Tough people in tough times: Paul’s thoughts in prison

Have you ever heard the slogan, “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do”? There’s a lot of truth in that. Unfortunately, if tough times last more than a day or two, it begins to feel like they’ll last forever.

Tough times can mean all kinds of things. The death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a relationship gone sour, and other bad events can trigger them. So can more ordinary stresses like loneliness or trouble paying bills, or being unable to make the kinds of changes in our lives we want to make. Eventually, all of us will go through a variety of different bad times.

Hard times bring with them a lot of temptations. Some people withdraw from things they used to enjoy and simply wilt under the pressure. Some people, thwarted in reaching a goal, simply quit. They must not be very tough, but what’s tough? Muscular? Grim determination? Gruff and stern focus?

Quite a few CEOs make commercials for their companies. The late Frank Perdue was a bald, scawny, little guy with a funny high-pitched voice, but at the end of every commercial, he said, with all seriousness, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.”

Paul as a biblical picture of toughness

Paul in prison

Paul in prison / Rembrandt

As always, Scripture provides a picture of the kind of toughness that outlasts tough times. Paul was in prison somewhere, with a very real possibility of being sentenced to death. I think we could all call that a tough place. Yet his letter to the Philippians exudes joy like nothing else he ever wrote. He never let himself get down for very long. Remember, Paul was a nickname for a man his parents named Saul. Paul comes from a Latin word for small or humble. Maybe he was Frank Perdue with a good Jewish beard, but even tougher.

With Paul in prison, perhaps many people decided to stop proclaiming Christ. He doesn’t mention them. He does mention that some proclaimed Christ out of some kind of rivalry with Paul, seeking to make him look bad by comparison. Paul didn’t care, so long as they proclaimed the gospel accurately. People like that would irritate me. Paul rejoiced over them the same way he rejoiced over those who proclaimed Christ from purer motives. That’s tough.

Paul wrote that he expected deliverance, but just a little later, he acknowledged that he might receive the death penalty. Paul knew he wouldn’t stay in prison indefinitely. He would either be released to go back to his life, or he would be executed and go to be with Jesus. He counted every conceivable outcome as deliverance. That kind of faith produces a tough person.

Therefore, Paul could express an eager expectation and hope that he would not be put to shame. It is no shame to stand trial and be acquitted. It is no shame to stand trial and be convicted for doing God’s will. It is no shame to suffer anything, from a beating to public execution, for doing God’s will. Unless a person chooses to allow it, there is no shame in anything but sin. Paul had faith in God, not faith that he would find God’s choice to be in conformity with his preferences.

The toughness of the faithful

Lots of people try to put faith in some outcome: getting a particular job, having some particular person act in some particular way, marrying someone in particular, winning the lottery, becoming rich enough to retire and live a life of ease at 50. They will fail more often than not. In that case, they have a strong desire and put their faith on the expectation that God will do things their way.

Faith in God, as opposed to faith in an outcome, makes genuinely caring for the welfare of others easier to keep in mind. Christ-like compassion comes from getting close enough to Christ to become more like him. That requires the kind of faith that works by love.

Take a look at Paul’s faith again. He never expressed faith in an outcome. He expressed the faith that in any outcome, desirable or not, God would make it all work to his benefit. Tough times might feel like they’ll last forever, but they won’t.

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