They were probably forced to ask themselves questions like: What keeps Paul from crumbling under all this weight? Where does his strength and joy come from? How can he be content when he has so many reasons to complain?
Paul probably told the people around him that his hope wasn’t in his circumstances changing—rather, it was in the fact that the Lord is at hand. Paul knew that he was never alone. So he didn’t fall into anxiety, he didn’t grumble, he didn’t wither under the strain. It was hard, but Paul found the presence of the Lord and a knowledge of the Lord’s love enough to keep his heart and mind at peace (4:6-7).
And Paul encouraged his first-century audience (and us, today) to seek the same hope and joy as he did—to recall to mind the good things the Lord has done, to remember his promises, and to take those things that do lead you to anxiety to God (instead of dwelling on them yourself). Paul promises that if we do so, “the God of peace will be with you” (4:8-9). We find peace, we find contentment, only as we first rest in the Lord. 2020 has been a rough year. And you may be going through some rough and disappointing circumstances. But take heart: the Lord is at hand.
Tim Geiger (M.Div.) is Executive Director of Children's Jubilee Fund. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Tim has lived in or around the city most of his life. His undergraduate studies done at the Community College of Philadelphia, Tim went on to earn a Master of Divinity Degree from Westminster Theological Seminary. He is ordained as a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. Prior to serving at Children's Jubilee Fund, Tim worked for the Internal Revenue Service, The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and Harvest USA, where he also served as Executive Director and then President from 2012-2019. Tim lives with his wife and daughter just outside of Philadelphia.
Children's Jubilee Fund is a 501(c)(3) organization established in 1997 to provide tuition grants to Christian schools in the Philadelphia metro area that serve lower-income students. These grants are then awarded by the schools as scholarships to students who meet income and residency guidelines. Each year, Jubilee provides hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants that, in turn, help hundreds of students in Philadelphia, Delaware, Montgomery, and Camden Counties achieve their God-given academic and personal potential. Children's Jubilee Fund is an entirely donor-supported organization.