The deeper magic of opportune obstacles.
There are purposes at work in this life to which we are not always, if ever, privy.
St. Paul’s testimony in Philippians 1:12–14 is startling. News of his imprisonment had apparently made its way back to Philippi. Therefore to assuage the Philippians’ despondency over this report, Paul sets out on an errand of reassurance:
Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually advanced the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard, and to everyone else, that my imprisonment is because I am in Christ. Most of the brothers have gained confidence in the Lord from my imprisonment and dare even more to speak the word fearlessly. (Phil. 1:12–14)
Rather than brooding over the fact that bars and bonds have confined his flourishing ministry, Paul makes the audacious claim that the latest occurrences have “actually advanced the gospel.” “What’s happened isn’t what it looks like on the surface,” he says in essence. Contrary to what the Philippian church might have believed — and certainly opposite of what anyone would likely assume — Paul has not been deterred in his resolve for the cause of Christ. The events of his imprisonment did not dampen his zeal for the Word. Instead, the impression is that even as he dictates this letter from a Roman jail cell, he does so with deep, abiding joy.
Despite the fact that its most ardent ambassador sits in chains awaiting further trial, the gospel has not been hindered, even to the smallest degree. Rather, it has been “furthered,” to use the King James rendering. You might even say that it has flourished. The apostle’s place of confinement was his place of worship, his sanctuary, in which the message of Christ continued to flow. “It has become known,” Paul says, “throughout the whole imperial guard, and to everyone else, that my imprisonment is because I am in Christ” (Phil. 1:13). “Everyone knows why I’m here,” he says. Word spreads regarding this imprisoned trouble-making preacher whose reason for incarceration is because he is “in Christ.” The entire garrison has become an occasion for evangelization.
Therefore, in a turn of events that can only be understood in light of the gospel, those commissioned to keep Paul in custody are now privy to Paul’s message of Christ alone. Moreover, there is a growing boldness seen in those who “speak the word.” (Phil. 1:14). Several brothers in Christ “gained confidence in the Lord” to articulate the words of the Lord without fear. Whereas the Philippians might have been aware of the apostle’s predicament and deemed it a wretched hindrance, the apostle sees it differently. As already noted, Paul is insistent that this delay has not hindered the word of Christ but furthered it. Indeed, the apparent delay served to both deliver the faith to and animate the faith of other souls.
These things which happened to the apostle were not a hindrance. They were a divinely planned opportunity to witness the uncanny advance of the gospel — an advance that occurs even as its messenger is arrested. “The whole imperial guard” meant to do him evil by locking him up but in reality they did was give Paul a captive audience. “The prison cell became a gospel chapel,” notes H. A. Ironside, “where souls were being born of God, and stern Roman soldiers became themselves the captive servants of One greater than Caesar” (24–25). In effect, then, Paul’s testimony in Philippians 1:12–14 is by and large the New Testament version of Joseph’s testimony in Genesis 50:20:
You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result — the survival of many people.
I wonder if we would have a similar response? How would we handle having our “good intentions” locked down and put in bonds? We don’t really have to wonder too much, considering we have just endured a year’s worth of something similar. No, we were not under arrest or sitting in chains. But our shared experience of “lockdown life” has given us a striking mirror in which to see what our faith is made of. I will confess to you that I have not always given thanks for these days. Rarely have they felt “opportune” or conducive to anything pertaining to gospel advancement. And yet, I maintain that the net result of our days will echo Paul’s appraisal of his own, in which every development is seen to actually advance the gospel of Christ (Phil. 1:12).
There are purposes at work in this life to which we are not always, if ever, privy. What it seems like is not always what is. The work of God in and upon his saints, to quote Martin Luther, “is one thing in appearance, but quite a different thing in reality. He seems to kill, but in reality makes alive: he wounds, but in reality heals: he confounds, but at that very time in reality glorifies: he bringeth down to the grave, but at that very time rather brings up from the grave” (148). For many, perhaps, this past year has felt an awful lot like killing and wounding and confounding and bringing down to the grave. But what if what it felt like is not actually what was occurring? What if something much deeper was going on?
Indeed, I’d say that that is always the case. Our present life is undergirded by a “Deep Magic” extant from the beginning, the depths of which we barely know. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts nor are his ways our ways (Isa. 55:8–9). It is in life’s apparent contradictions that we see God the clearest, he being the One whose defeat means victory, whose death means life. Such is our wondrously paradoxical gospel, in which “God can be known and had only through suffering the divine deed of the cross” (Forde, 89–90). Or perhaps it is better explained by the “Son of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea” himself, the great Aslan:
Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward. (131–34)
Notwithstanding life’s delays, we are freed to a “eucharistic life,” i.e., a life of overflowing gratitude for the things done (and still being done) through Christ alone (Phil. 1:3). Our life is bound to this “magic deeper still,” which is just a euphemism for the grace which emanates from the One who is our joy and our life. “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul confesses elsewhere, “and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
Notwithstanding life’s delays, the gospel of God’s “Deep Magic” is unstoppable, working all things according to the purposes of he who spoke everything into existence. “At the end of all things,” comments F. B. Meyer, “the beneficent purposes of God have not been hindered one whit, but promoted and fostered, by all that has been done to frustrate them. This is the mystery of God’s providence — that, so far from being set aside by evil, evil helps by furnishing the material on which the fire of the Gospel feeds, and flames to the furthest limits of God’s universe” (42). The advance of the good news of Christ Jesus can never be confined or chained down. It proceeds on and on forever. As long as the Lord allows this universe to keep spinning so, too, will his gospel go forth in perpetuity. It is in that way, then, that we can heartily recapitulate Paul’s avowal that regardless of the present circumstances, “Christ is proclaimed,” and in this, we rejoice (Phil. 1:18).
Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997).
H. A. Ironside, Notes on Philippians (New York: Loizeaux Bros., 1954).
C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: MacMillan, 1950).
Martin Luther, Complete Commentary on the First Twenty-Two Psalms, translated by Henry Cole, Vol. 1 (London: Simpkin & Marshall, 1826).
F. B. Meyer, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1952).