We each face times in our lives when we understand anew how deceitfully the world can treat us. Earlier this year, my mother, an 84-year-old widow, hired a contractor to insulate her home’s crawl space to provide warmth during a frigid winter. She paid him $800 after he assured her his men had finished the requested work. But a later inspection proved the workmen had not done the job. They had purposely deceived her, and consequently she suffered during those cold wintry months.
How can we, as Christ followers, maintain our Christian testimony in a “crooked and depraved generation” (Philippians 2:15), as the Apostle Paul exhorted us?
In dealing with everyday problems, Paul urged his Philippian converts to do so without “complaining or arguing,” and to “shine like stars in the universe” (Philippians 2:15) so that whatever happens, they may conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27).
Does this mean we should simply allow others to deceive us and cheat those we love? Not at all. But when we confront another person and demand justice, we must do so in a Christlike manner. We represent Christ in all of our everyday dealings.
Paul wrote his letter to the congregation in Philippi as he suffered in prison. A victim of a cruel Roman society that persecuted Christians, Paul sat in a dark hole surrounded by decaying human bodies and rats gnawing on rotting flesh.
I recently visited one of the prisons where historians believe Paul was incarcerated. Mamertine, a 12-foot hole at the foot of Capitoline Hill in Rome, held criminals between the seventh century B.C. and the late fourth century A.D. The ancient historian Sallust described Mamertine as a place where “neglect, darkness and stench make it hideous and fearsome to behold.” Standing in that hole, some 2,000 years later, sent shivers down my spine.
Surely no circumstance we face could be as bleak as Paul’s when he penned this letter to his beloved congregation. Trapped deep within the earth—hungry, filthy and anticipating death—Paul wasn’t overwhelmed with fear and despair. The prison became his pulpit—a place to proclaim the Gospel of Christ! From his cell, Paul wrote to strengthen Philippian Christians when they, too, faced difficult situations. Paul gave them hope.
Paul’s words to remain “blameless and pure” (Philippians 2:15) encouraged my own walk with Christ as I attempted to confront my mother’s deceitful contractor. Through Scripture, the Lord urged me to keep my mind on heavenly things, even when dealing with earthly problems, and reminded me to behave in a Christlike manner. Carefully choosing my words, while cautiously controlling my temper, was surely the harder route!
This instructive passage also admonished me to put my dilemma into eternal perspective. Earth life is temporary. As believers, our citizenship is in Heaven. Developing an eternal perspective kept me from feeling overwhelmed in the midst of deception.
After much prayer, I approached the installation company’s manager as I believed Paul, himself, might have done. I talked with him by phone in a firm but calm voice. I explained the problem. He lost his temper, raised his voice and called me a few unkind names. I took a deep breath and, with the same calm voice, told him I expected him to return my mother’s money. He slammed the phone down in my ear. I telephoned him again, but he refused to answer.
I decided to seek the counsel of an honest and wise contractor—the man who had originally recommended this insulation company to us. He stepped in and made a phone call to the company on our behalf. I don’t know what was said, but the manager finally returned the $800. My sister offered to pick up the check. She was met with more name calling. The contractor threw the check at her, turned his back and walked away. She smiled, thanked him and left his office.
Paul’s letter also convinced me to not allow a painful situation like this to drain my Christian joy. Surrounded by darkness, putrid air and piles of human waste, Paul had little reason to rejoice. Yet his Christ-inspired joy rose high above his suffocating circumstances. He could still write of courage and unity, of love and self-giving, of obedience and rejoicing.
Paul had learned the difference between Christian joy and Earth’s happiness. His joy came from God, and even imprisonment could not dampen it. Paul kept his eyes clearly on Christ, not on the situation surrounding him.
Suffering became a tool for Paul to encourage fellow believers. He urged them to “go out into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society.” He told them to “carry the light-giving Message” to people everywhere … with “rejoicing” (Philippians 2:14-16, The Message).
Even in prison, Paul endured and, in his suffering, he encouraged fellow believers to do likewise. Paul kept his mind on the Lord Jesus Christ who awaited him in Heaven, his future eternal home (Philippians 3:19-20). Paul believed God’s promise and, in his darkest days, held tightly to that promise. Surely Paul knew that the stars in the universe always shine brightest on the darkest night (Philippians 2:15).
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In dealing with the present “crooked and depraved generation,” Paul’s letter has given me hope. As a Christian, I can confront deceitfulness in a Christlike manner and achieve justice. I don’t have to rant and rave, complain, argue and use ungodly behavior to deal with unethical treatment. I am not responsible for another person’s provocative reaction or immature behavior. But, as a follower of Jesus Christ, I am responsible for my own.
Denise George has written 24 books, including “What Women Wish Pastors Knew” and “What Pastors Wish Church Members Knew.” She teaches a writing-to-publish course at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., where her husband, Timothy George, is founding dean. To learn more, visit authordenisegeorge.com.