If only. This familiar two-word phrase often precedes statements revealing the deep longings of our hearts. Our hopes and disappointments are tethered to if only. And for most of us, there exists the constant temptation to fixate on the things in life that haven’t turned out as expected. Sometimes we get stuck. Sometimes we resign. It is easy to point the finger at others, at God, at life itself. And yet, the Gospel empowers us to reframe our perspective.
God looks at the matters of the heart, and His Word invites us to take a look at what is happening on the inside of us. The external problems we face often have an internal solution. Scripture provides a different way to engage our disappointment. It’s not only in spite of our problems, but because of them, that Christ can be glorified in our lives.
“And I want you to know, my dear brothers and sisters, that everything that has happened to me here has helped to spread the Good News. For everyone here, including the whole palace guard, knows that I am in chains because of Christ.” Philippians 1:12-13
The Apostle Paul shares from personal experience that our perspective in times of pain makes all the difference. Paul does not ask, “Is what’s happening to me fair?” Instead, he asks a different question: “Is what’s happening to me accomplishing something for God? Is it furthering His purposes in the world?”
Paul’s challenge to us is to view our adversity in light of its kingdom contribution. In doing so, he insists that adversity does not limit the gospel; rather, it causes its advancement.
What were Paul’s specific circumstances? He was serving a prison sentence in Rome and was in the custody of the palace guard. These elite troops were a specialized, handpicked, military group. They were Caesar’s own personal bodyguards—strong, courageous, brilliant young men. They served in the palace guard protecting Caesar and guarding the prisoners, like Paul, who were waiting for an appeal. After years of service, many of them transitioned into other influential careers. Some may have gone on to be the commanding generals of large forces. Others may have stepped into public office. They were the movers and shakers of the future, leaders of the next generation. If someone wanted to influence the Roman Empire, this group is where you would start. Every day one of them wore the other end of Paul’s chain. He wasn’t chained to them; they were chained to him. Literally, Paul had a captive audience with whom he shared the gospel message, which led to many conversions.
In God’s sovereignty, the Lord ordained Paul’s imprisonment so many people would hear the gospel who would not have otherwise. What appeared as a setback actually advanced the gospel in a strategic way throughout Rome.
Have we considered that God strategically placed us right where we are to be a witness to those around us? Are we aware of our captive audience? What if the very thing that feels frustrating and draining is the strategic assignment God is calling us to and equipping us for? If He isn’t creating a way out, then there is provision for the way through.
Changing our language helps to change our minds. The powerful shift from repeating our if only narrative to reframing it with the question of what if can make all the difference. Let’s reframe our chains.
• What if getting passed by for the promotion is providing the opportunity to grow your character in preparation for the leadership spaces you will occupy in the next decade?
• What if the painful ending to that relationship is exposing fractures that God wants to correct and strengthen?
• What if your greatest area of struggle is a roadmap for God’s redemptive purposes in your life?
Life isn’t fair and things are not as they should be. But amidst the challenge life brings, we are invited to cling to the hope of Jesus Christ, the anchor of our souls, the One who promises His strength will be made perfect in our weakness.
With the help of the Holy Spirit we can rewrite the if only narrative that has been playing on repeat. God is at work to advance His kingdom here and now and He has invited us to participate.
Connie Armerding is the Content Developer at Joy of It and Curriculum Writer at JOI Friendzy, a faith-based non-profit in Portland, Oregon. She is part of the Propel Women cohort at Wheaton College. Connie is married to the love of her life Taylor and they have four children. You can follow her at @carmerding.