How Paul Handled His “COVID-19” Moment
The year 2020 has been challenging. At times, much of our world has been “holed up” in our houses, cut off from others, and ripe for boredom. In short, our lives have been turned upside down.
This year gnawingly reminds us of someone else who was isolated and confined. The apostle Paul had a “COVID 19” moment, complete with isolation and limitations. For Paul, the Roman Empire was effectively “shut down.” How did Paul respond to this confinement and isolation?
We have the answer! Paul was imprisoned (i.e., confined and isolated) for likely three or four years (Acts 24:27) in Caesarea alone. Whew! Aren’t we glad the disruptions of 2020 have not lasted years, and we have not confined in the house of our enemy?! So, what can we learn from how Paul handled this adversity?
First, it’s impressive that Paul had a choice regarding his confinement. He knew what awaited him in Jerusalem (Acts 21:11-13). He could have side stepped the trip to Jerusalem or decided to “live in the shadows” while there. That fact alone is challenging. It increases our appreciation for Paul and his conscious decision to “lean in” to the adversity.
Second, Paul chose to use his imprisonment to benefit and sacrifice for others (Eph. 3:1 and Acts 22:21-22). Paul learned from Jesus that caring about others’ salvation would mean radical inconvenience for himself. He chose to focus on others.
Also, Paul’s contact with others was limited. Pandemics nor prisons lend themselves to lots of company or a wide circle of friends. Paul’s experience was far more restrictive than ours this year, yet he served the people that were around him. Phil. 1:12-14 tells us about the people he befriended and taught about Jesus. He invested himself in his guards - his “enemies.” Some of us may not be around many folks, or at least fewer than we would like, but if Paul can befriend and teach his “enemies,” surely, we can find someone to befriend and teach.
Next, Paul longed to be with others; he missed his eternal family. Paul longed to be with his friends (Phil. 1:8) and learn about their eternal well-being (Phil 2:19). Paul did not forget about them, grow cold, distant, or complacent. I don’t know about you, but I have experienced the temptation to grow comfortable in our more distant world. There is a temptation to not wanting to be bothered and not be “bothered” by other’s needs. Let’s remember God created us for one another, not to be islands. Let’s beware of the temptation to withdraw. Instead, like Paul, find opportunities to encourage and be with one another.
Finally, Paul was content in his confinement (not to be misunderstood as complacent). Paul was imprisoned, and had been so for years, when he wrote Philippians. It would have been easy for him to grow bitter toward God, resentful to his captors, and grumbling at such a long confinement. Rather, Paul rejoiced in the Lord. Sixteen times Paul mentioned joy or rejoicing in his four-chapter letter. He exhorted the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord (3:1, 4:4, etc.). What a powerful command! If an innocent, multi-year prisoner can “rejoice in the Lord,” surely, we can too.
So, how could Paul rejoice? He refused to let his circumstances define him or his state of mind. He defined himself in Christ and His service. In Phil. 3:7-9, Paul rejoiced that Jesus had provided him forgiveness of sins and salvation. Likewise, in Phil. 3:10-11, Paul understood that his current suffering, and dying to self, helped him to better understand and appreciate Jesus and what Jesus chose in this life. All of these were a part of Paul’s resurrection to a new life here and eternally with Jesus!
Therefore, Paul’s circumstances had little to do with his joy. Paul’s joy was a function of knowing and serving Jesus. What an example! We can be so focused on Jesus that our circumstances and comforts matter less and less! In fact, Paul ends his letter to the Philippians reminding them he was fine - content in his circumstances. In Phil. 4:10-13, Paul had learned to be content whether he was in prison or free, hungry or full, or humbled or prospering. Jesus was his whole life. Therefore, the rest of life was just not as important to Paul. So, too, when Jesus means everything to us, our current challenges and frustrations will fade.
Physically, Paul was imprisoned, but in his mind and spirit, Paul was freer than his guards. Through Paul, our God teaches us that freedom, joy, and contentment are found only in Jesus! What a challenge for us that Paul was not only faithful to Jesus in his confinement, but actually soared to greater heights of knowing Jesus and being more useful in His service, and to those around him. And those he served included the Philippians, who lived 100s of miles from him. His service even extends to us, who live 1000s of years later. So, whether we are confined or not, by God’s grace let us follow the example of our fellow “prisoner” Paul and soar in our contentment, joy, and usefulness to our God in one another’s lives.