During a recent rereading of Philippians, I became (somewhat surprisingly) preoccupied with the theme of joy that runs throughout the letter. I say surprisingly because I find Philippian joy is a clichéd, well-worn theological trope forever associated with this epistle, in a number of Christian traditions. This is the joy we feel in the midst of dismal circumstances, a joy that brings relief to our pain. This is the divine joy proposed as the antidote to internal suffering and turmoil. When this spiritual “Philippian joy” (as I am calling it) is fully actualized within the Christian, s/he is able to view external circumstances under a different light, but more often than not, this leads to a minimization of the experience of suffering itself. This can be emotionally and spiritually taxing for the Christian: one cannot help but feel guilt for failing to live up to a biblical imperative, and the experience of depression, hopelessness, disillusionment or anger at God is denied legitimacy. This is a general characterization of course, and I do not feel that Philippians is necessarily the source of this thinking. But the biblical imperative to be joyful often conspires with the cultural imperative to find the silver lining in tragedy, loss, and personal devastation.
But Paul’s joy is not derived from some meditative reflection on—and subsequent reassessment of—his circumstances. And, crucially, his joy is decidedly not private, emotive, or psychological in nature: his joy is externally derived, and thus has its origin in a difference set of external circumstances. These circumstances are firmly rooted in the Philippian church members themselves and in the furthering of the gospel message, two realities that exist alongside Paul’s experience of imprisonment and persecution. This is the biggest difference between our contemporary understanding of Christian joy and Paul’s articulation of joy in Philippians: joy does not function to relieve or erase suffering; rather, the believer simultaneously (perhaps paradoxically?) experiences joy in Christ and in Christian community, the two constants during Paul’s experience of persecution. These are the concrete reasons to be joyful that do not entail reinterpreting the actual conditions of suffering itself. Without his relationship with the Philippians, his relationship with Christ, and the continued proclamation of the gospel, there is no joy to speak of.
In the first chapter of Philippians, we see that Paul’s first occasion for experiencing joy is his audience, the church he founded in the Roman-occupied city of Philippi. It is noteworthy that a) the theme of joy is introduced so quickly, apart from any particular cause or scenario; and that b) joy is experienced in relationship, in connection to other believers. So often Christian joy is understood as something that is summoned within oneself during personal hardship, but here, Paul’s circumstances have not even been articulated yet. He experiences joy at the mere thought of his congregation, and the dedicated faith of the Philippian community of believers. Specifically, it is their “partnership in the gospel” that brings him joy (v. 5).
In 1:6, we find the well-known verse of Christ’s commitment to “carry on to completion” the good work he began in the Philippian Christians. What is this good work that Christ began? Is it communal or personal? What is its relationship to Paul’s joy, and how is it related to the believers’ partnership in Paul’s gospel mission? Traditionally this good work is taken to mean individual sanctification, but it is not entirely clear. In any case, this point is a relevant one because it shows that Paul finds joy not only in the fact that the Philippians are faithful to Christ, but also that Christ is faithful to them by carrying out the work of salvation he began in their lives. Verses 7-8 continue with the two ideas laid out in 3-4, i.e. Paul’s joy and “affection” at the thought of gospel partnership with the Philippian believers (v. 8). Verse 7 is also the first mention of Paul’s imprisonment, though he does not explicitly announce his predicament (likely because this is a personal letter and the Philippians would already know about his detainment). There is a small subsection in this chapter in which Paul prays that his friends/partners in the gospel might abound in love and “knowledge and depth of insight,” but it’s only in v. 12 that Paul directly discusses his imprisonment and the joy to be found in it.
Two main ideas emerge from his reflection in vv. 12-20: Paul’s imprisonment actually benefits the advancement of the gospel, and there are opponents who do not preach the gospel out of pure motives, opponents who have become emboldened by Paul’s imprisonment. Both imprisonment and the existence of these opponents/dishonest preachers are negative developments, and Paul does not deny this: however, Paul assures the Philippians they do not negatively affect the transmission of the gospel, because even in his imprisonment he can still witness. Indeed, the fact that Paul is “in chains for Christ” bears witness to him (v. 14). It is a widespread New Testament idea that suffering correlates positively with the advancement of the gospel, but what’s important here is not that suffering is inherently good or noble or ordained by God. Rather, suffering is used by God to effectively promote Christian witness, and Paul delights in the fact that this evangelistic work continues even when (theoretically) it shouldn’t. Paul’s joy is strictly derived from the knowledge that the gospel continues to be preached; there is nothing in this joy that relates to his psychological appraisal of his circumstances.
Also, Paul says that his imprisonment has emboldened his “brothers in the Lord” to “speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly” (v. 14). It seems that Paul is not considering his imprisonment in isolation, irrespective of what has happened to him and other believers as a result of it. His point seems to be that his imprisonment has brought about some degree of good, not that it is good in and of itself. Joy makes sense in this respect, not as something experienced in spite of difficult circumstances. Rather, difficult circumstances can (inadvertently) engender positive outcomes. This is irony, not a positive spin. The existence of opponents likewise allows the gospel to be “proclaimed,” whether in “pretense or in truth” (v. 18). Paul’s source of joy, as always, is that Christ is proclaimed (v. 19). His imprisonment and his rivals are not minimized: instead, they are repurposed as an opportunity to preach Christ.
Verses 22-30 contain some of the NT’s most famous formulations, including v. 22, where Paul argues that both life and death are positive outcomes. To live is Christ and to die is gain, he writes, which means that Christ is his lot in either outcome (“gain” is union with Christ. There are not two options, life or death, but two pathways to the single solution of Christ). If he lives, he preaches Christ, serves Christ, and advances the mission of his kingdom; if he dies, he goes to be with him. Christ is figured very prominently in this section, and I think that this is key to Paul’s understanding of how his suffering is actually positive. The fact of Christ renders any negative experience Paul faces inconsequential: whether alive or dead, he is with Christ; whether free or in chains, the gospel of Christ is preached. Paul’s joy is knowing that his negative circumstances do not affect the reality of Christ’s sovereignty in any way.
So, then, it is apparent that Paul’s joy is very much bound up in this context of spreading the gospel, serving Christ, and carrying out his call to minister to his communities. Therefore, our understanding of Philippian joy should not be abstracted from the peculiarities of this theological context. Furthermore, it is not emotion based, but outcome based: suffering and imprisonment allow Christ to be exalted in Paul’s body (v. 20). Death is a reason for joy because it leads to union with Christ; opposition and contestation actually further the spread of the gospel and lead to the sanctification of true believers (v. 28). Joy, then, cannot exist apart from the spiritual and evangelistic rewards that exist prior to this joy and make it possible. This analysis raises obvious questions about if and how the book of Philippians is applicable to contemporary contexts, cultures, persons and events. This last point is a crucial one that goes beyond the scope of this post, but one thing is certain: if we wish to construe joy as a therapeutic agent in Philippians, and if we then wish to apply this therapeutic strategy broadly to our own suffering or the suffering of others–all while still claiming to be “biblically based”–we cannot detached it from notions of Christian community and the Christian soteriology/eschatology that informs it.
** All scripture citations taken from the NIV.